Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stars in my eyes

Met today with FM, an anthropologist of Aboriginal Australia. Since the acrylic painting movement in Aboriginal arts began among people he studied, the Pintupi, he's done important work not only on Aboriginal culture but also on the international phenomenon of Papunya painting. A great resource at my doorstep! Beyond citations and suggestions, I was hoping he'd tell me where one could go see Aboriginal arts in New York City: it's become clear to me that traditions as embodied as those of Aboriginal Australians can't be understood without at least some contact with or experience of concrete places or representations; I haven't been able to find reference to anything in NYC's museums and galleries.

I got lots of great citations and suggestions, but nothing on the local front. The nearest collection of Aboriginal art of any value is in Charlottesville! What to do? The more we talked, the more convinced I became that this class, of all classes, needs some shared lived experience with the object of study. I've already packed the first part of the class with images of Australian landscapes; just photos and video but I'd been counting on following up with actual painted representations of Dreamings with which we could share the space of a gallery at least (with the productive problems and ironies that entails). No such luck! What to do? You can't speak of concreteness in the abstract!

Then I was saved. As FM was showing me Howard Morphy's Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon, 1998), a PostIt-marked page opened (298) with an image on it - tiny in comparison to the original's 372 x 171.4 cm, but plenty powerful: Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming), 1985. (Below: do click to make it at least a little bigger.) FM told me that a similar Milky Way painting by one of its three painters, Paddy Sims, is the subject of an interesting film I should be able to get my hands on. The art dealer/filmmaker David Betz had been fascinated but perplexed by Sims' description of his painting as depicting the "lifting up of the Milky Way," until he happened on an old photograph of a ritual in which a log wrapped in black materials was ceremonially lifted up by a group of men reenacting the work of the ancestors. (In desert Australia the Milky Way is perceived not as a stream of white but as the black shapes within a sky awash with stars.) Aha!

As FM recounted this, I had the same goose-bumpy epiphany Betz apparently describes (and FM had clearly had too). And I had my concrete lived landscape too.

Better, it's a piece of landscape we share not just vicariously in a gallery but in our own lives. It took me back to a night I spend sleeping under the Milky Way when I went on a group backpacking trip to King's Canyon, Kata Tjuta and Uluru (part of my trip by Ghan across the Red Center in June 2007). Here's how I described it in my diary at the trip's end:

Camping under the stars is a trip, though the flip side of a clear star-studded night is that it’s very cold; I think few of us slept well, as emerged when we slept far better the next, overcast and less frigid, night. The stars were not as bright and piercing as I’d expected from photos, perhaps because the half-moon was bright enough to illuminate things. When Scott [our guide] awoke us early next morning - five - well before the sunrise, the moon had set. I reveled in the Milky Way which is indeed so thick with star that you notice black spaces between the stars more than individual stars - Claire [another traveler] had been told by a guide on a tour she’d just completed in the Kimberley that Aboriginals saw a giant emu up there, and wasn’t it interesting that they look not at stars but at spaces between? It seemed entirely natural this night, perhaps also because I’m not trained to see constellations in this [the Southern] sky. Does the Milky Way always go from one horizon to another, and move slowly across the sky like a windshield wiper? (Actually, it rotates, as the films at the Desert Museum in Alice Springs showed.) I think it was too cold for deep thoughts for it wasn’t until later - and not the second night either, I think, but when I was thinking I should find a way to stay out under the stars a night in Kakadu until I thought of the bugs and the like there - that it occurred to me how radically different sleeping under the stars every night must be. Wherever you go, it’s the same sky - instead of having the same bed into which you flee from a harsh and indifferent world - you sleep in the sky, are cradled by it, rocked. What was that line about turning with the movement of the Milky Way from Yorro Yorro? If it’s safe to be exposed, then not sleeping under the stars seems like cutting yourself off from that grand embrace, like shutting yourself needlessly off from the most important sources of being. You’re at home there, it is your home. And not just because it’s the constant. Because one is so vulnerable when asleep, most open and trusting...

Not Bruce Chatwin, but good enough for me. Saved by a skyhook (take that, Dan Dennett!). And Yorro Yorro's already in the syllabus, too!

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