Spirit + Place: Art in Australia 1861-1996

By Wendy Cavenett

It was late 1996, the early years of the Howard Government, and a ground-breaking exhibition called 'Spirit + Place' opened at Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art on 22 November. Curated by the late Nick Waterlow OAM and Ross Mellick, the exhibition featured "Australian and international artists who shared a connection with Australia as a place of profound and ancient spiritual wealth, and of vast, sometimes daunting landscape" (MCA). Placing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art side-by-side, the exhibition, 'conceived like a poem', remains a watershed moment in Australia's rich cultural history.

Following is my interview with Nick Waterlow OAM and Ross Mellick, found on an old hard drive, written for 'HQ magazine', which is no longer in print.

With special thanks to Djon Mundine.

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"We must remember, we all live in this country, we are one people, we must always remain together."
Hector, leader, Gurirr Gurirr Aboriginal artists -

SPIRIT + Place: Art in Australia 1861-1996 is an exhibition 'conceived like a poem', a poem for all people where the works of indigenous and non-indigenous artists explore spirituality in a country tormented by its history, unsure of modernity yet truly transfixed by its land. 

On a recent visit to Australia, renowned art critic and writer Robert Hughes described Spirit + Place as ‘a revelation’. “Why can’t you show something like this in New York,” he added. “There is something here which is very much of this place [Australia] that is so relevant to the world at large.” And relevant to Australia in its current social and political mood. 

Guest curators Nick Waterlow OAM and Ross Mellick seem an unlikely partnership, yet it is their combined experience and unfettered vision that has seen this exhibition offer direct communication to the viewer. Waterlow, Director of the Ivan Dougherty Gallery since 1991, was also the Director of the Sydney Biennale in 1979 and 1986. Awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1990, Waterlow’s experience in the arts is all-encompassing, traversing both national and international art boards as well as numerous literary pursuits. Mellick, born in Goondiwindi, Queensland, is a sculptor, doctor of philosophy and lecturer. In Contemporary Australian Sculpture (1994) Graeme Scurgen wrote of him: “Mellick’s work returns sculpture to the irrational and the subconscious - the symbolic rather than the literal." 

It is a humid Sydney afternoon, and the MCA’s cafe serves up a backdrop of cutlery clatter and coffee machine whirr but Waterlow and Mellick are unperturbed. Spirit + Place has met with an overwhelming response. The drinks arrive - Waterlow’s English Breakfast Tea and Mellick’s lemon, lime and bitters. “We’re very different but we’re great friends,” offers Mellick. “That’s been very important.” Originally announced some five years ago, Spirit + Place united Waterlow and Mellick in 1994 in a co-curatorship that was to “conceive like a poem” an exhibition embracing the notion of spirituality in Australian art. Their poem is a free-flowing structure where a chain of rooms build a language beyond words through art’s subjective nature.

“One of the things that is absolutely critical in the show,” says Mellick, “absolutely critical  is the space.  This talk about it being a poem is not just rhetoric. It’s actually so. It works because of the way the rooms assist engagement with the work. It’s like a large installation.”

“I think a lot of people come to this show with their different perceptions about the spiritual,” continues Waterlow, “as it all being a bit airy fairy or evangelical and it’s not at all. It’s to do with the spirit in the everyday and the everyday in the spirit and the need for an integrated existence, to find a way to overcome this separation which is so much part and parcel of our daily lives in this day and age.”

Spirit + Place is a prodigious gathering of 96 artists. Tim Leura Tjangala’s Kobralia (1980)  is placed alongside William Robinson’s Sun Showers and Flood Gums (1993). Although vastly different in execution “both have a point, a vortex where attention is focussed, where the disappearing point creates the paintings’ focus,” says Mellick. “In this way, indigenous and non-indigenous artists are following the same idea.”

Featuring Australian artists such as Arthur Boyd, Joseph Beuys, Declan Apuatimi, Ian Fairweather, Lloyd Rees, Lindy Lee, Albert Namatjira, Fiona Folley, Bobby Nganjmirra and Ken Unsworth, an international perspective is added through the works of - amongst others - Christo, Walter Burley Griffin and Wolfgang Laib.

“One of the things that troubles me,” says Mellick, “is the sense of the spiritual is in some way distant and esoteric of necessity. That it’s got to be almost incomprehensible, unapproachableand that always troubles me because it implies the loss of the dimension of the spiritual from ordinary people, and that’s terribly threatening to our world. I’m not suggesting for one minute that this exhibition is governed by some primary, political motive, just a personal repugnance of the notion that one has to argue for spirituality which doesn’t exist in the world other than through some sort of esoteric argument or ideology.”

Waterlow continues. “I think there is, in recent times, such an emphasis on the material in this country, such a lack of vision that unites us, that it’s crucial that there be a re-understanding through the art process. It can be expressed more directly through the work - in terms of artist’s work - than it can perhaps in any other arena because it is beyond language. 

