Review: Future Primitive

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 Future Primitive, Heide Museum of Modern Art

In large paintings of a thin but colourful character, Graham Fletcher depicts the radical dream home of the 1970s.  Departing from the frontality and symmetries of traditional design, the rougher domestic style took its cue from huts and tribal halls, with naked brick and beams, no ceiling or plasterwork but raking roofs and open plan.
Known as “Salt & Pepper” architecture, these rusticated chapels for sophisticated families were often decorated with Oceanic art.  Fletcher’s paintings revel in the fertile juxtapositions:  minimal furniture contrasted with outlandish masks, fibrous hangings and formidable totems in wood.
Fletcher’s monument to this middle-class veneration of the humpy fits perfectly within a penetrating exhibition at Heide called *Future primitive*.  Presenting works by 19 contemporary artists, it shows how we are now revaluating “the primitive”.
The word primitive is hard to pronounce in polite society, unless speaking about IT; and even then, we prefer to say “archaic” or “outdated”, because these terms of obsolescence apply to things that are expected to progress and develop, and we thereby avoid deprecating non-industrialized societies.
The artists in *Future primitive* are painfully aware of the embarrassments of the concept and its connotations of capitalist supremacy.  They toy with the primitive in an agonized spirit, between sarcasm and genuine admiration.
Take the sprawling sausages of Sarah Contos, wall ornaments in fibre, sprouting intestinal tentacles, uncanny and rude.  It’s like a piss-take of some psychoanalytical conjecture of shamanic culture, perhaps symbolizing contorted sexual relationships.
We tend to be interested in the primitive because it satisfies various fantasies, especially to do with freedom from social control and uninhibited sexual practice.  The cultures collectively identified as primitive tend to be tropical.  By their very meteorology, they already evoke heat and nakedness, optimally expressed in provocative rituals and dance with fetishistic body paint.
The photography of Rohan Wealleans exploits these qualities to the point of the burlesque.  His images of a woman in exaggerated tribal paint are crazy and sexually threatening.  They seem satirical vampiric extrapolations of unknown voodoo, more conceived to make you squirm than set you in a trance.
Curated by Linda Michael, the exhibition is rich, complicated and scholarly.  It accurately identifies interest in the primitive as a semantic issue among contemporary artists, keen to embrace cultural difference on the one hand and scared of appropriation, cultural superiority and chauvinism on the other.
As the essayists Andrew McNamara and Ann Stephen say, western interest in the primitive has “resided on the knife-edge of envy and denunciation”.  We’d love to share in the fun but we can’t; so we exploit their naïvety as a measure of our cultural pre-eminence.
If there’s a problem with the show, it’s only that the artists exemplify the agonies all too well.  The problem with an exegesis of the knife-edge is that you end up missing out on the fun to either side.  At least the owners of Fletcher’s ostentatiously inclusive lounge-rooms from the 1970s could relish their boastful trophies in a spirit of hope.
I get the feeling that artists who broach the primitive are so consumed with indictments of colonial history that they miss the metaphoric potential of the theme.
Leaving aside the tradition by which intellectuals like Freud had recourse to “the savages” (*die Wilden*) for psychological insights, the prestige of pre-civilized origins also formed a part of various critiques of sophistication and industrial progress.
Part of the interest in New Guinean artefacts in Fletcher’s houses might have been inverted snobbery mixed with touristic fantasy; but part of it was genuinely inclusive, with a warm undercurrent that idealistically sought to emancipate the anthropology of western culture.
Just as today we can recognize that primitive technologies like rail or bike are in many ways worthier than more sophisticated ones like aviation or motor, so the esteem for earlier cultures arose in defiance of ingrained conceits about capitalist progress.
As globalization continues to efface cultural difference, we've largely lost touch with craft traditions and alternative ways of establishing value.  Conditioned by marketing, we have difficulty recognizing culture that isn’t globalized; and the enlightened rapprochement with the primitive has now receded to an endgame with cultural politics.
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By Robert Nelson

Robert Nelson

Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age. Robert’s most recent book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, was published by Craft Victoria, 2014, available freely online.