Posted By: Mark Cross - 19 Jun, 2002
The only way that art can be exorcised from the constraints of the frame is to reduce the importance of those ultimate of art frameworks the institutions. In saying this I should qualify that there is an obvious benefit of having these institutions exist as repositories, avenues for discourse and as organisational agencies but what I mean is that alternative venues should be sought extra-institutionally for art's creation and exhibition.
The slow but necessary decentralisation of Art Exhibition practice which has so clearly been expressed with the Asia Pacific Triennials and the building of the Tjiboau centre in Noumea has offered the world, outside the previously dominant Western Art paradigm, an opportunity to expose their creativity and cultural dynamics to a wider audience. This has been historically necessary but has produced an environment where these artists are continually at the risk of being herded into the slipstream of western art history and thus their power to express themselves in a uniquely individual way tends to become diluted by their ironic adherence to the proclivities of institutional requirements. Their art should not be placed into the linear duct of Western Art but should exist in parallel with it.
The next step in the evolutionary process of providing the environment for a truthful expression of one's identity in the Pacific of the 2000's is to take the art out of the frame of institutional constraints by giving it importance in its place of origin. One way that this can be achieved is to have the work of different island countries toured and exhibited in the countries where the works originated even if it is necessary go to such isolated places as Pukapuka or Rapanui for example. Such art would require a sense of the pragmatic so as to suit the limited facilities that exist in the Pacific, however compromises that may result need not be limiting but could offer avenues for dynamic invention (al fresco exhibition would be a major aspect). In fact such resourcefulness has its roots entrenched in traditional pan-Pacific interaction as seen by navigation. This spreading of the exhibition practice of Pacific art is the logical extension of the decentralisation process. With these thoughts in mind, the consummation of the success of the Shrines to the New Millennium Project would be realised only if it were to travel to Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and Niue, these being the origins of the artworks in that exhibition (Sydney Olympic Arts Festival 2000).
A case in point of this pragmatism is the utilitarianist qualities of the Tulana Mahu container installation from Niue. The ability to purchase a moderately priced second-hand shipping container provided the Tahiono Arts Collective with the perfect Pacific medium in that potentially this artwork can be exhibited at any location where containers are off-loaded. The container in which the Tulana Mahu exists is the main medium and is integral to the artwork but this need not be. The container could merely be employed as a conduit for the dissemination of Pacific Art in its normal way. Disparate Pacific artists and/or overseeing organisations should own their own containers specifically for this purpose just as the painter owns an easel.
The extension to decentralisation is logical to the artist however may seem as a horrifying anathema to curators, historians and anthropologists as the stigma remains - and institutions perpetuate it - that if a work of art exists in the third world it has an innate lack of worth but when placed into an urban institutional context it mysteriously acquires a new status. This is to say that the nineteenth century 'primitive = inferior' continues in its modern form as 'developing country = substandard'. Unless there is value placed on the work of artists in their own country, whether it is by their own people or others, then their existence in that country has little or no meaning. Their work is simply reduced to curio status to be collected by tourists and anthropologists.
This diverse exhibition principle will also have an educational aspect not only in terms of the existing indigenous population and governments, but also toward the myriad funding agencies and their representatives throughout the Pacific who have a complete lack of understanding of the significance of contemporary art in the region. East of New Caledonia and north of New Zealand, funding for the contemporary arts is non-existent. Funding agencies of the Pacific, although well meaning, tend to direct their energies toward an endless repetition of science-based projects that often have no sensible application in the country and consequently are reduced to a kind of nihilistic decay. With the catch cry "sustainable development" they waste huge resources on superfluous activities, which seem only necessary to justify their consultants' existence. It is a pity that such resources cannot be re channelled into large art projects as art actually walks hand in hand with one of the funding agencies' most favourite of hobbyhorses, conservation. That is it does not take from the culture or the environment and in fact adds to both. This was the basic premise of the Hikulagi sculpture park in the east of Niue when it was first mooted in 1989, but still the consultants lack the understanding of the principle and so decentralised exhibitions may go some way toward the education of these people. Contemporary art exhibited throughout the Pacific will help counter continuing negative colonial processes and as a consequence will open up funding avenues.
The advent of information technology will help in the reduction of these dilemmas in a variety of ways. Not only will it be used as a medium in its own right, whereby the artwork exists in a state of global omnipresence, but through the convenience of email, organisational and curatorial logistics will be reduced considerably. More sophisticated 'chat' programs will be developed (if they don't exist already) where discourse can be continuous and international. Although freight, air travel and traditional telecommunications in the Pacific are still very expensive and often unreliable, computer technology has increased the possibility of pan-pacific Art Exhibitions greatly and as an example, the Tulana Mahu project could not have been achieved without it.
The principle of hyper-decentralisation discussed here will not be realised in the near future as it will be seen as a threat to the tacit stake of justifying the existence of curators, historians and the institutionalisation of art itself and it is they that hold the purse strings. Likewise, the idea that non-western art should not be assimilated into the same path as western art, but should function in parallel with it will be difficult to stomach. But the Western Art Juggernaut is currently experiencing paroxysms of convulsions symptomatic of it's gluttonous propensities. The experiences of decentralisation already occurring are the fragments of small explosions caused by the spasms of western intransigence and to cure the creature it must be completely purged of its self-righteous need to control. And when this happens, the developing Pacific, which is who we are mainly speaking of, will advance apropos in the self reliance sense as their dignity will be intact, while those who hold the purse strings will benefit by actually learning something.
The Tulana Mahu is a contemporary art installation fixed inside a 20 foot shipping container. The Tahiono Arts Collective created it in Niue in 1999...
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