An adventure into art in a digital time going online has been a trend for some time now, but it has never been as relevant and important as it has become during the covid-19 pandemic. Simply put, it has developed into a tool to connect the world virtually in order to continue business, with the aim of replacing the physical presence. In the art world, however, it has left many people perplexed as to how to continue having a ‘normal’ relationship with others through a screen. The challenge becomes even greater when it comes to experiencing artworks, particularly those that were not originally conceived to be experienced digitally. Can the representation of an image ever recreate or reflect the experience that would usually take place in a physical encounter? SELECTIONS set off on a quest to find out. We invited 10 guests to describe one artwork of their choice, first in an objective way, but then more subjectively and contextually. The results are as unique as our participants and form this issue’s experimental catalogue.
Geraldine Barlow describes the work Untitled (Giran), 2018 by Jonathan Jones
Untitled (Giran), 2018. Bindu-gaany (freshwater mussel shell), gabudha (rush), gawurra (feathers), marrung dinawan (emu egg), walung (stone), wambuwuny dhabal (kangaroo bone), wayu (string), wiiny (wood) on wire pins, 48-channel soundscape, eucalyptus oil. Purchased 2018 with funds from Tim Fairfax AC through the Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art © Jonathan Jones. Photography: Natasha Harth, Chloe Callistemon and Joe Ruckli
Understanding wind is an important part of understanding country. Winds bring change, knowledge and new ideas to those prepared to listen. ~Jonathan Jones.
Jonathan Jones’s untitled (giran) 2018 is reminiscent of a map of intersecting wind currents, evoking birds in flight, knowledge, change and new ideas circling above our heads. Made of almost 2000 sculptures and a soundscape, the installation brings the culture, language and philosophy of the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales to Kurilpa, a longstanding and important meeting place for indigenous people, on the Maiwar (Brisbane) River. The sounds of wind, bird calls, breathing and Wiradjuri language animate the gallery space.
This is the most recent in a series of collaborations that Jones has undertaken with elder Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr, and draws on the Wiradjuri concept of giran, which describes the winds and change, as well as feelings of fear and apprehension. Traditional tools are at the heart of the artwork. Bound to each tool with handmade string is a small bundle of feathers – found treasures – carefully gathered, sent to Jones by people from across the country and exhibited in Brisbane with the consent of local elders.
The circling murmuration of flying ‘birds’ is composed of six tool types. Like the winds, Wiradjuri philosophy divides them into male and female groups: bagaay – an emu eggshell spoon, bindu-gaany – a freshwater mussel scraper, waybarra – a weaving start, bingal – a bone awl, dhala-ny – a wooden spear point, and galigal – a stone knife. Each tool has limitless potential.
Jones worked with family, Wiradjuri community members and long-time artistic collaborators to make the tools and to craft the feathers into tiny ‘wings’. The process of making – gathering and transforming the raw materials – brings people together, enhances connections to land, culture and language, and strengthens ties to generations who have passed on.
Reflecting on the experience of the work, curator, Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow remarks, ‘Entering the gallery, our first impression is of a circling figure eight, the symbol of infinity. The small sculptures are all of a similar size and together convey a circling sense of movement. Jonathan was interested in the phenomena of birds flying as a murmuration, where what so easily could be chaotic is actually co-ordinated and seen from afar seems animated by a dynamic underlying geometry. untitled (giran) has rhythm and texture because of the feathers and various materials that make up each of the almost 2000 sculptures. There is also movement in the soundscape. Hundreds of sonic elements have been layered together: bird calls, the sound of the wind in the grasses, people speaking the Wiradjuri language, stones being chipped, stone against a stone to make the spear tip, a beautiful rhythmic sound. This work offers us so many different elements all woven together. It’s a real challenge to make an artwork of such richness which also allows enough space for us to find our own place and meaning.
Johnathan is an amazing person: gentle and tough at the same time. He is custodian of an incredible amount of knowledge, he ‘tunes in’ through generations of family and community, his own elders as well as other networks and people, nationally and internationally. This artwork was made with elder Dr Uncle Stan Grant Sr who has been instrumental in reviving the Wiradjuri language. Jonathan is very respectful, he works with his own community and many others. I don’t think this is an easy place to be. To be in between so many different interests and understandings of the world, he does this with capacity and flair. To me, great artists listen to their materials and to history. Jonathan listens to the land. Here in Australia the landscape, history and indigenous cultures are so rich. Jonathan draws on many different sources, but he finds his own way.
