Kathleen Petyarre: All & Nothing - Art Collector

Issue 16, April - June 2001

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Brisbane-based theorist Rex Butler poses new critical perspectives in the light of the paintings of Utopia artist Kathleen Petyarre…

How to represent the ‘all’ in art? This was the ambition of the great Utopia painter Emily Kngwarreye, who when asked the subject of her work would inevitably reply: “Whole lot”. Of course, this desire to capture totality is one of the great themes of Romantic aesthetics. It is a pursuit chiefly conducted around the concept or category of the Sublime. And, undoubtedly, whether we admit it or not, most discussion of Aboriginal art still takes place within a framework defined by Romanticism (the cult of the original or authentic, the continued viability of an art based on nature, an aspiration towards the spiritual or transcendental, a universalist and organicist model of human knowledge). There exists, that is to say, a ‘nostalgia’ with regard to Aboriginal art in a precise sense: although we might no longer believe in such things ourselves, we are nevertheless able to enjoy them by looking at them through the ‘innocent’ gaze of another. This fascination is not so much directly with these things as with this unselfconscious, child-like gaze of the other.

Kathleen Petyarre is another artist who attempts to capture this ‘all’. “What do I think I’m doing when I’m painting my country?” she asks. “I’m thinking about my family, my daughters, my brothers, my sisters and all my nieces, nephews and grandchildren”. Petyarre was taken soon after she was born to Mosquito Bore, an isolated water soakage some 275km north-east of Alice Springs, on the western boundary of Utopia Station, where she has largely lived ever since. She continues in her own way her ‘aunt’ Kngwarreye’s more abstract, non-iconographic painting style, which is the distinctive contribution of the mainly female artists of this region to the contemporary Aboriginal art movement. Included among her Dreamings, secret stories passed on to her by her father and grandfather, are Thorny or Mountain Devil Lizard, Women Hunting Emu with Dogs and Green Pea. Perhaps the one she is best known for is Arnkerrthe (Thorny or Mountain Devil Lizard). This is made up of a large X-shaped cross, marking the site of a women’s initiation ceremony, surrounded by a series of finely-dotted concentric circles, said to indicate the trail left by the lizard as it passes across the desert sands.

In this sense, Petyarre’s paintings can be understood to be composed on two different levels or registers of attention: the first in which the landscape is viewed from above as though from a plane; the second in which it is seen from ground level, when the dots can seem alternately grains of sand, seeds or even the scales on a lizard’s back. Indeed, critics have on occasion compared Petyarre’s work to that of JMW Turner, who in his storm pictures similarly depicted ‘small but heroic figures struggling valiantly against overwhelming forces’. (Fred Williams and John Olsen are two others who in their desert landscapes can make the same mark appear both close-up and far away.) And this split in Petyarre’s work between the general and the specific is seen as that between the international and the Indigenous and ultimately that between an unchanging and archetypal Dreaming and the inflections given to it by the artist. As Ian North says: “Petyarre’s shimmering veil of dots suggests both local colour and the mystical immanence of the underlying Dreaming. Her work flickers back and forth between ideas and the real, the conceptual and the practical”.

Extraordinarily, this passage might remind us of another, this time from the history of philosophy. It is from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where Kant also is trying to connect the transcendental and the empirical, understanding and sensibility. He writes: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”. Why the association? Take the problem of Dreamings, as expressed by Aboriginal art. On the one hand, the thing that seemingly distinguishes Aboriginal art from similar-looking Western abstraction is its spiritual content, which lies somewhere ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ what we actually see. On the other hand, when we look at, say, respective versions of Mountain Devil Dreaming by Petyarre and her sister Gloria, how are we to imagine that they refer to the same thing? What is it that they have in common? The difficulty raised by this transcendental conception of Dreamings – a difficulty raised by the stripped-down nature of much Utopia art, as opposed to that made in the Western Desert – is that the paintings paradoxically become simply formalist. (Hence the thin and poverty-stricken nature of much writing on Aboriginal art.) How then are we to ‘put together’ the two aspects of Petyarre’s art? How are these Dreamings both contained in and yet separate from their visual expression? How is the work able to hint at a sublime ‘all’ without falling into (one of the fates of Romanticism) the notion of art as a revealed religion?

It is in response to these kinds of difficulties that Kant himself hypothesised a certain object ‘X’. This ‘X’ arises in that section of the Critique of Pure Reason devoted to what Kant calls Transcendental Logic, that is, where he speculates on what is required for us to be able to apply concepts to objects in order to produce new knowledge, to “know that a predicate, not contained in a concept, nevertheless belongs to it”. Now, of course, it is very tempting to suggest that this ‘X’ must be something like a Thing-in-itself, something that lies behind any actual experience, but Kant is very careful to dispel such a misunderstanding. This ‘X’ is not something added to or standing over the sensory object, but only what is necessary for our experience to be unified so that we might have knowledge of this object.

