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The impossible modernist: an ‘outsider’ view

Paper presented by Professor Akira Tatehata, National Museum of Art, Osaka
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22-23 August 2008

Prof. TATEHATA: I am Akira Tatehata, the Director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka and one of the curators for Emily’s show in Japan with Dr Margo Neale. Congratulations on the opening of the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition in Canberra. As you know, this exhibition was held in Tokyo and Osaka. Each proved to be a great success and the number of visitors totalled around 140,000. This was the best attended show in Japan. Even more people saw this show than the Andy Warhol exhibition about ten years ago. I must express our deepest gratitude to Dr Craddock Morton, Director of the National Museum of Australia, and Dr Margo Neale, the chief curator of our project, and rest of the staff. Also I must say thanks a lot to the Australian Ambassador, Murray McLean, and his staff.

I am sorry to say that I couldn’t attend the opening in Australia, because we have our opening on the same day in Japan, so I would like to participate in your opening with this video presentation. I would like to speak about some aspects of Emily’s work from outside of the Aboriginal cultural sphere, especially by comparing her paintings with great post-war masters like Jackson Pollock, Brice Marden and Yayoi Kusama. Of course, Emily knew nothing about their methods. For me, it seems like a miracle that these artists have so much in common but now I would like to analyse these common aspects in a somewhat formalistic way.

First I would like to talk about one of Emily’s largest works named Big Yam Dreaming. Thick, curved stripes filled with life cover the canvas. The density of the stripes isn’t uniform - in some places, they are arranged in a close parallel structure, while in others, one catches sight of the background through the large mesh. The visual effect of these different densities is to fill the entire canvas with a sense of vibration that is both energetic and extremely elegant. Yet the stripes are not simply a layer. The dense parts of the canvas rise out of the painting, while the rough areas appear to recede somewhat into the rear. It is as if the mesh is wafting above the background like a thick illusion.

In tracing the trajectory of each of the stripes, it is important to note that none of them were painted in a single stroke. Rather than running the brush across the canvas in a burst of energy, Emily stopped several times in the middle and added paint to extend the stripes. So although the mesh does indeed cover the canvas, the effect is different from the smooth and speedy lines in Pollock’s drip or pouring paintings.

The yam featured in the title is Emily’s Dreaming, as you know. The yam’s rhizome, spreading outward like a net, is a symbol of life and a symbol of the earth. Using both arms, Emily was able to complete this overly large canvas in a period of two days, but this was all the more possible for the clear-cut vision she had of her Dreaming. Emily always seems to have created her work spontaneously on site, which is not to say, however, that she left anything to chance.

I am very tempted to suggest that to Emily, her Dreaming functioned as a rich source of imagery in a way not dissimilar to the way that the world of sleep which served as a subconscious domain of exploration for modernist painters who had fallen under the influence of Freudian psychology. Although I cannot cite any concrete differences, it is also interesting to note the connections between the concept of the Dreaming and Jung’s notion or the collective unconscious and archetypes. In the worldview of the Dreaming, there is a strong identification between reality and mythology, and spirits and things associated with the land on which one lives, and tribal rules regarding these things are extremely strict. So, in terms of the elemental vision that guided the hand of the artists, the work of the modernist painters and that of Emily may not be so very far apart.

This is a very famous representative work of Jackson Pollock’s painting based on the technique of pouring and dripping. The title of the painting is Number 1A, 1948. The lines of this painting are spread all over the canvas, but the density of line is different, depending on the part of the canvas. It is the same structure as Emily’s striped painting. This sort of difference creates a sense of elegant vibration and also creates a sense of the three-dimensional illusion. So the two great masters methods are quite near - this is very interesting for me.

This is ,em>Big Yam, 1996 also a representative work of Emily. Big Yam is a large work painted in a variety of warm, brilliant colours with white, ochre, and red-tinged brown stripes on a black ground. With the introduction of colour, the layers of stripes naturally become more complex and the depth of the space is greatly increased. Of particular interest is Emily’s complex method of overlapping the layers and the amazingly complicated look of the work’s structure. For instance, in one place a yellow stripe might cross a brown stripe, but in another spot, the opposite might be true, as four or five colours of stripes shift up and down around the canvas.

Moreover, the positioning of the white stripes, which as the advancing colour should be the rearmost layer, creates an antagonism between the psychological depth of the colours and the way the layers have been ordered. Once again, one cannot help but be reminded of Pollock’s space. Pollock also used five or six colours to create a net of indivisible layers of poured and dripped lines that criss-crossed and intertwined as they shifted up and down all over the canvas. Like Big Yam Dreaming the stripes here have been extended by adding paint in the middle, but in many instances a different colour has been used. A repeatedly curving stripe might go from white to ochre or brown to bright purple as the colours move up and down. As one of the characteristics of Emily’s artistic expressions, this method of achieving a complex effect with a simple principle makes the details in her work come beautifully to life.

