NIGEL LENDON | Relational Agency: Rethinking The Aboriginal Memorial

Djon Mundine, Drawing for 200 Burial Poles, c.1987. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Djon Mundine, Drawing for 200 Burial Poles, c.1987. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Twenty-two years after its first exhibition at the 1988 Biennale of Sydney, and following numerous subsequent iterations, in 2010 The Aboriginal Memorial was re-designed and installed in the foyer of the National Gallery of Australia. This essay seeks to reinterpret the circumstances of both its origins as well as its historical trajectory in the Biennale, in the National Gallery of Australia, in its subsequent international contexts, and in its current situation. Its original context and conventional recognition as a masterpiece of contemporary Australian art (Waterlow, Mollison) plus the processes of its redefinition as “installation art” (Davidson, Desmond) and later its presentation as a form of international cultural exchange, all suggest a process of reinterpretation and realignment as a manifestation of a late modernist sensibility, which was validated by its ultimate institutional recognition. In this essay I argue that despite the distance from its original political origins and motivation, revisiting The Aboriginal Memorial and what I call its “constitutive literature” invites new modes of interpretation that allow The Memorial to regain its original sociopolitical power. By investigating the social relations of its production and reception, the nature of the creative motivation of its forty-three Yolngu artists plus its “conceptual producer” Djon Mundine, I seek to apply a concept of collective agency informed by models of relational art first introduced by Bourriaud, Kester, Bishop et al. in order to amplify the social relations of its reception as a paradigm of intercultural artistic production.

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