Kant writes: “By means of this unity the understanding combines the manifold into the concept. The transcendental object cannot be separated from the sensible data, for nothing is then left through which this might be thought”. And yet, as Kant goes on to stress, this ‘X’ must also be transcendental, which is to say that it cannot become an object of experience insofar as it is the basis of all of our experience: “It cannot be entitled the noumenon, for I know nothing of what it is in itself, and have no concept of it save as merely the object of a sensible intuition in general, and so as being one and the same for all appearances”.

Paradoxically, then, this ‘X’ is at once more noumenal than the noumenal and unable to be ‘separated from the sensible data’. It is transcendental not simply in that it is outside of or other to experience, but in that it is that limit which allows experience. As the deconstructionist literary critic Geoffrey Bennington says in his analysis of what he calls the quasi-transcendental nature of this ‘X’: “To be transcendental, the transcendental must just be the experience of experience”. In this sense, we might say that this ‘X’ both constitutes and crosses out the limit to experience, demonstrates both that experience as such is limited and that there is no limit to, nothing outside of, experience. Or to put it another way, this ‘X’ crosses the transcendental and the empirical, shows that one is not possible without the other, indeed, that one already is the other. And it can be shown that Kant’s conception of the sublime is also like this: it is not so much a breakdown of the field of representation, some suprasensible Idea that cannot be given expression on the other side of the limit, as a kind of optical illusion brought about by this limit. Its diamond-like sparkle does not point to some inaccessible realm beyond our reach, but is merely a secondary positivisation of the void, standing in for nothing. And this is perhaps to suggest that this sublime object is first of all meant for us, that it is not at all obscure and mysterious but designed for and not existing outside of our gaze. As the Lacanian cultural analyst Slavoj Zizek says (and this would apply equally to object X): “The distinction between the phenomenon and the Thing can be sustained only within the space of desire as structured by the intervention of the signifier [we might say the gaze]”.

What is all this to say about Petyarre’s painting? To begin with, it is to contest any notion of it existing in two parts, even “flickering back and forth between them” – between the overview and the ground-level view, the macro and the micro, the ideal and the real, the international and the Indigenous, the unchanging underlying Dreaming and its local variants. Between those feathery, whirling brushstrokes that seduce and distract us and that X which marks the site of the women’s initiation ceremony, not meant for us. Rather, if we can say this, the whole painting is this sublime, elevated, glittering surface, which shines all the more brightly insofar as there is nothing behind it. That X, which is the whole painting, is not unknowable, transcendental, noumenal, but marks precisely the chiasmus between the transcendental and the empirical, “sustained only within the space of desire as structured by the intervention of the signifier” – art or the spectator’s gaze. Put simply, the painting is not split externally between it and what lies beyond it, but internally by the fact that it exists for the gaze of the other.

This is not at all, however, to do away with the mystery of the paintings, or to say that their stories are not to be taken seriously, are merely outdated superstitions or holdovers of a disappearing folklore. It is rather to think these Dreamings as this X, this meeting place between the transcendental and empirical, the artist and spectator, black and white. They are “at once a pure semblance devoid of substantial content and something more real than reality itself”, as Zizek says of the sublime object. And though this may appear insensitive, a way of denying the ‘otherness’ of Aboriginal art, we would claim that not only does it not do away with its secret but it actually heightens it, strengthens it. (The idea that these Dreamings come about only in their crossing over or crossing out – are themselves a kind of crossing – is the only way to protect them both against their cultural appropriation and that reductive ‘New Age’ reading of them as ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’.) We cannot repeat often enough: Aboriginal art is painted for its spectator, exists because of the other. This is the only means to counter that ‘nostalgia’ in which we are able to distance ourselves from Aboriginal beliefs and customs, to pretend that we are looking through another gaze, that our gaze is not already taken into account. It is only in this fashion that we might break that understanding of Aboriginal art – still dominant at all levels today – which sees it as ‘primitive‘, ‘innocent‘ or ‘child-like‘. And to return to that question of the ‘all‘ at stake in Aboriginal art with which we began, we come back to that lesson taught us by Kant (and embodied by Kngwarreye and Petyarre): the ‘all’ is not something beyond representation, as though a painting could ever go beyond itself, but an effect brought about by a limit in here. The very fact that there is a limit – experience as limited – is itself evidence of the ‘all’, is itself the ‘all‘. As Kngwarreye says, answering once again the question of the subject of her art: “Whole lot, my Dreamings, pencil yam, Mountain Devil Lizard, grass seeds, a Dreamtime pup, emu, the favourite food of emus, green bean, yam seed… That’s what I paint: whole lot”.

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