In a tokyo gallery usually reserved for the painterly impressions of Renoir's bathers, Monet's water lilies and Van Gogh's windmills, a group of white-gloved, green-uniformed installation specialists have gathered round the much earthier canvas of Judy Watson's Aboriginal Shield, which has come all the way from Wollongong. Around the corner, Ken Thaiday Senior's tiger-shark headdress occupies a cabinet where early Greek and Egyptian antiquities are normally housed. But this day the biggest impression comes when Patricia Piccinini's mutant possum sculpture emergesbearing impossibly lifelike wrinkles, hair and fangsfrom its packing box. "With this work, we are now starting a new history," says exhibition coordinator Tomoko Nakayama.
Such is the case with Australian art. Until recently, the nation's cultural treasures have rarely registered on the Japanese radar. "It's sports, nature and bushfire, koala and kangaroo," Nakayama says of the popular perception. But with the 2006 Australia-Japan Year of Exchange marking the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the two countries, museum director Norio Shimada together with Nakayama, who completed her fine-arts masters at the University of Adelaide, decided the time was right to add depth to the Australian image. Which is how 70 works by 35 artists now find themselves in the hallowed halls of Tokyo's Bridgestone Museum of Art for "Prism: Contemporary Art from Australia," the largest show of its kind yet to be staged in Japan.
It's a suggestive title. Consult the dictionary and you'll find both a definition and a clue: among other things, a prism is "a medium that distorts, slants, or colors whatever is viewed through it." Prism also happens to be the title of one of the works in the showImants Tillers' 1986 painting, from a private collection in Sydney. Assembled on 165 canvas boards and referencing both Expressionist Georg Baselitz's figure of a German soldier and Timmy Payungka Japangardi's Kangaroo and Shield People Dreaming, this postmodern picture puzzle announces the exhibition's intriguing but not wholly convincing contentionthat multicultural voices and Aboriginal culture have colonized Australian art. "That's really the message we havelots of cultural backgrounds coming into our show," says Nakayama. "And this is Australia, isn't it?"
Where recent international surveys have placed indigenous artists at the margins of Australian life (three years ago, Berlin's "Face Up: Contemporary Art from Australia" included only one), visitors to "Prism" could be forgiven for thinking that Aboriginal art now occupies the center. Here, prominent non-Aboriginal artists such as Piccinini, Rosemary Laing and Fiona Hall, for once, become the minority. But because of the quietly considered way the pictures are hung, the Aboriginal upstaging appears neither jarring nor odd but perfectly natural. In this way it reflects both the heightened interest in Aboriginal art internationally, and its growing impact on the mainstream at home. As Tillers himself notes in the exhibition catalog, "It is impossible today for an Australian artist not to take Aboriginal art into account, into serious consideration."
In "Prism," it's unmissablefrom Brook Andrew's eye-grabbing Sexy and Dangerous, 1997, in which the colonial gaze behind an archival photo is wittily subverted by digital manipulation, to the late Rover Thomas' powerful Paruku (Lake Gregory), 1991, which draws the eye down Bridgestone's central corridor with the cosmic pull of a black hole. In a salon-style gallery designed for the appreciation of modern masters, the aesthetic relationship between Aboriginal painting and 20th century abstraction has never seemed closer. Though as Thomas, the former stockman from Turkey Creek, reportedly said of Rothko, "Who's that bugger that paints like me?"
Exhibition organizer Nakayama calls the Western Desert painting movement "a very evolutionary contemporary art," and "Prism" offers some of its key turning pointsfrom a board of the early phase at Papunya, when European materials were first introduced to the desert community in 1971, to Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's Man's Love Story, 1978, the first dot painting to be bought by a public art gallery. But where the exhibition breaks new ground is in exploring the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous art. In a room to the right of Love Story, the Australian art divide is made spurious with the photographic works of Rosemary Laing and Michael Riley. The late Wiradjuri-Gamilaraay artist's final Cloud series suspended emblems of Aboriginal identity and dispossession in the same liquid-blue sky Laing sent her brides flying through. For her most recent series, the Sydney-based Laing traveled to the desert community of Balgo, where she set fire to Ikea-style furniture arranged in the shape of Uluru. "This set up a conversation between these two places," she wrote, "the histories we share, and have inherited; and where we are at this moment in time."
Cross-pollination is at the heart of Adelaide-based Fiona Hall's work, and her botanical passions have often brought her in close proximity to Aboriginal Australia. This is cleverly suggested in "Prism" by placing her cabinet of glass-beaded native flora and fauna, Understorey, 1999-2004, in the anteroom to a gallery of work by mainly women artists from the Central Australian settlement of Utopia, whose riotous desert-flower colorfields appear to wink at Hall's work.
In an exhibition so sensitive to these cross-cultural currents, Piccinini's final room strikes the one false note. This singular Sierra Leone–born artist, whose mutant monsters speak of a genetically engineered future, seems more interested in nurture than Australian nature. And while Japan's appetite for cute creatures makes it easy to see why the curators found them irresistible, it's difficult relating them to the rest of the show.
Making amends is the central room of "Prism." Here Warlpiri artist Dorothy Napangardi's black-and-white paintings of salt plains, glittering like dark crystals, peacefully cohabit with Iranian-born Hossein Valamanesh's Fallen Branch, 2005. With the latter, the Adelaide-based sculptor has fashioned a circular, ceaselessly interconnecting series of bronze twigs that could well stand as a symbol for this subtly shape-shifting show. By redefining the perspective of Australian art, "Prism" shows that its indigenous and non-indigenous branches spring from the same growing tree.