I understand the relationship one is expected to have with art today, the intellectual’s rhetoric. Take for instance Tomislav Nikolic’s recent body of work in arcadia, a strong collection of paintings that could be described in terms of colour field, formal abstraction, colour theory, insert references to Rothko & US / European abstractionists, terms that can categorise to the point of malleability enabling us to digest but also at times coolly aloof. What I really take away with me from this show, my true experience, is less sophisticated – feelings, memories and private thoughts that I cannot articulate.
Most particularly the diptych leaves me strangely exhilarated, the combination of scale and hallucinogenic qualities of the palette produce an uncharacteristic (for me) optimism and an altogether unreasonable thrill that – sigh, I just know that something good is going to happen. The optical illusion that one is larger than the other – first the left one, then the right one – produces an anthropomorphic rhythmical breathing pulse. The colours of in arcadia are saturated, they are beaming, they are the colours of Titian, the colours of the Masters, the colours of religious art; the blue of the Virgin Mary, the gold of icons, the light of Mystics. And that is perhaps what I’m not supposed to talk about in this day and age, in the age of the intellect. I don’t want to throw my hat in with religion and the rhetoric of new age spiritualism leaves me squirming with ill ease, but where does that leave me?
DEATH. It’s still fairly sexy right now in contemporary art. Actually, over the past 5 years or so it has become positively mainstream. You can doll yourself up from head-to-toe in skulls. What underlies this fad? Could it be that the combination of the outing of atheism, plus the witnessing to mad behaviours of religious mania, encourages us to become less afraid of death? Are we becoming more present? It would be lovely to think of it is an awakening to the fragile beauty of our mortality: “Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have.” – Dr Gordon Livingston
Or perhaps we are afraid that the true death is looming, with the effects of climate change ravaging our world emblematic of an innate self-destruction, and the cold inaction of those in power, perhaps we now see that we might bear witness to the death of us all. If we are all gone, then death is absolute. There is no remembrance; we have fallen into nothingness.
“Non omnis moriar, said Horace’s Odes – I shall not wholly die. Yes, and he was right. As long as people remembered, then death was not complete. Only if there were nobody at all left to remember would death be complete.” – Alexander McCall Smith, The Charming Quirks of Others
Et in Arcadia ego – Even in Arcadia there I am.
Arcadia – the pastoral idyll, the classical Utopia; at one with nature, ourselves, life itself, it is pure contentment, Heaven on Earth. But even in Arcadia, Death exists. As I know Nikolic painted Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the land of fantasy, in response to Poussin’s The Arcadian Shepherds, c 1628-9, he too must have been thinking of death.
Poussin’s first version of this work is a classic Memento Mori allegory, telling the audience that even saucy bare breasted nymphs, and partying shepherds at one with nature must succumb to death, inscribed in stone ET IN ARCADIA EGO and a skull staring down at them to boot! Today the theme has a more interesting dimension to it, we can ponder our own mortality not as a Christian did with Poussin – do not succumb to vanities, obey God in this life to ensure your place in Heaven, etc., etc. We can ponder Memento Mori with the tiny voice of Dawkins in our ear, ‘there is no God!’. Aware of our own mortality, without responsibility to secure an afterlife of bliss, our reasoning forces us to realise we are responsible for each other. The reprieve from suffering in this world can only come from ourselves; the responsibility for the continuation of life is ours.
But it’s not quite as easy as that though is it? The conscious process of considering our own mortality is going to lead us into the unknown. It is going to lead all of us in different ways because we are bound by our own experiences, intellect, capabilities, personalities, ability to process thoughts and emotions, not to mention ye olde family and culture. Some people need religion, others only for a short time, and others not at all.
I come away from Nikolic’s work thinking about the notion of Agape. As he, the artist, peeks into the esoteric material of Alice Bailey, the Seven Rays, and Theosophy. It reveals (to me anyway) a longing to discover the mystery of what one feels but can not explain. Love. The love that connects and overwhelms us, that identifies the energy of life as something sacred, an ancient pre-God notion where the concept of Agape was so powerful and confusing that it somehow transformed into God. God is easier. With him we don’t have to think so much, he just is, and tells us what to do.
Let’s return to Ancient Greece for a moment. Andrea Mantegna painted Parnassus (1497) and Triumph of the Virtues (1502) for Isabella d’Este. 500 years later Tomislav Nikolic, using Mantegna’s works for inspiration, paints Hear the passion in their voices see the heaven in their eyes and Their hopes and schemes are waiting dreams for less than paradise, for us. This is the exhilarating diptych I referred to earlier, recalling the language of the Mystics – Agape.
“What is this which shines on me and pierces my heart without hurting it? I shudder and am aflame at the same time: I shudder, because I am so dissimilar to it, and I am aflame, because I am so similar to it. It is Wisdom, Wisdom itself which shines on me, breaking up my cloudiness, which yet covers me once more as I fall away from it through the darkness and rubble of my troubles.” – St Augustine, Confessions, I I.9.
Parnassus, home to the Muses – Goddesses who inspired knowledge in arts and sciences. It is the land of poetry, literature, and learning. Another woman, Minerva Warrior Goddess of Wisdom, ejects the Vices from the garden of Virtues. Out says she to idleness, sloth, hate, lust, avarice and ingratitude. She, the powerful symbol of Wisdom, and Protector of the arts and sciences. How telling that Wisdom is represented by a woman. I always thought Eve’s act was not a sign of weakness, but represented an admirable and courageous intellectual curiosity.
Arts, mythology, science, they were intimately acquainted, the combination of which was believed to be the path to wisdom. How thrilling are those conversations that twist and turn from conjecture, allegory, evidence, to build stories that can teach us so more effectively then the retelling of facts.
It is ironic that our capacity for religion is seemingly intrinsically linked to our own extraordinary survival and evolution as a species. Our human drive to discover, to find answers to this painful human existence, this extraordinary world wherein we find ourselves. Our feelings of ‘something bigger than ourselves’ developed our minds, imagination and intellect (actually, discovering red meat was delicious to eat had quite a bit to do with that too).
Like Tomislav Nikolic who travels to Arcadia, bringing back with him a plethora of confusing emotions and ideas, and pop lyrics, will we permit ourselves to delve into this layered conversation? I do not believe in God, but yet I find myself talking to a God that I know my kind invented, when I need to. It gives me comfort, helps me to understand, and I am the wiser for it. Only if he starts to talk back will I begin to worry.
PS: Tomislav Nikolic is represented by Jensen Gallery, Sydney. His exhibition in arcadia is happening now until 22nd December 2012.
PPS: I saw a preview of the show in Melbourne at Greenwood Street Projects. You can find out more about the artist on his website page, and see the complete body of work on-line here.