Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Elegy to an Oz Republic: First Steps in a Ceremony of Invocation towards Reconciliation

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Elegy to an Oz Republic: First Steps in a Ceremony of Invocation towards Reconciliation

Article excerpt

Elegy to an Oz Republic: First Steps in a Ceremony of Invocation towards Reconciliation

In this essay I focus on three paintings from Robert Motherwell's series 'Elegy to the Spanish Republic' (1963-1975): Five%in%the%Afternoon,%(1949), Elegy%to%the%Spanish% Republic%100 (1963-1975) and Reconciliation%Elegy% (1978). I do so to address the question of how an artist might 'borrow' from Motherwell's images to engage in an act of reconciliation in Australia today. What is at stake in such an act? Can one, ethically, invoke not just the name or the sentiment embodied in Motherwell's 'Elegies', but also the force that operates in the series? Can one do so%to address the question of reconciliation now?

In 2012, I completed a series of drawings and paintings that, while figurative in form, were structurally based on and derived their inspiration from the abstract paintings and lithographs from Motherwell's series. A large drawing, Black%with%No% Way%Out%(after%Motherwell) (Figure 1), 'borrowed' Robert Motherwell's name ('after Motherwell'), the title (Black% with% No% Way% Out) and compositional structural elements from Motherwell's lithograph Black%with%No%Way%Out (1983) (Figure 2). The line work and massing repetition of shapes in the drawing Black%with%No%Way% Out% (after% Motherwell), rhyme the rhythms of Motherwell's works to create what Ashley Crawford has deemed, an 'apocalyptic mise% on% scène'.1 A second series of drawings, Study%for Bourke%Street%5pm (2012) (Figure 6) and%Elegy%to%an%Oz%Republic% (after%Motherwell) (2012) (Figure 8), appropriate the form of Motherwell's Elegy%to% the% Spanish% Republic% 100 (1963-1975) (Figure 7). This wholesale 'borrowing', 'quotation' and 'citation' raises a number of questions. What does it mean to engage in acts of appropriation now? And, more importantly, can such acts of appropriation draw on the spirit of the 'original' work to make a (political) difference?2

Here, I examine whether it is possible to draw on and activate the expansive forces operating in Motherwell's Reconciliation% Elegy as a gesture towards reconciliation. I argue it is necessary not only to attend to what is pictured, but to also address the conditions through which these works work. I propose that, figured performatively, appropriation or citation of Motherwell's 'Elegies to a Spanish Republic' is not about re-presenting or re-producing forms, but rather is concerned with invoking the imperceptible forces beneath perception. Thus, the task of working with Motherwell's compositions is not just technical, nor is it merely undertaken to invoke the name and history of Robert Motherwell.3 The act of appropriation asks that the artist doing the appropriation attend to the ghosts operating in and through the work, unleash them and allow them to come to bear upon the viewer.

Appropriation and its relation to reconciliation remains a vexed issue, particularly in the Australian context where the legacy of colonisation on Indigenous culture is so forcefully felt. Nowhere in the Australian art world has this played out so clearly than in Imants Tillers' infamous appropriation in his painting The%Nine% Shots%(1985) of Indigenous artist Michael Jagamara Nelson's Five%Dreamings (1982- 84). The appropriation, and the fact that it was made without Jagamara's permission, prised open a deep cultural wound. It led to a scathing reappropriation of The%Nine%Shots by Indigenous artist Gordon Bennett in his The%Nine%Ricochets%(Fall% down%black%fella,%jump%up%white%fella) (1990). Howard Morphy notes, in a catalogue essay for the exhibition Imants% Tillers:% One% World% Many% Visions, that Tiller's appropriation and Bennett's response had revealed a simple fact:

all that has happened in the recent history of Australia has been made possible by the colonisation and often the deaths of Aboriginal Australians ... the idea that there was a wrong that needed to be acknowledged and addressed.4

However, there is a difference to be articulated between Morphy's essay of 2006 and Tillers' earlier writings about his appropriative paintings. …

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