Jonathan and I laugh and exchange stories about budgerigars. I have a great fondness for budgerigars, I had a pet budgerigar myself, named Pete. Budgerigars are small, they fly in murmurations, moving through the countryside in massive flocks. As pets, in captivity you can also teach them to ‘talk’, although they are perhaps mimicking sounds more than speaking. How do they communicate as they fly? What does it mean to share a language? We move together through language, and it is such a deep and beautiful vehicle for culture.
It’s incredible to see indigenous languages coming to new prominence and recognition in Australia. Depending on exactly how you classify a language, there are many hundreds of indigenous languages in Australia. When I was growing up, I had no idea that there were so many. It wasn’t something we were taught about. I think Australia hasn’t been understood globally, or even been known to ourselves, as a place that holds such a plurality of indigenous cultures. For me this is something to be proud of. It’s really important to see the strength and beauty of the cultural traditions here as well as the flowering of the new and I think this is where Jonathan’s work is really important. Something else I love about Jonathan’s work is that it can speak to us all – maybe because we can listen to birdsong, find a feather and wonder at its colour and markings.
The central focus of untitled (giran) is the wind. I really love this idea of the wind bringing knowledge and change. Jonathan draws from Wiradjuri philosophy and culture, a wisdom that comes from the land and generations of learning. Finding new ways to share such knowledge is important because in Australia there is a lot of pain around our colonial history and ongoing inequities, there are huge challenges around how we travel onwards from here. This work is beautiful in many ways, most importantly to share knowledge and offer an opportunity to contribute together.
For instance, Jonathan put out an invitation asking people if they would gather and send in feathers. He asked people to pay attention to their environment, to take a walk, look up, look around and listen. People sent parcels and notes, sometimes just a few feathers, sometimes many from different birds. The feathers were cleaned, categorised and sorted. Jonathan showed me some of his favourite notes, often from people very thankful for the encouragement to engage in their local environment in this way, as well as the opportunity to be a part of this larger project. Other parts of the project were made by family members, Wiradjuri people and other indigenous people and I really love that untitled (giran) binds together contributions from so many different people as well as the birds via the feathers that they leave behind. Jonathan speaks about listening to the different bird calls, watching them fly, observing the wind and how all of these factors might inter-relate, which feathers might blow where? So, this work is tied to the natural world and asks us to look at what we are part of, which I think is very important. When it’s in the gallery space this sense of movement swooshes through, like when the wind blows. Jonathan puts forward the idea that winds bring change, but we might ask which wind is it, what kind of change? Winds have their rhythms; sometimes they’re gentler or they could be more destructive.
This work arose from an invitation to be a part of the Asia Pacific Triennial and was then purchased for the gallery by a major ongoing benefactor, Tim Fairfax AC. Jonathan wanted it to be on a curved wall, so a special wall was built. He mixed the sound in the gallery, bringing up all the different tracks and working out how it would feel with the sculpture once the sculpture was on the wall. I think that’s quite a special as well.
I don’t think you can ever fully replicate the experience of such an artwork in the digital space. It is always going to be different but you can do amazing things online and having the broader dialogue and reach that the digital enables is powerful, potentially world changing. For me, the ‘real’ is vital: a feather, bird song, the feel of the wind on our skin. Reaching each other in new ways, embracing change is also key. I think it’s critical to hold on to each of these things, and what’s precious about them.
Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow is Curatorial Manager, International Art, and the curator of Water. She was born on the Yarra River in 1973, lives on the Brisbane River and is connected across the waters to the Hokianga, Aeotearoa, Ireland and England. (Ngapuhi: Te Hikuti and Ngai te Rangi.) At QAGOMA she has contributed to the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2018), working with Jananne al-Ani and Jonathan Jones, and curated Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images (2017, with Rosemary Hawker); Sugar Spin: you, me, art and everything (2016); and Tim Fairfax: A World View (2016). In her previous role at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, thematic exhibitions she curated included Concrete (2014), Liquid Archive (2012), Networks (cells and silos) (2011) and The Ecologies Project (2008, with Dr Kyla McFarlane).
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #54