Murray, Daena (2006). THE NORTHERN TERRITORY AND AUSTRALIAN ART 1928 – 2003 PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland.

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Author Murray, Daena
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2006
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Dr Rex Butler
Abstract/Summary This thesis argues for the substantial place that the Northern Territory, as a site and as an idea, has had in mainstream Australian visual art in the twentieth century. It contends that its presence is the result of two coincident tropes: first, the perception of the Territory as the surviving remnant of Antipodal imagining and, second, its construct as the “essential Australia”. It will be argued that in the twentieth century, notions of the outback, came to reside in the Northern Territory alone, and that Australian artists sought out the Territory as the arena in which these notions might be tested and transformed. Based on the idea that the antipodal journey to the Australian continent has come to a close with the settlement of the Northern Territory by non-Indigenous people, this thesis looks at what Euro-Australian artists have discovered there. Their journeys did not issue in a significance that would galvanise easy identification. The land and its original inhabitants were deemed to defy the usual European ideas of acculturation, where human artifice provides signifiers of “civilisation”. This thesis will explore the configuration of the landscape as pristine - full of promise or foreboding - and the perception of the Indigenous people as alien and vulnerable. It will be shown that the apparent superficiality of acculturation in the outback also led to an interrogation by artists of notions of civilisation, so that human interaction rather than human artifice became its primary signifier. Fundamental to the focus on the Territory has been the trope of the “primitive”. The thesis will, in part, look at how primitivism and its definition have underpinned Australian art discourse, in relation to art produced in response to the Northern Territory by Euro-Australians. In particular, the thesis will look at the essential relationship between primitivism and modernism in the Territory context. It will also address the connection between loss and primitivism, ensuing from the notional conclusion of the journey of promise, and will canvass the attempts to ameliorate such loss. Cultural constructions such as those identifying the Territory as the “essential Australia” provide another context for the development of Australian visual art in the twentieth century, as it shifted from antique European tropes to those made in our own image. These new tropes, ostensibly arising from knowing the land and people, came to be characterised by cliché, especially spiritual cliché. However, in significant ways, visual artists who actually visited the Territory provided nuanced responses to these constructions without jettisoning entirely a desire for spiritual import. Indeed these journeys to the Northern Territory saw the revisiting of spiritual motivations in Australian art by some leading artists, coinciding with those discerned in modernism itself. Through analysing work in a range of modes created by leading Australian artists of European descent, the thesis traces the impact of the Northern Territory in the Euro-Australian imaginary, both as a site of spiritual aspiration and as an arena of social contract. The Northern Territory is identified with Aboriginality in a way that no other part of Australia is. Indeed it is argued here that in the twentieth century there was and still is a cleavage of the Northern Territory from the rest of Australia, as the latter came to be regarded as Europeanised space. This has made contemporary art by non-Indigenous Territorians invisible. As a result of the emergence of the Aboriginal art industry from the 1980s, and the decisions of some Euro-Australian artists to become familiar with the Territory over time, various forms of social contract have been enacted as the basis for art practice post-Cyclone Tracy. This has coincided with and complicated post-modernism’s challenge to mainstream Western art, which had, by the 1980s, reached Australia. The effects of post-modern plurality and “decentring” on the practice of these artists are also canvassed. This thesis concludes with the work of artists resident in the Territory who model a future for non-Indigenous art practice applicable in a broader context.

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Created: Fri, 21 Nov 2008, 15:48:02 EST