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ARC: Art & Design Biennial, Brisbane, Australia

LINGUA FRANCA

Why the title Lingua Franca? The concept of lingua franca is of a shared language-but derived from different languages-and used as a medium for communication between individuals from different heritages or origins. It is also used as a figure of speech for common ideas. 

This is a useful concept for an exhibition that sets out to chart the wide practices of contemporary visual culture in Queensland. The practitioners featured in this exhibition all work in Queensland or have done so until recently. They draw from different artistic and cultural traditions. 

ARC: Art & Design Bienniall, 2005

ARC: Art & Design Biennial, Installation detail, photographer Chris Howlett, 2005

As with any exhibition that has a brief to create a survey of contemporary art, there are always gaps. This is only one reading of contemporary art in Queensland and in no way is it meant to be definitive. The hope is that there will be many more survey exhibitions to follow. The vision for the biennial that takes into account the wider cultural fabric of visual art, craft and design, is a very compelling one. It is this claim for an ongoing biennial that has made this exhibition such a very worthwhile project to undertake.

The starting point for this exhibition was a consideration of the interesting shifts that have occurred over the last decade in contemporary craft, design, and visual art practices. Wider social contexts inform craft and design work. The status of craft practice has improved significantly and there is less intellectual snobbery directed towards it. 

Design is riding high on a new ascendancy propelled by the economics of recent technologies, access to new materials and market interest. The concern for environmental impact has become mainstream and is operating as a lever to other social concerns regarding flexible use, and pleasure and meaning for the user.

In the sustained economies of the West we are increasingly investing objects that surround us with power to speak to ourselves and others, about who we are or would wish to be. In the catalogue for sculpture exhibition Still Life at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2003, curator Wayne Tunnicliffe notes, that despite the ways the virtual and the digital are altering our understanding of what is real, we have perhaps never been so obsessed with the appearance and meaning of our immediate surroundings.  Tunnicliffe says ’[t]he objects that surround us have probably never had to carry so much ontological weight’(Tunnicliffe 2003, p.5). It seems we are more dependent for meaning and purpose in our lives on objects that orbit our world.

The increased stature and intellectual rigor of university-based craft and design programs is playing a decisive role in the search for content, context and meaning in graduates’ practices. Arguably, further influence on the search for meaning in craft and design practices has come from exposure to the way materials and processes are understood as carriers for meaning and significance in traditional aboriginal community life. Margie West in her article "Ceci n’ est pas un ’basket" notes that fibre items like bags, baskets and fish fences and traps which were once ’essential to people’s survival’ in Arnhem Land are now circulating as desirable objects in the art marketplace.

Nevertheless West says, they remain as "powerful metaphors for ancestral agency’. West continues:’The very act of gathering materials from one’s country to make a fibre item is in itself a confirming activity...’(2004 np. ) Within this overall cultural shift, art practices are responding to the possibilities of digital technologies for conceiving and producing work. At the same time, perhaps as a counterpoint, there is a strong interest in materially-based artwork, where the intensively hand made and rendered is present.

It is possible to say within the push and pull of the cultural change outlined, that art, craft and design practices are speaking a shared language-not so much like never before (in indigenous communities these practices have always shared a same language), however in the West possibly not since the earlier twentieth century. This was when the Bauhaus ambitiously set out to unify at least the teaching of art and design. 

Barbara Bloemink in her essay "Is there a Difference between Art and Design?" says that ’confining definitions resulted in a tendency to view artists and designers from a single perspective...’ Bloemink notes that ’[a]s distinctions among many previously discrete concepts become increasingly ambiguous, it is an appropriate time to reconsider the traditionally held differences between the two’ (Bloemink, 2004 p.17). In a similar way Charles Green, as one of the curators 2004, the major survey exhibition for contemporary Australian visual culture (Australian Centre for Moving Image and Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia) says, ’[a]bove all, we found that traditional media definitions no longer bind. There are no defining boundaries between media’(2004a).

