Gary Proctor was the Australian artist in residence in the year-long Malaysia-Australia Visual Arts Residency in 2000. In addition to his own arts practice, during his residency he started a project with members of the Orang Asli community of Kampong Peta, Endau, Johor, making slumped glass art works. The project was similar to previous projects he had been involved with, with Australian Aboriginal communities in Warburton, Western Australia.
Towards an Art of Habitation
notes for Gary Proctor’s exhibition catalog, by John von Sturmer
This is sincere art. There are multiple impulses. Some of it may be closer to art brut than first meets the eye. The orderliness may be deceptive; the high design value may value design less than first appears. There is an edginess, maybe a prevarication, which is disconcerting.
If an idea works in art it’s not because of the worthiness or the strength of the idea but because of how it is worked. This is not just about how it is rendered or translated into art. Instead, it is how it works within the activity of art-producing, how it twists, deforms, regulates, directs, translates, frees, re-works the very intentionality and capacity of the artist. Unless it has the capacity to make and to unmake the artist it’s a waste of time. For ‘idea’ to become ‘truth’ it has to be taken into the very body of the artist, and there exposed ruthlessly to what we might call the ‘real’, the whole weight of the artist’s biography as lived and, more than that, to the very possibility of the artist as a living being. Unless the artist can engage with the idea, unless the artist can approach the idea through that thing they inhabit, their body, the idea is unworkable and useless. This is not to say that the useful idea must be easily approached or even that the art work should exhaust its potential. We must allow that the gap between the idea and truth may be rather large, and full of shadows and ‘unknowing’. The artist ‘revels’ – a form of play. It may be hard and it moves us rapidly beyond any conscious pursuit, whether this be of pleasure, pain, release, calm, revelation, an active ‘dumbing down’. Such things may be brought to bear – indeed, it is hard to avoid them. I shall call them orientations; but any claim that they can be willed to constancy must be greeted with extreme dubiousness.
* * *
To work in a new context, surrounded by different stimuli, smells, tastes, sounds, colours, textures, manners, attitudes, different ideas of all kinds, is to enter a whole language of otherness. Mr Proctor is, of course, not new to the new. His experiments are broad and wide-reaching, both within art practice itself, moving with confidence from medium to medium (in this he is happy to have a high aptitude for things technical and practical), and within the politics of art practice.
Lest the phrase ‘politics of art practice’ offend, let us substitute what hopefully is more accurate: namely, a conscious reflexion on the contexts and conditions and purposes of art practice. This almost obsessive interest has, within my certain knowledge, involved this artist in working with street artists in Sydney and with the Ngaanhatharra people of the Western Desert, as well as maintaining a formal exhibition path. In all situations, let me suggest, issues of personal and group identity have been involved; also, the transfer of designs developed in accordance with the dictates and possibilities of one medium to other media. This has not been about forging new identities so much as widening the capacity of this or that image-producer to engage with new materialities of expression. Let me venture to suggest that it is in this ‘shifting’ or ‘displacement’ that the image-producer has the opportunity to become an artist for the first time. In pursuing these goals Mr Proctor has deliberately eschewed the commercial – a strategic decision which raises serious questions about the capacity of any individual regardless of ethnicity or point of origin to maintain identity (already a difficult notion) in the face of the insistent urgings of the cash nexus and the process of commodification.
I do not wish to judge on these matters. It is important only to indicate certain tendencies – tendencies which, while they may appear conservative, have nonetheless led, in the case of this artist, to radical innovations sustained by intense commitment and drive. I refer notably to the creation of an enormous ‘archive’ of Western Desert paintings, designs, objects, stories, oral accounts, social record, photographs of the Ngaanhatharra Aboriginal people – selected components of which have been made available at public exhibition in many parts of Australia, as well as overseas.
