OCEANIA, Royal Academy of Arts, Main Galleries 29 September - 10 December 2018
Only when you see all these things, artefacts, art objects, in this odd, high status, sort of ultra-important (glass cases, spot lights, what-have-you), presentation, these things, this stuff, which has collectively formed a kind of background hum to your entire life (my life that is) that it really hits you (me): out of context, out of place, set up as one thing when they are all really something else entirely, silently screaming ‘let me out!’, it really, really hits you (me again) the way in which decades, centuries of disregard have so utterly leached out their real meaning, that in their own place, their own context, they have been considered (by the representatives of the conquering culture) as no more than so much junk, evidence of a lack of sophistication, a lack of civilisation, something to be moved on from, to be replaced (with what exactly?), to be reduced to oddities in museums, detritus of our (Western Civilisation’s) progress, evolution.
A little incoherent with rage, maybe? I am a colonial. I grew up in North Queensland and went to boarding school in Cairns, which sort of qualifies as a part of Oceania. Lot of students at my school were from Papua New Guinea and the surrounding islands. I’ve been to New Guinea and seen where some of these artefacts come from. I’ve been to Vanuatu and seen what people making films for Western audiences hungry for exotic locations will sink to. I’ve had first hand experience of Australian aborigines living as fringe dwellers and in reservations.
But the imprimatur of the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly, London is something to be conjured with. Surely this kind of notice from those who matter can make a difference? Such a solid gold trademark can elevate the construction of any old feathers and bark to the rarified level of Art, worthy of the attention of the great and good, worthy even of the sale of facsimiles in the gift shop? Elevated even to the level of diplomatic soft power?
Art, art galleries, the art world, have raised the idea of the unique artistic expression, the unique art object, to the level of a fetish, an obsession, an unhealthy quasi-religious ecstasy. We are surrounded, almost to the point of being drowning by, inundated by, manufactured stuff, identical items produced and consumed in their millions and billions, and yet advertised, sold, as unique, special, differentiated, individual. That car is exactly the same as every other car of its type and yet, when it’s yours, it will be special, unique, an expression of you. Western art has become the rarified pinnacle of this nonsense.
Self-expression, the expression of self, the individual, unassailable self: this is Western art. It’s a travesty.
The reality of arriving, as the original inhabitants of these islands did, at a strange place full of strange plants and animals, and having to somehow survive, was incredibly difficult. To survive, and thrive, over millennia, is extraordinary, heroic, spectacular. This is obvious. And as romantic an idea as Robinson Crusoe is, no individual would have made it. It would have taken a whole boat-load of Man Fridays.
This art, these artefacts, represent interaction, working together to ensure survival in harsh conditions. ‘So what?’ you say. Everyone knows that. It’s obvious. They were backward. They were incapable of coming up with modern life, modern inventions, modern stuff. Art has moved on too. Self-expression is the next level. Art is now spectacularly valuable. What’s wrong with that?
One item in the exhibition stands out: the statue of the god known as A’a. A male deity, about the size of a small child, carved from wood, with a head like a large plate, and, notably, his features, eyes, nose, mouth, nipples, belly button, etc, are small people, tiny figures, which gives the whole thing a kind of surreal effect, a conundrum, cognitive dissonance. It’s impossible to hold both the larger person and the tiny people in your head at the same time. It’s one or the other. At the simplest level the small people are the deity’s eyes, ears and so on, and the larger figure is the context for the smaller, but beyond that there is the suggestion that both larger and smaller are contained within each other, that they are interchangeable in some fundamental way, just as were Classical Greek gods at once human and divine, and yet A’a manages to express this in a way which seem to defy logic. It is a visual representation of an utterly different way of looking at people and their interaction, their relationships.
Something similar applies to the simple patterns made up of strips of wood and mother-of-pearl which represent ocean maps, the way that people could traverse the almost infinite Pacific in relative safety. The wooden strips represent interaction, currents, wind direction, people, time, all in an aesthetically beautiful but simple (and portable) representation.
The paradox of this kind of art, is that each piece is truly unique, but is an expression of interaction and pattern. What they represent is the opposite of self-expression, of any kind of cult of the individual. They represent an utterly different way of conceiving what constitutes a person and what a society and culture.
Western civilisation, underwritten in a way by Western art, is busy changing the climate and thus acting to inundate numerous Pacific islands, to effectively drown whole civilisations, the ones they haven’t already destroyed that is, that the hubris of ‘we know best’ is utterly overwhelming and unstoppable, that until we look on this kind of art as different from what is normally hung in these galleries, different in a way that is important and instructive, that what they have to say is really worth listening to, the islands will continue to drown, aborigines will continue to die in prison and our own art will retreat deeper and deeper inside its destructive cult of the self.