barrangal dyara (skin & bones) – Jonathan Jones, the artist as historian

Jonathan Jones Sculpture

Aboriginal agriculture: Bruce Pascoe and Jonathan Jones during the first Symposium Spot Fire 1: Landscape and Language. Photo: Kaldor Public Art Projects

We are the result of our history, there is no doubt about it, but this very fact also raises many questions that don’t meet an easy answer. Should we forget the past to move forward? Or we’d rather keep it present so that it sways our actions? In this context, the idea of art as a way of historical memory has been inarguable during centuries until the irruption of Abstract art deprived critics and public of any reference to past events. At present, artists collaborate with researchers from other disciplines; historians, archaeologists, sociologists -just to mention humanist disciplines- and adopt the role of a project manager who coordinates and merges all this information as part of the final work.

The works of Sydney-based artist Jonathan Jones are a repository of local history and an example of the way how non-figurative art can address history. He is a kind of historian very committed to Aboriginal culture and, rather than write, visually re-creates past events. As an Aboriginal artist from the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations, Jonathan Jones looks back to his family origins, identifies cultural patterns and tells us their stories using a diversity of media in site-specific artworks. Subtle, he says a lot only with very few elements. Found objects, fluorescent tubes, smooth textures and plain colours give a minimalist appearance to his installations but, unlike Minimalism, they are full of wisdom. If you take the time to observe his installations, you’ll learn about forgotten stories of Gadigal people or real historical events that happened in the very place where you are watching his work. His most recent project, barrangal dyara (skin & bones), takes all these elements to a full extent, let’s see how.

Jonathan Jones Sculpture

Artist Jonathan Jones holding one of the 15,000 ceramic aboriginal shields that will outline the lost Garden palace in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Photo: Steven Siewert.

In 2014, Jonathan Jones won a competition for a temporary site-specific art project that suggested a new view on a particular spot in Sydney. This call was launched by Kaldor Public Art Projects, a not-for-profit organisation lead by art philanthropist John Kaldor, who is known for bringing to Sydney cutting-edge artists for the last 45 years. His very first commission in 1969, Christo & Jean Claude’s Wrapped Coast, has become one of the most iconic Land Art works ever. But don’t digress from the artist’s story as the account of Kaldor’s projects and collection deserves a separate post.

The announcement of Jones’ proposal to be materialised in the following 2 years came with no little mystery. It was said that his project had to do with the Garden Palace, a building that once stood at the Royal Botanic Garden holding an impressive collection of Aboriginal art and utensils. Built for the International Exhibition of 1879, during 3 years it also held several cultural and scientific institutions with their archives and collections. In 1882, a massive fire destroyed the edifice and caused an incalculable cultural loss both for Aboriginal history and for the building of the Australian nation. The initial idea of reviewing the importance of this loss and transmitting it to the public in a contemporary language has become the most ambitious project that both the artist and Kaldor have ever undertaken. Guided by an Aboriginal Advisory Board, the outcome is a multidisciplinary artwork with strong sculptural and sound elements as well as a series of events. The invigilators also play a major role as chroniclers of the lost treasures of the Garden Palace in the same way as the oral tradition in Aboriginal culture keeps their history alive generation after generation.

Jonathan Jones Sculpture

Jonathan Jones in conversation with Uncle Charles “Chicka” Madden. Photo: Kaldor Public Art Projects

But the public display of barrangal dyara (skin & bones) started months before this significant intervention that opens in September. In collaboration with several cultural institutions of Sydney, the artist has organised 3 series of conferences in which experts, scholars and Aboriginal elders have addressed very different aspects of the history of the Palace Garden. Every symposium has connected the social and cultural context around the short life of the building and its ethnographical collection with a contemporary view of the cultural landscape of Sydney. In some way, Jones has conducted the historical research in public and has offered us an excellent opportunity to learn about that part of the artistic process when the artist becomes a historian and distills the information, the knowledge, the tradition and the present visual art practices.

barrangal dyara (skin & bones) will be open from 17 September to 3 October 2016 at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.

You can listen to the Symposia here

By Paula Llull

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