Erin Manning


On her book Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy

Cover Interview of April 13, 2010

A close-up

A reader encountering Relationscapes in a bookstore might find themselves attracted to the front cover, which is a reproduction of a painting by Australian Aboriginal artist Emily Kngwarreye. This might lead her to open the book to the chapter on mapping as it functions in Aboriginal culture. In this chapter, I take a close look at the work of both Clifford Possum and Emily Kngwarreye, two contemporary Aboriginal artists.

To paint the landscape with acrylics is a relatively new form of art for the Aborigines of Australia.  Until the early 1970s, stories of land and spirit were evoked mostly through other media—sand, bark, wood.  The paintings produced since then are all associated with Dreamings—Jukurrpa—which are an integral aspect of life in Central Desert society.  Stories told for more than 50,000 years of continuous history, Dreamings not only speak about the landscape and its vicissitudes, they create spacetimes of experience.

For Aborigines, life is Dreaming in the sense that the coordinates of spacetime out of which everyday lives emerge are significantly in line with creation and recreation of the land and its laws (which is one of the translations of Dreaming).  The land is not an extension of the Aborigines—it is them.  To be the land is to become in relation to it, in relation not to space itself, but to the living coordinates of a topological relationscape that embodies as much the law as it does the grains of sand that prolong it in real-time.

Clifford Possum is significant both in the history of contemporary Aboriginal art and in terms of what Relationscapes attempts to convey. One of the foci of this chapter is Possum’s so-called “map series.” In this series, Possum paints the Dreamings for which he is custodian (Dreamings are managed through complex kinship ties), completing a number of paintings that “map” the large areas and stories the Dreamings conjure.  In terms of movement-moving, it is perhaps most noteworthy in these paintings that Clifford Possum does not adhere to a Euclidean set of coordinates for his map.  He paints them while moving around the canvas lying on the ground.  This results in a continuously shifting perspective that might astound those of us who organize landscapes into grids.  In Aboriginal culture, the landscape—and the Dreamings that activate it—are always experiential.  The landscape is never observed from outside its eventness, nor is it painted as though it had stopped moving.