Kim McKenzie

I had the pleasure of meeting ethnographic filmmaker Kim McKenzie during May. He runs a film making course at ANU but I have known of his work since beginning my research about the life and work of Wamud Namok (Bardayal Nadjamerrek) who Kim has recorded many times on his country, at his outstation Kabulwarnamyo and as part of the Wardakken fire abatement project. I had initially inquired about footage of Madjarlngarlkum the delek site to gain further evidence that Wamud collected white pigment from there and was rewarded. I inspired Kim to find a partly edited film he had made at the request of Wamud prior to his passing to record the last Ankung djang or honey dreaming ceremony he was to conduct at the sacred honey site Djabidj Bakoluy. I was amazed this wonderful footage existed and Kim would one day publish such an important film for subsequent generations which is, I believe, of national significance. I am celebrating Wamud’s life and work at the ‘Framing Lives‘ conference held at the National Portrait Gallery and ANU from 17th-20th July. My session will be at the NPG in the terrace room 11:15-12:30.

ANU animal studies group

Since attending the ‘Animal Death’ symposium I have maintained contact with ANU PhD researcher Rhiannon Galla and also linked with another researcher, a graduate from the ANU art school Jennifer Eadie who was also at the symposium unknown to me. I serendipitously met Jennifer recently at the Cliftons award night as a fellow finalist. The circle closed when Rhiannon said she had also met Jennifer the day before and we are all meeting this week to begin an animal/human studies group at ANU. I showed Rhiannon around my studio which was encouraging after an inspired conversation about our research.


I was surprised to find this call for submissions:

Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture
1. Animals and Painting Special Issue

Is painting the most troubled medium in contemporary art? The death of painting has been announced with regularity at the beginning of each of the past four decades. Nevertheless, a number of artists like Gerard Richter, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig, David Hockney, Chris Ofili, June Leaf and Joseph Condo just to name a few, have demonstrated that the opposite is true through their creative reinventions of the medium’s boundaries, scope, purpose and ambitions. What role has thus far painting played in the animal revolution as experienced through the arts? What does contemporary painting has to say or do about our relationship with nature? Antennae is currently inviting submission on the topic of animals and painting for the purpose of publishing a selection of artist’s work, academic essays and interviews. Although we usually tend to focus on modern and contemporary art, this would also represent an opportunity to cover other periods.
For academics: Academic essays = maximum length 6000 words Interviews = maximum length 8000 words. Fiction = maximum length 8000 word. For artists: Submissions of portfolios are welcome but work needs to be supported by a text either written by the artist or by a reviewer/curator. Images = maximum 8 per artist. Text = maximum length 2000 words
Deadline for submissions is 1 September 2012
For more information, please contact Giovanni Aloi at

Animal Death

This Symposium held on the 12th and 13th June 2012 at the University of Sydney was nice and intimate with some brilliant presentations by some key researchers and activists in the field of animal/human studies. Of particular interest to me was Deborah Bird Rose author of ‘Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction’ and Professor of Social inclusion in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. She spoke of living in the shadow of animal death like “dogs crying behind the corpse house”. Her poetic approach was very evocative and her broad ranging interests, from active awareness of current crises between animals and humans, such as the flying fox colony in Sydney and Layson Albatross couples in Hawaii, to the religious existential philosophy of Lev Shestov, and the powerful art of Janet Laurence particularly ‘After Eden’. It was wonderful to listen to Janet and Barbara in conversation about the installation and her successful use of taxidermy borrowed from the Australian Museum and slowed film footage with the sound of animal breathing. The affect was enhanced by modified lights and sheer screens demonstrating the all encompassing field of installation and its ability to impress atmosphere upon the spectator. I also met sound recorder Jane Ulman who interviewed me for ABC radio ‘among animals’. I was thankful to also make contact with fellow ANU PhD researcher Rhiannon Galla from the School of Sociology. Her presentation resonated with me due to its focus on Deleuze and Bataille, a combination I have also found extremely fruitful. Rhiannon focused on ethics and says in her abstract, “This paper seeks to understand the significance of animal death from the point of view of the forces that possess us in the encounter with death. It considers how the quite literal decomposition of relations of force might expose us, not to a task that presses upon us, but to singular possibilities for new modes of life.” I anticipated showing her my shrouds.

Abjection in Theory and Art

The definition of abject art on the Tate website notes, “In practice the abject covers all the bodily functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion.” The definition on the Keterrer Kunst website begins by stating, “Abject art is an art form associated with Material and Object art, and refers to works, which contain abject subjects, materials and substances.” Julia Kristeva posited the term abject in her essay on abjection Powers of Horror first published in French in 1980 and English in 1982. She introduces abjection as “Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung.” (2PH). Most contemporary artists working with abjection focus on the human body, often their own as Performance art or Body art became a common way for artists to actively assimilate the abject in front of an audience.