“It is actually one of the few remaining arenas where a one-on-one relationship can be explored without being asked to buy something, being told to create your body in a particular fashion, without being told that you have to object to somebody else’s religious viewpoints ... you don’t have to emerge a winner or a loser, which we’re always being told - ‘winners are grinners’ - so that it is an essential project for engaging people in an understanding that’s not being perpetrated at governmental level in this country or in many other areas, sadly now. The things that bind us are much stronger than the things that separate us.”

Spirit + Place is an exhibition that focuses on the intangible language of art, the primal sense of communicating. In recent times, Sydney has witnessed a flurry of exhibitions that offer either written or audio assistance. It is typical to see plaques with digestible information about the artist or art movement next to paintings or sculptures, and CD-ROM technology has allowed complete histories to be heard on headphones while viewing an exhibition.

Education is an important feature in bringing art ‘back to the people’, but ultimately, the viewer is inundated with opinions and ideas from others.  With Spirit + Place, it was important that the invisible boundaries of text were absent, allowing the viewer an uninhibited communication with the art being exhibited.

“The work has been placed within a context that enables it to speak with its fullest voice,” says Waterlow. “The range of work in the exhibition engages a long period of history but a period of history that has commonalities that are relevant to our society at this particular moment. I haven’t met one person who hasn’t been able to access something important for themselves within this exhibition and I think that’s the real difference.

“This is really poetic in the sense as - in its own way - an integrated thing,” says Mellick. “It could well have been an exhibition of lots of paintings and sculpture. It is in itself an experience. It is deeply integrated and at the level of accessibility it engages with pleasure, with interest and also with ideas.

“One of the great issues of our present time, whether it be in theory of art or theory of philosophy, or theory of science, is about thinking, the nature of thought, thinking about thinking. Now this is not just a semantic circle, it’s fairly important. One of the ‘mother of muses’ is memory. The muse is still with us, has to be. Inspiration has to be in everything.

“In our day and age, it’s important to get back to more primary, more essential things, and behind the muse is memory. And in this exhibition, no-one who sees Spirit + Place can forget our century, our terrible  century.  Memory. The memory of our recent history is one of the forces which generate the engagement with this great poetic work upstairs. I use that adjective because there is a lot of great work upstairs.”

Waterlow agrees and cites the comments from Robert Hughes - and others who have approached him - as confirmation that Spirit + Place finally breaks with an imposed tradition that has plagued many exhibitions representing Australian art.

“I think that’s why Robert Hughes was just blown away by it,” says Waterlow, “and said ‘I think that it [Spirit + Place ] would be a revelation wherever it was seen’, and it would prove - not that it needs proving - the extraordinary richness of the creative process in this country. And also the fact that so many have actually, quietly - from domestic settings through to other relationships with the natural worlds - explored their own spirit in a remarkably, full-bodied way.

“And I don’t think you could actually produce an exhibition of such diversity and with such convergences linking back to the not so very distant past as in this country at this moment and that flies absolutely in the face of what we’re being told at a governmental level.”

Mellick mentions the subject of cosmology - the branch of metaphysics dealing with the universe and its relation to the mind; the investigation of the laws of the universe as an ordered whole - and questions its true meaning in today’s society. “Truncated” and “contracted” are continually referred to, as is the lost interconnectedness of this universal philosophy.

“This exhibition is about the ideas of Ursula Le Guin,” says Mellick. “It’s about interconnectedness, it’s not about retrogression, but it’s about a notion of progress which is not linear. It’s not the arrow of progress with contemporary art perched on a sharp edge. In our day and age, the notion of progress of connecting widely in relation to Ursula’s model is the process of connecting widely and deeply, replacing art as a wider cosmology and things like science are not situated at the pinnacle of any pyramid, they’re a part of a deeply integrated cosmology.

“There was a time and it’s a recent time, where science and religion and art and literature were not separate areas. The fact that they have been separated by a fragmentation of the notion of cosmology is one of the reasons that the notion of progress was connected so much to the idea of science, or even narrowly to a sort of fundamentalism in religion. This exhibition is about a joining of cosmologies in various ways. It is another sort of progress, it’s another sort of attitude, but it’s one that acts against the sense that science alone will lead us to some holy land.  That hasn’t happened yet and there aren’t many who believe it will.”

It is a dynamic combination. Waterlow and Mellick, two artistic auteurs reuniting art with the greater cosmology, presenting Spirit + Place as an interconnected whole where art is free from the illusion of separateness, bringing art back to the people and ultimately to the true arena of life.

And as part of that celebration, the Gurirr Gurirr Aboriginal artists from the Kimberley region of WA performed at the MCA on November 23.  Nick Waterlow and Hector, the leader of the group, were talking. “We must remember,” said Hector, “we all live in this country, we are one people, we must always remain together.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art until March 3, 1997.

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Image: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia (2009) uploaded by Ekabhishek