“Everywhen” at the Harvard Art Museums

Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia

I had originally started this post as something more rigid and defined. It was a review, an art review, something I’ve really never written in my life and don’t think I’d be very good at if I tried. When I stepped away from my computer and went outside with my notebook, and really thought about how the art on display in Everywhen spoke to me, how it elicited reactions within me, I realized that there’s no point to writing a review of this exhibit, or any exhibit for that matter. Not for me, anyway. Instead, this is a reaction, from my point of view.

Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, is the new exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums, and it opens to the public this Friday, February 5th. If you can, I’d suggest heading to the opening reception on Thursday evening, and you might get a chance to go to the opening lecture, a conversation between Stephen Gilchrist and artist Vernon Ah Kee. Everywhen has been guest curated for HAM by Australian Studies Visiting Curator Stephen Gilchrist, an Indigenous Australian of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia. I’ve only ever met a handful of folks from Australia in my life, and none of them had ever identified as Indigenous, so to have Stephen give this tour was a real treat; knowing that he had curated the exhibit made it even better, because he has a deep connection to the art on display.

Gilchrist spoke of ancient narratives reinterpreted in abstract concepts, of connecting the past to the present to the future in a cyclical manner (the everywhen), of reimagining your way of being in the world and considering how you interact with it. The exhibit, he says, is an invitation to question how we discuss Indigenous art in the context of contemporary art today – is it other? Do we need to redefine art history? “This is not about rescuing indigenous art,” Gilchrist says. “We are indigenizing art history.”

For me, the most important aspect of the collection represented in Everywhen was the history. If you know me, you know that generally I don’t care for contemporary art; but if it is reinterpreting history, or expressing pain or grief or demanding justice for wrongs committed in the course of so-called “enterprise”, then I’m much more intrigued and open to understanding the artist’s interpretation of their own history (the last contemporary piece I wrote about was William Kentridge’s Refusal of Time).

20160201_144703674_iOSHistory cannot be separated from art, nor should it be. The Indigenous artworks on display in Everywhen are personal reactions to the events of the past; attempts to cross the divide between the present and what once way, spanning almost 40,000 years of history. Julie Gough’s piece Dark Valley, Van Diemen’s Land (2008) (at right) connects the artist, born in Tasmania and part of the Trawlwoolway language group, to her ancestor’s tradition of creating necklaces out of shells, reflecting the maritime culture of her people. The large chunks of coal tell the tale of Aboriginal exile and extermination, in the name of economy and progress; the story of The Black War hangs in the gallery, bringing back the voices of thousands of innocent victims slain in the name of industry.

IMG_5101Yhonnie Scarce’s The silence of others (series of six) (2014) (at left) is another piece that throws history in the viewer’s face, demanding to be remembered. Scarce uses yams as the shape of her blown glass trapped under bell jars. Each piece engraved with an archival number that represents one of her immediate family members; each of them treated as inhuman and “other” by having their body parts measured and catalogued as a taxonomical specimen (sound familiar?). The yams are representative of the Indigenous peoples’ affinity and connection with the natural world, and an attempt to remind us of the strength of that connection, as it flies in the face of colonization and Western “progress”.

It’s important to recognize that this is the first exhibition of its kind in the United States in 25 years. Narayan Khandekar of the Straus Center for Conservation pointed out to us in the gallery, as we looked at a bark painting by Manydjarri Ganambar, that up until recently there had been no technical studies of the materials used to create bark paintings. Narayan worked with art galleries and museums in Australia to study 200 samples of pigments and bark types to learn more about how contemporary Indigenous artists are using materials to connect with their ancestors and the past.

As a student of history, I think everyone should come to this exhibit and take the time to consider similar events that occurred in our own country’s history. Every piece on display in Everywhen tells a story; every brush stroke, every weave is entrenched in the history and ancestral narrative of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. The exhibition is an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture and history of a population I know very little about, and I recommend you visit often. I know I will.

Thanks to Becca Torres at the Harvard Art Museums for giving me the opportunity to join the press preview of Everywhen, and thank you to Stephen Gilchirst (Australian Studies Visiting Curator) and Narayan Khandekar (Director, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies) for the tour of the gallery and the insights into the historical and technical aspects of working with the collection. Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia is on display at the Harvard Art Museums until September 18, 2016.

“Everywhen” at the Harvard Art Museums

Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”

"Refusal of Time" with elephant, William Kentrdige
“Refusal of Time” with elephant, William Kentrdige

I tried to come up with a better title for this blog, but honestly, the one above says it all. Recently in class we’ve been discussing how visitors make meaning, and how we as museum professionals and educators can better facilitate opportunities for visitors to create meaning. The basic concept of Hans-Georg Gadmer’s interpretation of meaning making, where a visitor connects their prior knowledge of an idea with new and evolved ideas presented to them in an exhibit or learning space, has really stuck with me, as well as his notion of bringing people and objects together to have a conversation and, consequently, create meaning. I think, in some way, we have all had this sort of experience (whether or not it was in a museum), where we have knowledge of some fact or notion, and when new information that builds upon and expands that notion is presented to us, we have that moment of, “whoa, no way, I had no idea!”

