You come up with a brilliant idea. You find someone with the skills to realise that idea perfectly. You work out a fair price. While the person is completing the job, others discover your idea and start copying it. Should you try to stop them, or risk your singular idea now just being one of many? This is the problem that Rodney Glick found having his art made in Bali.
I think Rodney Glick is one of Australia’s most interesting artists. I’m usually left cold by conceptual work, but Glick’s installations always leave me with a strong sense of non-being – others might call it spiritual. His public art at Subiaco Station using close circuit cameras created something transcendent from an everyday commute.
But more than just an individual artist, Glick also creates spaces for others to create in. He first came to prominence in the eastern states with the Glick International Collection, a purely fabricated international collection along with fictional artists and writers. Following that, he established a colleague Marco Marcon a residency program in a small wheat town in the middle of nowhere – Kellerberin. I guess while so many artists on the west coast (and east coast) of Australia are striving to be somewhere (i.e., Venice or New York), Glick is attracted to the nowhere places. There it’s possible to construct something new.
I’ve never connected Rodney with craft before, but his most recent series has strong relevance to new practices involving collaboration with traditional artisans.
Rodney Glick is one of an increasing number of artists working with Indonesian artisans, particularly wood carvers. For a recent Perth exhibition, Rodney commissioned a Balinese wood carver Made Leno from Kemenuh south of Ubud. He asked Made Leno to carve a life-size version of the multi-armed Hindu god, but based on likeness of Western figures, including himself. This involved quite a technical leap, as traditionally these statues had been made only of iconic divine figures. There was quite prolonged and open negotiation about price and cultural sensitivity, and with time a beautiful carved figure began to emerge.
Glick was concerned that these works would be seen as disrespectful. However, when he inquired about this, he was surprised to see how warmly they were received: ‘While the sculptures do show Western people in poses that suggest Hindu gods, or in one case Buddha, they have been generally seen in Bali not as suggesting that their gods have been belittled, but rather as suggesting a divine presence that is in everyone and that links all humanity.’
But there was one problem – though it was more a result of the work’s positive reception, than any complaint. A nearby stone carver started also to make likenesses. Local Balinese soon started to inquire whether they could have statues made of their family in this manner. Rodney became concerned about this. According to his collaborator Chris Hill, ‘We have talked to the carver about this and he accepts our point of view that Rodney should retain some control over works done according to his idea, not because he wanted some financial reward but to protect the integrity of the concept.’ They cited the uncontrolled production of Australian Aboriginal artefacts in Bali as a sign of how copying can get out of hand.
Rodney is not dogmatic about this control. He has become involved in many other projects in Bali. As well as showing the work locally, he has helped start up valuable agricultural projects.
But this case does reveal a contradiction between the Balinese and Western creative economies. Artists like Rodney are attracted to Indonesia partly because of the ease with which it is possible to get things done. Artisanship there doesn’t come with legal strings attached: no contracts are necessary – it’s a personal thing . Yet taken to its limit, such a system can undermine the Western creative economy that artists like Rodney depend on. If the market is flooded with imitations of his work, then the one-off art works are in danger of losing value.
Rodney has to survive as an artist too. He’s one of Australia’s most creative and interesting artists, but he’s certainly not wealthy.
So what’s the ethical course of action here? Does Rodney have the right to prevent unauthorised use of his idea? In China, manufacturers can offer discount rates to produce branded goods because they get tooled up then to produce cheap imitations free of royalties. This proves unsustainable – in the end, everyone loses.
In addition, where do we place Glick’s work in agricultural development? Is that just a side effect resulting from his human response to the world he discovered. While Glick would most likely dismiss this as just his own personal intervention, is it possible to see this contribution as integral to his work, in the same way that we might see the Fair Trade label as part of the experience of eating the chocolate inside its wrapping?
I guess that we ask all these questions is part of the value of Rodney’s work. It’s an open dialogue at the moment. Lena Mado has been commissioned for a new series of works. Something’s working.