Various artists: Connection: Songlines from Australia's First Peoples. National Museum of Australia. Until October 9, 2022. nma.gov.au.
About 75 years ago, the writer and theorist André Malraux advanced the concept of a musée imaginaire or as it has become known, "the museum without walls". Part of Malraux's concept was that photographic reproductions of art could extend our experience of art that otherwise may not be accessible as physical objects in a particular location.
COVID, in recent years, has completely rewritten the museum rule book as more and more institutions have embraced "virtual museums" as a crucial part of their interface with audiences. Virtual tours of inaccessible exhibitions and historical sites have come into vogue as we have hibernated in our homes and nostalgically peered at inaccessible treasures.
The Melbourne-based company Grande Experiences, founded in 2005, have pushed the idea of a virtual museum to new lengths to create what they term "multi-sensory art and cultural experiences". Here multiple projectors cast images on the floor and on numerous specially installed walls and screens and a soundtrack (and sometimes manipulated smells) create an immersive experience. They have turned to Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Claude Monet as well as sharks and have toured internationally these installations to considerable commercial success.
Connection: Songlines from Australia's First Peoples that has just been launched at the National Museum of Australia is a 35-minute-long immersive loop developed by Grande Experiences. It is a kaleidoscopic view of Australia's First Peoples' visual culture where artwork by about 100 artists, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Albert Namatjira, Tommy Watson, Gabriella Possum, Anna Pitjara and Lin Onus, have been photographed in very high resolution and projected on surrounding walls and floors.
The paintings have been fragmented, layers separated, and they have been juxtaposed with images of country and ceremony. All of this is projected on a huge scale with a booming surround sound audio with Indigenous musicians including William Barton, Yothu Yindi, Gurrumul, Emily Wurramara and Archie Roach. It is a dazzling and mesmerising experience and does to some extent transport you into a transcendental state where you lose touch with reality. The images whirl around you, on you, and beneath you.
The argument in favour of such an installation is that it may appeal to a younger audience who otherwise may have an indifference to Aboriginal art and this more "familiar" medium could kindle the flame to go and explore further. Personally, I find these intense immersive art experiences an excellent accompaniment within an exhibition of physical objects as in Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum a few years ago or the memorable Bark Ladies exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria earlier this year, rather than as an end in itself. The profound spiritualism and distilled "stillness" that I associate with some of the finest of Australian Indigenous art is difficult to achieve in such an immersive installation.
The argument that Indigenous artists should have a mastery of the latest digital technology and hence this justifies this digital immersive installation is a spurious one. Australian Indigenous artists mastered the latest digital technologies quite a few years ago and are working in these media. Here it is primarily paintings that have been digitised into this new format.
These immersive digital art installations may not be the future of art museums, but they have become part of the exhibiting spectrum and I expect are here to stay in what has already become a crowded field.
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