Art Informel

I recently discovered artists and a movement I know little about, but found inspirational at this apparently transitional point in my project. Although a tendency throughout Europe during the early 1950s, it seems to blossom in Italy. The artist which first attracted me to the period is Alberto Burri whose sack collages and burnt plastic seemed so simple yet powerful as matter takes precedence. Exploring further I find a text Beyond Painting: Burri, Fontana, Manzoni 2005, by Matthew Gale and Renato Miracco, and discover similar motivations or goals to this Italian trio which was unexpected. It originates within the ideas of the Futurists but is most clearly expressed in the writings of artist Enrico Prampolini who states, “To become matter: the concept of metamorphosis underlies the creation of the elements in a composition in a conceptual process of spiritual transfiguration and formal transposition.” (Arte polimaterica 1944) I again think of the shroud process. My dilemma is how to continue working on the shrouds adding new matter equivalent in value to the bodily stain. It is useful for me to currently build on my practice in the following terms as I, like Prampolini, view paint as matter and therefore any matter as a potential painterly substance:

“Prampolini was the first Italian artist to question the difference between the use of material and being in matter…matter was an object in itself. It was a fragment of a past and present life, rendered rich and evocative either through its own material qualities, or through its juxtaposition and relationship with other materials. From this juxtaposition arose a revelation of various sorts, equal to the ‘flashes of inspiration of “ordinary things”…[that, when they] illuminate art, create these elements which are most essential to our everyday reality.’…it is defined, in essence, by different types of matter, by their intrinsic qualities, and the relationship established between them. These polymaterials became known as (‘encounters with matter’ or literally ‘interviews with matter’, terms coined by Prampolini). In 1944 he wrote: ‘Encounters with matter were not about a battle against painting, but about taking to its extreme the idea of substituting completely and fundamentally the reality of paint with the reality of matter’. This explicit difference, which forms the basis for a coherent revisionist dialogue between artist and viewer, allows the viewer to distinguish completely a painted reality from a material reality, so that both can co-exist. The work of art is thus no longer confined arbitrarily within a pictorially defined dimension, but is able to extend towards a reality that can also be founded on matter. ‘Polymaterial art is not a technique but a rudimentary means of artistic expression’, Prampolini stated, ‘the evocative power of which resides in the formal arrangement of matter…Matter being something inherent within the natural world (a living organism, consisting of atoms in perpetual motion) as well as having formal transcendence…Matter can be made spiritual and harmoniously arranged over surfaces in space, where the lively and direct juxtaposition of different materials raises to a higher level the human vision of our era.’”[p.20-1]

Camera Lucida 1981

Reading Roland Barthes insights concerning the affect of photography prompted me to consider the shroud, passages seem to describe the affect of the decomposition print more than photography. Simply replace ‘photography’ with ‘shroud’ For example,

“Since Photography [a shroud]…authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the Photograph [shroud] completely, i.e., in its essence, “as into itself…” beyond simple resemblance…something inexpressible: evident…yet improbable (I cannot prove it). This something is what I call the air (the expression, the look). The air of a face is unanalyzable (once I can decompose, I prove or I reject, in short I doubt, I deviate from the Photograph [shroud], which is by nature totally evidence: evidence is what does not want to be decomposed). The air is not a schematic, intellectual datum, the way silhouette is. Nor is the air a simple analog – however extended – as is “likeness”. No the air is that exorbitant thing which induces from body to soul – animula, little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another…The air…is a kind of intractable supplement of identity, what is given as an act of grace, stripped of any “importance”: the air expresses the subject, insofar as that subject assigns itself no importance…And mysteriously, this coincidence is a kind of metamorphosis…suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see…Perhaps the air is ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the face the reflection of a life value?…Thus the air is the luminous shadow which accompanies the body; and if the photograph [shroud] fails to show this air, then the body moves without a shadow, and once this shadow is severed, as in the myth of the Woman without a Shadow, there remains no more than a sterile body.” [p.107-110]

Animals, People – A Shared Environment

The conference in Brisbane on beautiful Southbank exploring animal/human relations throughout multiple disciplines including the arts was a rich and rewarding experience. I met some wonderful specialists in the field including author and editor of the recent publication representing animals Nigel Rothfels. I also had the opportunity to meet both the dynamic former and current board members of AASG who are Natalie Edwards, Melissa Boyde, Leah Burns and Yvette Watt. In terms of my own research I was particularly taken by papers given by Carol Freeman and Susan Pyke. Carol Freeman presented a poetic look at the materiality of medieval books being made of animal skin, their smell and texture and the very much shared environment animals and humans had during medieval times. Susan Pyke explored, also poetically, Emile Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and its depictions of the animal through the human via beastly behaviours of the masculine unclean, unshaven gypsy-like Heathcliff contrasted with the hygienic containment of the feminine through Catherine in 18th century society. I was also interested in Yvette Watt’s talk about animal art, the question of a lack of animal agency in representations. This links to a book launched at the conference considering animals in which Yvette Watt and Steve Baker discuss the apparent tightrope animal artists who are also animal activists walk if making didactic work which may lose its power as fine art when function speaks louder than form. Baker explores the work of Angela Singer among others who recycles taxidermy explaining how artists can make powerful statements without sacrificing attention to the importance of materiality (among other aesthetic considerations). Jill Bough, who I also met, launched her book Donkey focused on the hypocritical view of Donkeys in Australia, war hero myth vs feral eradication. I was happy to discover the animal series by Reaktion Books of which this is one.
I participated in the associated exhibitions and met some of the other artists including Maria Fernanda Cardoso. Colleague in sculpture Amanda Stuart presented too. (Thanks Amanda, it was great to spend some time with a familiar face!).