One might expect that such activities might leave a large, even a transparent trace in his own work. Outside the production of glass pieces, this appears by and large not to be the case. Certainly at first glance. Moreover, it is easily argued that glass was always one of his interests. At a deeper level, there is no conspicuous impact of Ngaanhatharra visual or representational traditions; nor is there any apparent reliance on Ngaanhatharra narrative devices. Yet the Ngaanhatharra influence may be there, not so much in the elements of his work, but increasingly insinuating itself as a working method. Mr Proctor has told me as much and willingly acknowledges the ‘message of trust’ – the necessity to trust the self – imparted to him by the late Mr Holland, an artist of rare talent and worldly insight. I may also be remiss in ignoring the impact of rock painting – and the way they disburse disparate elements over large surfaces.
I make these remarks only to get at the ‘truth of the work’. What they suggest is that this artist has a rather watertight set of concerns which have maintained a high biographical constancy. The same may hold true to what he might consider a proper context or politics of art production. In other words, the twin tendencies to experiment with new media and to engage with new and rather large projects are keyed to rather fixed concerns. Watertight does not mean static – for it is clear that there is an unfolding. And while the overt content may appear to be about protest, let me suggest that a more productive reading might be to consider the notion of living spaces. I would like to suggest that there is a profoundly architectural impulse to his work. The body – his body – is never far away. This involves more than furthering the range of expressive possibility; there is a desire for completion if not closure. The idea has to be made concrete; he surfs ideas not quite sure what shore he might land on or what dangers lie in his path. The ‘letting go’ involved, the sense of abandonment, always involves, however distantly, a notion of home. This is more than mere habitus.
Art glass panels designed by Orang Asli in collaboration with Gary Proctor
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Somewhere between the pathology and earnestness of ‘the great public issues’ and the quiet interstices of ‘the inner life’, there is a third space, more humdrum, so ‘usual’ its value is apt to be totally discounted: the everyday. It is here that ordinary people seem most intent on sustaining themselves. It demands no grand vision, it pleads no special causes – but satisfies itself with the steady accumulation and sifting and retaining and disposal of the elements of life as they arise. It operates close to the ground; it does not pride itself on its utility yet it is ‘useful’ precisely because it is there.
The problem lies in how to give the ordinary value – or perhaps more accurately, how to participate in it, as an artist, without distorting its value. This is a tricky business. Any inflation of the lifeworld immediately makes it uninhabitable. Conversely, any retreat from the lifeworld surely treats it as already uninhabitable. Put simply, the task is to keep the habitable habitable.
We might think that the habitable should be able to look after itself but it doesn’t. Unless it can be made constant with our ordinary concerns it is gone – in all likelihood forever. It is the most endangered of all endangered species. To survive it requires careful attention: almost a tending. For it is never just there; it isn’t a constant in itself but subject to the most subtle modulations as well as the most devastating happenings. The habitable is constant in its need for constant adjustment.
* * *
How do we inhabit these times – or are they merely to occupy us? Are we all just engines running together, pretending to the illusion that we are all radios intended for tuning to the same frequency band? Is speed to substitute for our inability to inhabit memories, or is it the agent of loss? Does the rain soothe our naked skin or should we protect our full body suits as a matter of routine self-protection? What, are we to be locked within an Eternal Doomsday (what I call ‘the economy of remedy’) or shall we trust to the progress of ‘Progress’? To occupy the bland, repetitive, sterile spaces we have created for ourselves will we need somehow to develop the ‘art of self-ignition’ – endlessly pushing ourselves to responsiveness as if, somehow, we were little ‘generators of meaning’? Is meaning just to be another word for shock?
These images come from the artist. In the same spirit I would like to conclude with a passage in his words which links the elements of play, discipline, technique, a coming-into-knowing through activity:
I have canoes for the sea. Away from the ocean I work to maintain body strength for the return. I can roll upside down and watch things underwater, and then roll back up with a flick of the paddle. In a Malaysian swimming pool I practiced my rolls for a year, all a matter of knowing what a paddle is doing. I can do five different rolls …
I like this notion of differentiation through practice, a practicing which engenders its own carefully calibrated experience, a working at being at home that can be anywhere. I had thought of habitation as rooms – rooms to be designed, used, filled with familiar things. But activities, too, can be habitations.
Remembering, too, that not all of us yearn for the sea.
John von Sturmer
10 January 2000