The fifty-fifth cup of nun chai

24.06.11

Anthony and I sat on two plastic chairs that faced each other on the edge of a vast expanse of country that belonged to the Gija people of the East Kimberly region of West Australia. It is a landscape one could run into for hundreds of kilometres without catching sight of another person.

I poured the nun chai – which was hot – and I handed it to him. I sensed that Anthony was searching for some structure, and so I began to discuss the project and what this nun chai was all about. I didn’t know Anthony well, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t so much interested in the content of this work but rather in the question of its existence as Art.

Anthony was himself an artist and he had also taught art. He wanted to discuss why and how this was art. He provoked. He spoke of the tension between the ‘politics’ of this project and its ‘art’. For me there wasn’t such a discernible distinction between the two, but Anthony picked up on a tension – or rather this tension formed around his experience.

Anthony said, by implication, I was ‘politicising’ him through this cup of nun chai, which carried with it a political story. What was different about Anthony, in comparison to many others, was that he never asked me anything in detail about Kashmir. Each time I spoke specifically of Kashmir I could feel him, almost consciously, limiting the information that he took in. He knew the basic premise but seemed to deflect any opportunity that arose to know more. He told me straight that I would not receive an emotional response from him, and I found myself in a peculiar situation.

Perhaps it was part of his own resistance to a process that he saw as being ‘politicised’. Perhaps that is why he continually returned to the idea of the aesthetic form. Or perhaps Anthony saw his ability to critically discuss the aesthetic nature of the work as a way that he could contribute to the larger politics of the project. He contributed by talking about something he knew how to talk about. In turn, perhaps his ‘resistance to being politicised’ and this talk of aesthetic form deepened my own understanding of this artwork’s peculiar dynamics. Our discussion seemed to highlight the diverse ways that art is shaped by experience, and the way that experience gives shape to art and the indivisible nature of art, and moreover culture, from politics.

Anthony pushed me to define and to set out parameters regarding what art is. He spoke of what makes for good and bad art. We debated and discussed – always returning to how this nun chai, the conversation, the writing and the website exist as art?

In turn, I gently resisted Anthony’s push to define. I am not so much interested in ‘artworks’ but in the idea of ‘art-working’. Definitions (of art) are slippery things. They arise through individual subjectivities that carry values and uses that also change from moment to moment. I am unable to rest comfortably on any definitive idea of art. Art is always in motion. The same thing can be art for one and not for another. The same thing can be good art for one and bad art for another. The discussions and reasons as to why such values and criticisms are formed are important and meaningful – though no definitive answer can ever be reached.

Anthony said he found the process of this art more interesting than the event it was rooted in. Perhaps this was because the “art” was in the now, while for him the “event” was something distant and abstract. It was something unknown. Anthony described his response as a form of shallow western empathy that he wasn’t willing to move beyond; perhaps because he saw no point and perhaps because he couldn’t find a way. He suggested I read The Postcolonial Gaze by Edward Said.

For Anthony, Kashmir was a story that blurred with the overwhelming amount of tragedies in this world. He asked, Why Kashmir? There are reasons, for me at least, which we discussed. But it is fruitless to place a hierarchy on such things. We need a connected understanding. And in that sense, one could also ask, Why not Kashmir?

 

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