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Beyond the Self vs Present Tense

by Sam Bowker, 15 August 2011

Gravity, 2008 by Alwar Balasubramaniam
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Gravity, 2008 by Alwar Balasubramaniam

The NPG’s last contemporary survey exhibition, Present Tense, was an exploration of portraiture as a genre under transformation through new media technologies. Present Tense challenged notions of what a portrait could be and how emerging methods for making and applying portraiture reflect new social contexts. You can read what Michael Desmond had to say about it here. However, the notion of portraiture was still contained within a primarily ‘western’ sense of what a portrait was: the depiction of an individual person, projecting a sense of individuality, albeit mediated by digital technology. On reflection, I suspect that Present Tense was more concerned with describing how new technologies enable portraiture, rather than new forms of portraiture.

Beyond the Self is more about new forms of portraiture. In fact, these forms may not really be ‘new’ by themselves, but we’ve certainly never seen them around here before. Rather than plucking an individual from their society to create their portrait, as we seem to do in the west, these contemporary portraits from Asia seem to take that individual from their society, then display the gap left behind.

Give that a moment to sink in. These portraits ‘display the gap left behind’. They’ll give you a face, in many cases, or the impression of a human body, sometimes in quite an abstract or reduced form. But those likenesses aren’t actually the core focus of each portrait. Instead, that focus is the circumstances that allow that portrait to exist. By locating the subjects of each portrait as political entities, or voices in a cloud of voices, or characters in popular films, or collected memories attached to objects, or strange whimsical flights of fancy, we aren’t really looking at the particular person at all. We’re seeing a section of that person’s background on display, the gap left when you remove an individual from a group.

This is an idea we really haven’t verbalised much before. Perhaps in the Reveries exhibition we explored something similar, but that was through the negotiation of mortality, an ongoing loss felt by others left behind, or the premonition of death by those facing it.  Beyond the Self isn’t about loss – it’s about participation. It’s about working out how one fits into their community, their history, their culture – or someone else’s. I suspect that of all the works in Present Tense, the wall installation by Miso and Ghostpatrol came the closest to sharing this analogy.

It’s refreshing, some might say a relief, to experience non-western voices in the galleries too. They serve as a mirror to the rest of the collection. They are a juxtaposition, revealing through contrasts, resulting in a conversation between the galleries that is built on contradictions (something like socratic dialogue, in fact!). We need these voices. They are a reflection of a global community beyond the achievements of Australians (which is, after all, our mandate to display), and bring together approaches to portraiture which ask fundamentally different questions.

I wonder how we might consider the portraits in the main collection of the NPG if we saw them as ‘gaps left behind’ by the cultures that produced them? How about those portraits of nineteenth-century golden-framed dead white blokes (and ladies) in Oatley or Liangis, or that wall of business-suited executives in Fairfax  - what might they look like if they were made from the broader social perspectives showcased in Beyond the Self?  

I’m going to consider the implications of this exhibition closely over the coming weeks. I invite you to do the same with me. Please, contradict me in the comments below – or raise a point that needs to be raised!

The exhibition is open until November 6, 2011, and it’s free to enter.