This painting entitled Chinese dancing, 1994-96 is by Brice Marden, an American painter. The lines themselves are far more loose compared to Emily’s but the structure of the space is just the same as Emily’s striped painting. For example, in this painting the yellow line overlaps the brown line but in some other part quite the reverse where the brown line overlaps the yellow line. This complicated structure creates a sense of depth of space. It is just the same as Emily’s Big Yam painting structure.

Next, I would like to refer to the dot method of Emily’s painting. This is a typical dot painting by her, named Kame Summer Awelye, 1991. Maybe this painting represents a special season of her homeland, her desert area. It looks like seeds, vegetables, plants and so on. Anyway, the numerous number of the dots spread all over the canvas but also the density of dots are different depending on the part of the canvas. In some parts dots are concentrated closely, but other parts the dots are more or less sparse. This effect of the nuance creates beautiful and also sensual vibration - at least for me.

I would like to compare Emily’s dot painting to Yayoi Kusama’s net and dot painting. This is one of the most typical net dot painting titled Pacific Ocean, 1960. Maybe it represents the measures of waves on the sea. Anyway, the density of the dots are different depending on the canvas. Some net and dot are concentrated more closely, and in other parts the net and dot are somewhat loose. This sort of difference created to the feeling of waving, moving and vibration. I think both of them, Emily and Kusama, knew very well about how to create a sense of oscillation and sense of the depth of space.

Just as Emily’s work looks purely like abstract painting while actually being a depiction of a concrete vision based on the Dreaming, Kusama’s net paintings are rendering a distinct vision that can be traced to the artist’s origins as a visionary. She wrote about her childhood memory being assailed by hallucinations like this: ‘One day looking at the red flower patterned tablecloth I turned my eye to the ceiling and saw the same red flower pattern everywhere, even on the window glass and posts. The room, my body, the entire universe was filled with it. Myself was illuminated, and I had returned and been reduced to the infinity of eternal time and the absolute space. This was not an illusion but reality,’ she wrote.

In this way in an attempt to pacify her fear-strickened her mind Kusama began creating the net painting which are marked by her obsessional need to propagate the images. Another reason that her works which are basically extremely monotonous with such devastating impact lies in the intensity of the vision that she proclaimed is not an illusion but reality. Despite the fact that Kusama’s perspective stems from psychological mentality, the opposite of Emily, there is a deep link between them. For her part Emily also offer the following explanation of her dot covered paintings: ‘Whole lot. That’s whole lot. That’s whole I paint. Whole lot.’ If one asks in that hallucination or the point of departure of Kusama’s work as a painter, the Dreaming on which Emily’s brush was so dependent seems to serve a similar function. If Kusama’s vision is at once a mystically realistic scene attached to a cosmic sense of eternal time and infinite space, Emily unites the real and spirit worlds by linking concrete things in her surroundings with creation myths. The fact that the two artists share the net dot painting method is by no means a coincidence as in both cases this intense form of repetition thrives as a great rhythm which fills the microscopic units with a universal sense of time and space.

Emily’s situation as a painter was quite isolated from the West and the outside world. Even so, we must admit the great similarities between Emily and post-war master painters. This seems like a miracle for me. That is why I can’t avoid thinking of Emily as an impossible modernist. Thank you.

MARGO: It was very brave of Professor Tatehata to do that because he was talking about really complex things. When I think of me having to speak in Japanese, he is extraordinarily good. Clearly there is a lot of stuff that some people will not have picked up because of the accent. It was very useful having those images with Jackson Pollock, Yayoi Kusama and Brice Marden. If you couldn’t pick up the words, at least you could see the kind of comparisons he was making.

One of the advantages of taking works like this to Japan or any other country is because it brings up a whole lot of other comparative material that you could not or would not otherwise bring up. The thing with Yayoi Kusama where she doesn’t distinguish between myth and reality is a point he was trying to make with Emily in that she doesn’t distinguish between the Dreaming and what others might call reality and that in fact they are all reality. He was making that connection between Yayoi Kusama and Emily as well as the idea of using a sense of netting, webbing or dotting across a surface. So whilst he could examine it on that structural level, he was also offering us an explanation on another level beyond where the myth and reality became one, thus the power of the work.

I am sure for those want to have another listen or another look at the script for that, it would be worth while because it gives a very fresh insight into the whole concept of the impossible modernist.

Date published: 8 September 2008