The primary consideration for selection of work for Lingua Franca was identifying work that addressed broad social or contextual issues. Within the work there were triggers to question or cause rethinking about issues. Strong artwork very often engages with a problem. Rather it releases the problem and causes us to think and wonder whether solutions or answers even exist. The artwork collected here seems to stretch out beyond itself. Far from illustrating a concept, the issues addressed are often unstable. Ambivalence between attraction and hesitation are to be found in almost all the works

Read metaphorically, Howlett’s cardboard installation could be described as the “cave” that is contemporary art. That is, at once immersed in and hidden from popular culture. In this way Howlett poses two questions: Is art able to provide a space for critical debate? and, How does this humanistic assumption of democracy still pertain to our highly mediated post-industrial information age?

The search for meaning, or, the ironic play with meaning by moving through the sliding layers of language and cultural history, are also prevalent in the works. The natural world is explored too, as a place of the fragile or the random or the surprising or the unexpectant or the unpredictableAs well, the poetics of the everyday can be seen in material re-use or in the pleasures of the simplified and the versatile. In all the works the emotional language of place or culture, or philosophical enquiry is there to be felt, perceived and considered.

Generally, at this point we would get to the question of audience: If Howlett, like other artists, has (at the very least) the privilege of time (more like will) for observation, why does he show his findings in a gallery? Why doesn’t he use the mass media or public space so that a larger audience can benefit from his insights? However, Howlett essentially counteracts this argument by demonstrating that all this information is readily available to the general public: not through artistic insight or torment, but rather through simple attention to observation.

But what can exhibitions really do? This was a question I put to several prominent international curators earlier this year. Their replies varied. One curator working in Paris said he thought that on their own exhibitions didn’t do a great deal. It was when they are linked to dialogue , to discussion - where there are chances for networks of people and artists to be created - that exhibitions had a positive role to play. Another curator also saw exhibitions as being limited as things in themselves.

The power of an exhibition was rather as a tool to initiate dialogue, to contribute to wider discussions and through this to imagine the world differently. A third curator saw exhibitions in themselves, more positively. It was stated that exhibitions of art could activate thinking, could stimulate creativity, and excite people. Contemporary practices were engaging with sophisticated ideas. It was in this way, exhibitions of contemporary art added to public intellectualism because the ideas explored through art were issues important to a civic society.

Linked to the three days of Arc forums, Lingua Franca is well placed to be a trigger or tool to initiate dialogue and contribute to wider discussions through which to imagine the world differently. Hopefully it will also activate thinking and excitement about the possibilities of art, craft and design practices to engage in issues that create the social fabric of our times. Charles Green talks of the  largely one-way traffic between art and the life of the nation’ (2004 p.24). The aim of Lingua Franca, in recognising an increasingly shared language between art, craft and design practitioners, is to get to work on furthering the two-way traffic between the various visual art practices and life.

Exhibitions in many ways are like theatre productions. There are many people who work behind the scenes. I would like to gratefully thank Kris Carlon curatorial assistant, Luis Nheu designer, the staff at Artworkers and Brisbane gallerists, who have together made working on Lingua Franca such an enjoyable project. There is strong and extraordinary artwork in this exhibition and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the artists for their enthusiasm for the exhibition and their generosity to lend work.

Susan Ostling Curator.

REFERENCES: Bloemink, B. 2004, ’Is there a Difference between Art and Design?’ Design=/=Art, London, New York: Merrell and Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.Green, C. 2004, ’2004 Mapping contemporary Australian art and new media’, 2004, Melbourne: the National Gallery of Victoria.Green, C. 2004, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, viewed 20 October 2005 www.acmi.net/2004perspectives_trans.php#CGTunnicliff, W. 2003, Still Life, exh cat. Art Gallery of NSW.West, M. 2004, ’Ceci n’ est pas un ’basket", Craft Australia on-line forum Interact, viewed 20 October 2005, www.craftaus.com.au/nationalForum/2004/papers/paperoo8.ph