Missionaries – the end of after

We had the last of the After the Missionaries discussions last night. The conversation first started at the beginning of a dark and stormy winter. It ended in what has proven to be Melbourne’s warmest winter on record. It seemed a fitting context for a discussion about art and the Kyoto Protocol at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.

The discussion was premised on the operation of the Kyoto Protocol as a means to address climate change through a global consensus, requiring agreement between the two halves of the world. Many of the artists discussed in After the Missionaries explored new paths that connect the global North and South.

The process of writers speaking to their articles proved quite fruitful. The four local writers were able to provide new layers to the articles they originally published in Artlink. In a way, it provided an immediate demonstration of value-adding.

Neil Fettling reflected on the dilemma of the Archibald Prize for David Griggs – how, if he had won, he would have to deal with the issue of co-authorship with the Philippine billboard artist Rene Oserin. Helen Vivian explored in more detail the way Jonathan Kimberley’s canvases engaged with Jim Everitt’s words. Kelly Fliedner spoke more broadly about how artists react defensively to writing which places their work in an ethical context. And Emily Potter reflected on the dilemma of symbolic acts at a time when immediate direct action seems called for.

A common theme was the technique of palimpsest. The layering of images provided a means of combining two very different points of view without assuming they could be merged into a single position.

The intense discussion that followed focused on the subject of global art involving traditional artisans. A position began to evolve that collaborations were possible as long as their was open negotiation between both commissioning artist and artisan. But the example of ‘sex tourism’, when it could be claimed that there is free negotiation between the Western client and a young local prostitute, prompted a need to consider the parameters of negotiation more closely. There was also a question about why this commissioning must always come from the rich countries. There were relatively few examples when artists or artisans from poor countries had initiated collaboration.

There was broad consensus that art had an important role to play in bridging the global divide and reflecting critically on the ways we inhabit the world. There seemed a feeling that there was still important work to do in responding critically to the new forms of global art that are beginning to emerge.

But alongside all that, there was a recognition that there would always be something about art that could not fit neatly into ethical or utilitarian frames. This very freedom of art helps propose new possibilities and alternative ways of seeing. How do we sustain the creative freedom of art while seeking ways of making a better world?

As we dispersed into the night, this seemed a particularly verdant question with which to greet the coming spring.

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