Sunday, September 22, 2013


Bliss by Fiona Foley
I was lucky enough to get invited to a preview of the RA's new Australia exhibition last week, and to hear the curator Kathleen Soriano, and indigenous artist Christian Thompson talking about it at the High Commission on Friday night.  As much as anything, it's very exciting that there is so much Australian culture, and so much indigenous Australian culture, on show in London this autumn.  There's even a new dedicated website, called Australian Nexus, which exists to bring them all together. And there is Origins, right in the thick of it.  Fiona Foley, whose Lecture is set to be a Festival highlight, has a video piece called Bliss at the centre of the last, most political section of the RA show: it deals with the way in which Aboriginal workers were turned into opium addicts, paid in drugs rather than cash - and it does it through the disturbing medium of beautiful poppies.  Vernon Ah Kee, the designer of Gudirr Gudirr, also has a piece in the show.  And so it goes on.  There's even an essay in the catalogue by Thomas Keneally - who got us interested in Aboriginal culture in the first place, way back in 2003-4 with Bullie's House.

The show begins stunningly, with an evocation of journeying into landscape: a lone motorbike rider drives into the bush, raising his arms in a crucifix.  And then there's a room of beautiful indigenous art - the traditional art of Dreaming, totem and landscape, although some of it has shifted form and medium to be painted on canvas and hung on walls.  The majesty, colour and sheer energy of these works is so powerful that it is difficult to see how the rest of the show can possibly live up to them - and for the first few rooms of European-style art created after the invasion, it emphatically doesn't.  It takes some time to realise that, in a way, this let-down is almost the point: that the settler art, supposedly more "civilised", more "refined", was in fact simplistic and timid by comparison with that of the indigenous culture.

Where the exhibition really takes off again is in the more modern sections, when white artists begin to engage with the reality of the land, rather than imposing a European sensibility; and when indigenous art becomes engaged with the political encounter between the cultures.  Sidney Nolan's series of Ned Kelly paintings are there - much more vibrant and epic in the flesh than in any reproduction (including the exhibition poster, which washes out the colours quite badly).  Albert Namatjira's watercolours are similar acts of cultural boundary-bursting - he uses that most English of forms to paint a landscape about as far from Surrey as you can imagine - and to fulfil his ancestral Dreaming.  Margaret Preston is one of the first non-Indigenous artists to absorb indigenous influences, and as a result her work seems to speak far more clearly of and to the Australian space - geographical, political and spiritual. Her evocation of Adam and Eve as indigenous people exiled from Eden by a white angel is provocative and visceral.

The show ends with Fiona's work, Vernon's Can't Chant (wegrehere) #2 and other pieces exploring the tensions of an emerging, but far from integrated or complete, cross-cultural, post-colonial reality.  Australia is full of tensions - and that is what makes it so culturally dynamic at the present moment.  It's a vital time to be engaged with what is happening there.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Seamus Heaney

It isn't often that the death of a public figure moves me as Seamus Heaney's has done.  Don Patterson said that "the death of this beloved man seems to have left a breach in the language itself"- but I think it's more than that.  Poetry, and particularly the combination of the lyric and the political that characterised Heaney, is so personal, so intimate an art that the poet's persona comes to share the internal space of the reader.  When we lose a great poet, we lose someone to whom we are intensely close.  Put simply, a friend.

I first encountered this friend as a shy boy in my early teens, in a Hereford bookshop where I took lunchtime sanctuary from the baying bullies who haunted those years of emergence.  I remember weighing up the risk of buying the "Selected Poems", which tempted me because their writer seemed to mitigate the sissy discipline to which I was so drawn with a masculine, rural rigour that my persecutors might approve.  It cost me £1.95, and has been a treasure ever since.  On Friday, when his death was announced, I took it down again from the shelf and read that first manifesto, at once daunted and intensely determined:

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it."

Later, in my first year at Oxford, a group of us would gather in someone's room or other to read our favourite lyrics - and I arrived clutching the same book, which now seemed a passport rather than a badge of exile.  Slowly, as we talked about the poems, I began to understand the complex relationship between these texts and the momentous context exploding in Ulster - to see how the history I was studying was as much a force in the intensity of "North" as the emotional and the psychological journey of their author.  They began to shape my own artistic voice.

Then, one day, the man himself was there.  We had lots of illustrious people visiting Oxford, to the extent that we got quite blasé about it: the Literary Society had welcomed Faye Weldon, Colin Welland, Stephen Spender and (wait for it) Enoch Powell that term: Seamus Heaney was for many another name on the roll-call.  So there were probably no more than thirty of us present to listen to him read in his soft brogue those well-known lines, to give them his personal music, and to hear him talk around them and about them without ever explaining them.  He was a gentle presence, secure in his wisdom without being in any way arrogant - wry and (I thought) genuinely pleased that there were young people there who responded to what he was saying and how he was saying it - people who shared his need to speak at a level only poetry sounds.  To dig ever deeper.  Far below the surface.

His work in theatre, especially the involvement with Field Day, was further inspiration to me - this is one of a number of key companies whose way of postulating theatre in a complex contemporary space of cross-cultural tensions has influenced the Artistic Direction of Border Crossings.

In 2008, there came his substitute for autobiography - the wonderful Stepping Stones interviews with Dennis O'Driscoll.  I gave a copy to my great friend Jay Griffiths, and it became as special a book to her as it was to me.  "Nurturing the flame" she said - Heaney writes so well about the calling of the artist, the intense need to find articulacy, the conviction that language must be brought back from the brink and re-forged as the weapon of compassion.  In her own recent book Kith, Jay calls this calling "the daemon" - and so it is.  The inner impulse that pulls the book from the shelf into the boy's hand, the muscularity that digs with the squat pen, the gentle rage of prophecy.