Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Petyarre and Moffatt: 'Looking from the Sky'

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Petyarre and Moffatt: 'Looking from the Sky'

Article excerpt

In 1930s Germany, Walter Benjamin, perceiving the disintegration of human connection in industrialised society and fearing the aesthetic and communal appeal of fascism in this alienated environment prophetically analysed the 'pile of debris ... growling] skyward' created by this 'storm' of 'progress'.1 For Benjamin, modernity's shock effect was transforming human life into an automaton existence deprived of sociality and communicable experience. Economism and mechanisation were eviscerating human feeling so that:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.2

This image of a vulnerable humanity exposed, beneath an eternal sky, to the catastrophe of modernity returns, half a world away and several lifetimes later, in another guise in Australian Indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt's photo series Up in the Sky? Depicting, in quasidocumentary style, a mixed-race, outback community devastated by poverty and racism, these photo-images evoke again 'tiny, fragile human' lives buffeted by 'destructive torrents and explosions'. Here, however, the destruction is wrought by colonialism, racism and dispossession; yet this other world beneath clouds has nevertheless also been reduced to debris created by the storm of progress.

Moffatt's Up in the Sky series draws attention to the relation between sky and earth, through the content and camera angles of the images. Similarly, Kathleen Petyarre's Central Desert acrylic dot painting evokes this relation representing country and Dreaming from a celestial perspective-as she says 'looking from the sky'.4 Yet here any association between these artists seems to end with the urban artist refusing to engage Aboriginal tradition and the desert artist focused on Dreaming, country and heritage. However, a further connection between these disparate works may also be discerned as each, in differing ways, transforms our conventional perceptions of space and time. Reading these images in relation to Walter Benjamin's concepts of the auratic and of messianic time, I suggest that each restructures dimension and duration putting in question the (post)modern calibrations of our space/time experience. This paper, then, stages an engagement between these artists' works and Benjamin's concepts exploring the variations and modifications of the spatial and the temporal that hybrid cross-cultural exchanges require and facilitate.


If we understand the world beneath clouds as everyday earthly life, we may conceive its opposite as the celestial world up in the sky. Kathleen Petyarre's Central Desert dot painting however confounds this distinction, depicting the sacred within the red earth of her homeland. Many commentators represent her work as both a mapping of territory-of sand, walking tracks, waterholes and ceremonial sites-and at the same time as an allusion to the Dreaming of the Mountain Devil Lizard of which she is custodian. Her work demonstrates the intimate association of sand and ceremony, of everyday life and Dreaming experience.

Petyarre describes the perspective in her 'new style' of painting as an attempt to capture the experience of 'looking from the sky': it evokes a sensation, she says, of 'travelling in a light plane, like it's moving, travelling, looking down'. This celestial perspective may recall the Western omniscient 'view from nowhere' but should not be conflated with it, for as Petyarre explains: 'It's still body painting, still ceremony, even looking from the sky, [it is] still dancing ... My story is still going, even with the new style.'5 While the Western god's-eye-view claims universalism, Petyarre's work insists on a specificity related to land, culture, and her particular dreaming stories handed down from earlier generations. …

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