I had a moment like that during my visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last week.

I went to the ICA last Thursday to see William Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but from reading about the exhibition online it sounded new and different, something I had not seen before. It helped that it was a gorgeous sunny day out, the first we have really seen in months, and I was desperate to get out of the house. It took me a solid 2 hours just to get to the ICA because I was too busy enjoying the Harbor Walk along Fort Point. But I finally got there, and after securing my #ITweetMuseums pin and making sure I could take pictures in the exhibit (yes, but no video), I made my way up to the 4th floor galleries to check out the exhibit.

It starts out in a small gallery, with a dozen or so of Kentridge’s charcoal and mixed media pieces. My favorite was “Untitled”, a large charcoal sketch of a waterfall in a jungle. What immediately caught my eye were the red lines throughout the otherwise grayscale piece. The lines had two meanings, both of which I found incredibly interesting: they could be either the line of a surveyor’s instrument, or the laser of a gun sight.

I learned this before reading the introductory text to the multimedia show, “Refusal of Time”. What I learned was that the show was done in response to the British imperialism and domination of South Africa (Kentridge’s home country) and other African nations, and to the notion that because Britain had the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, that Britain controlled time. It took the idea of Einstein’s declaration that time is relative, and expanded upon this to destroy the notion that Britain could control time, and therefore shook the foundation of its imperialistic dominance. This intro text spoke of a plot to destroy the Royal Observatory in 1894, something I had never before heard about. With all of this information in mind, I settled in to watch the 30 minute long, five-screened multimedia show.

To describe what I saw would a) take forever, and b) ruin the experience for anyone thinking about seeing the show. Let me tell you: you should go. Kentridge plays with the visual and auditory to create an entirely immersive experience. You don’t want to leave mid-way through, because you are completely enthralled with the action on each screen. The elephant in the room (sort of literally; Kentridge created a breathing machine to represent the machines that pumped air into clocks in Paris so each would be exact and precise) wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be; in fact, I didn’t hear it at all. Kentridge collaborated with Peter Galison, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, on the project, and together they created an experience that outlines the changes in how we view space and time. There was live-action, sculpture, sketches, and Kentridge himself walking on chairs in the show. At one point, Kentridge describes the event horizon of a black hole, and compares it to Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx (just go see the show I can’t explain this to you). Megaphones placed throughout the gallery project conflicting sounds and voices (so be careful where you sit). Kentridge narrates throughout, taking us on this mad journey to bring down the Royal Observatory and take back time.

So, how did I make meaning from this?

I majored in history in undergrad. I have always found history to be amazing, especially history that often goes overlooked. Guys, I had never heard of the 1894 plot to destroy the Royal Observatory. I want to know more about this. All I have found so far is this one article from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where even they admit there is little known beyond manuscript notes and contemporary newspaper articles. I walked away from that exhibit desperate to know more, and I still feel that way. I was almost overwhelmed by sensory overload during the show, but I could not look away because I had to know. At one point, a hand flips through an atlas, listing cities and towns in Africa that revolted against British oppression during the early 20th century. I walked away wishing I had paid more attention during my History of South Africa class. I walked away feeling like I had learned something new, from art that I generally don’t go out of my way to see (contemporary art). I walked away with new appreciation for how contemporary art can take the most amazing backroads to bring you to your final destination.

I guess to explain meaning making would be a futile effort; we can’t define meaning making beyond a vague inclination, because meaning making is different for every individual, based on experiences and prior knowledge. For me, my experience has been to absorb history, to learn more, to seek out the information I don’t have so I can share it with others. Perhaps it would be fair to say that I don’t always view art as art, but as a vehicle for communicating history. To me, history is central to the human condition; without it, what are we? How do we learn if we can’t learn from the past? How can we reach forward if we don’t know what brought us to the present? These are the questions that drive me, that push me to be a better researcher, that make me look at the world a little differently than others.

I’ve just deleted a paragraph several times because I don’t want to continue to speculate and sound redundant. Everyone has their own method of meaning making. Let’s just leave it at that. But to become better museum professionals, to create a welcoming environment for our visitors, we must create an engaging, accessible, universally designed space for the greatest amount of enjoyment possible. We must create an atmosphere of energy and excitement, and work with multiple learning styles. If we can do this, we can help more visitors have meaning-making moments. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?




Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”