Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A pack of apes let loose in the portrait gallery
You can tire of hearing how much DNA we share with chimps, especially when it’s plain that our best genes, evolutionarily speaking, are those we kept to ourselves. An obvious example is the gene for opposable thumbs (instead of toes, which stop you walking fully erectus, so to speak). Or for prioritising brains over brawn (many argue this gene is being selected out in NSW).
You can read how the paintings – or “apestracts” – by the late chimp, Congo, outsold both Warhol and Renoir in a London show. And how the forthcoming autobiography by Tarzan’s old chimp, Cheeta – said to be “funny, moving and searingly honest”- fetched a sum that, while undisclosed, is “not bananas”. You can be across all this and still see apes and humans as different in kind, not just degree; us, and them. You can buy evolution and still find design in the miraculous coincidence of air, dust and water.
But any diehard Darwin sceptics should check out two current exhibitions. Portrait shows both, the Archibald, at the Art Gallery of NSW, and Face to Face, the ape show at the Australian Museum are minutes apart and share 98 per cent of their DNA.
The Archibald is competitive, and this year’s winner is Del Kathryn Barton, whose self-portrait with rhyming children, Kel and Arella, is arrestingly pretty, in a big-eyed, black-velvet kind of way.
The work is entitled You Are What Is Most Beautiful About Me. And blow me down if this doesn’t allude, in the artist’s words, to “that utterly profound in-loveness that all mothers have for their children”. It’s angsty, though, as well as adoring, self-absorbed as well as universal, and rendered weirdly abstract by the relentless will to prettify. This makes it less a portrait than a disquisition on the Great Maternal – which may illuminate the origin of the term “motherhood statement”.
The mother, or self, stares sideways and bespectacled at the future, or maybe the past, while her children, arranged frontally like some multicultural mix of many-armed Shiva and Maori poupou, stare fixedly at the headlights.
Kel and Arella have not, one supposes, been kept in a box. But theirs is, nonetheless, the same over-solemn gaze of the two-year old Katie, species Pan troglodytes, whose early life was spent in a box in a hut in the Cameroon village of Akom, imprisoned by the hunter who had turned her parents into bushmeat. Now safe, Katie remains mentally disturbed.
Most of the Face to Face subjects are not mentally disturbed. But all are apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos – orphaned by humans.The British photographer James Mollison used medium format rather than zoom, lit for portraiture not zoology, and enlarged the images well past life-size. This uniform treatment only highlights the extraordinary variety of faces and personalities and, as firelight presences ringing the darkened room, they generate some serious juju.
There is a conservation supertext about deforestation and cruelty. Quite right too, although resting an argument for kindness to apes on their likeness to ourselves leaves us quivering beside a logic chasm, given man’s legendary inhumanity to man. Chimps, too, are known to enjoy a spot of rape and pillage.
So, while Face to Face may not offer any prizes, there’s no shortage of competition in the room. The black-faced Rambo, we are told, despite (or perhaps because of) being brought up and dressed like a human child, “quickly became the dominant male” on entering the chimp group. There’s also La Vieille, so traumatised she wouldn’t leave the sleeping enclosure for six years; and O’Minou, whose name means “there is no one in the world but me”. There’s also Millie, the only orangutan ever diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Dilolo, the sweet-faced bonobo so mistreated he is now entirely bald.
This year’s Archibald – and yes, it could be a monkey’s name – offers subversive wit (James Powditch’s Once Upon A Time In The Inner West), noirish humour (Rodney Pople’s self-portrait with firing squad), layered melancholy (Zai Kuang’s The Sisters) and pathos (Neil Evans’ tiny, spiky Blue Days Black Nights). There’s no dominant male (won’t leave his box these days) but the dominant female is, well, mummy.
Even the Archibald, though, is not really about winning. Most of the shrieking, charging, hooting, leaping, thumping, tree-shaking, branch-dragging and brachiating generated in and around the art world is really about who enters (tribal acceptance), who gets hung (dominance) and who gets painted by whom (grooming, reassurance, submission). It looks like play but is really hierarchy, territory, catharsis and social cohesion.
In all of which the crucial instrument is the face. As humans we share with Pan troglodytes not only the most complex facial muscles in creation but also the urge to watch ourselves using them. The gene makes us flock to portrait shows like the Archibald, the Bald Archies, the Doug Moran and the Salon des Refuses, and makes babies fixate on the face of the Universal Mother is the same one that makes Cheeta, 76 next month, love to watch himself with Johnny Weissmuller on screen.