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Misanthropology - The Art of Adam Rish

Adam Rish (b 1953) is interested in cross cultural collaboration as "world art" (like "world music") to affirm indigenous culture, regional diversity and the possibility of productive inter-cultural relations. Thus he has worked with textile makers in Indonesia since 1975, with weavers in Turkey since 1988, with Aboriginal painters since 1994, and with indigenous artists in Tonga and the United States since 1999. Basing his art on local (transnational) rather than international influences, he employs traditional techniques and adapts them with modern technological and domestic images so, for example, cars, planes and television sets may take the place of traditional abstractions of flowers, birds and clouds. He calls this practice "misanthropology" as contrary to anthropology, he makes deliberate cultural interventions in traditional societies, while th ework at the same time is an an optimistic study of (often suburban) inhumanity (misanthropy) tamed as soft objects, painted patterns, bronze or even chocolate.

Early works of his, such as the batik Tropical Fever, stem from time on the hippy trail through Asia working at a studio in Yogyakarta in 1975. Rish continued making batiks for 3 years (while studying medicine in Tasmania) before turning to printmaking in 1979, producing a series of etchings at East Sydney Tech. In 1981, while artist in residence at Vence in the South of France, he turned to block printing with a suite of lino-cuts The Age of Reason and also an illustrated book (with Garry Shead) called Vence Upon A Time (1981). Rish’s interest in linocutting persisted with the collection Historia Mundi Illustrata from 1986. Shiva Constructions (1997) is from a series on the wayang kulit, shadow puppets, printed while on an Asialink residency at Institut Kesenian Jakarta. Since 1999 lino print elements have been incorporated into his tapa cloth collaborations with Palema Tualau in Tonga.

Rish is interested in narrative. His work is redolent with literary references and word plays in a reductive, cartoon like manner. He says, "In a world where American presidents are like cartoon characters acting out the fantasies of an anachronistic, 19th century, rugged individualism, I think cartoon deconstructions help maintain the reality principle." Thus images like the etching Man and Superman (1981) raise thorny questions like what does Clark Kent do with his clothes when he is Superman?

In 1986, while resident in Tuscany, Rish started making baroque picture frames and paintings calling this process "Baroque Around the Clock". The paintings were exhibited as museum type installations by pseudonymous artists complete with explanatory notes and provenances - except that these were all false - highlighting the use of such seductions in creating "historical weight". Influenced by Derrida’s theories of the world being conditioned by writing, around the frames passe-partouts he inscribed banal Latin epigrams highlighting how one must pass through writing in order to see. Rish’s dadaist fascination with visual puns reached its apogee in The Whiting on the Wall (1994): In this painting the whiting (writing) is unable to get to the opened can of worms (a difficult situation) because of the impediment of the frame. The worms in this case were Imperial brand as the painting was produced for a benefit exhibition for the Australian Republic.

These frames also incorporated elements of cast bronze which led on to the production of bronze sculptures: Austro Cretan Toaster (1992) is a ‘new antique’ with an ancient Greek face, the body of an army tank but a functional electric toaster inside. This series of useless, useful objects was conceived as a critique of economic rationalism in being, like much of our domestic culture, seemingly hyperfunctional but in fact entirely superfluous. The frames themselves became increasingly bizarre - paintings with frames on the inside, half frames such as The Good Ship Lollipop (1995) (pre -Titanic) constructed as if it had fallen from the wall.....until there were only broken and burnt fragments ..... Discontentment (1995)....and then nothing... Framed (1995) - a picture hanger and note informing that the painting has been stolen.

In 1988 Rish had read in "Time" magazine of the Afghan War Rugs. The start of the war in Afghanistan had ended the tourist trade. Undeterred the rugmakers traded with the occupying Soviet troops making rugs incorporating tanks, Kalashnikovs and Mig 27s in place of their traditional motifs. In this practice Rish saw a profound humanism operating whereby the technology of terror and destruction was reduced into soft patterns in wool. To him this taming of violence made the carpets important as works of art. He said, "My work has always dealt with destructive technology- telephones, roads, cars, televisions - if on a more domestic level. I wanted to design my own war kilims, I could not go to Afghanistan, so I chose Konya in central Turkey". He started visiting Turkey and working with dye maker Celal Cakir and weavers such as Hatace Cavasoglu and Fatma Goban. The results can be seen in works like King of the Road (1988) with its symbolic manifestations of power - kings, swords, crowns. In this piece the road itself awakens and in the nomadic tradition of the carpet makers, wanders beneath an infinite indigo sky. Lone Sharks (1994) is about the food chain - sharks eat snakes eat dogs, while a ‘tree of life’ has television set leaves transmitting dollar signs to each other. This is an example of Rish’s cultural mixing as the central motif derives from Central Sulawesi Toraja Mawa painting displaced to Turkey but with the substitution of cars for corralled buffalo. Prophet Motif (1994) consists of a repetition of dollar signs, an adaption of a traditional Armenian hook motif used to ward off the evil eye, surrounded by a border of green hands.

Seeing the possibility of extending this work process Rish returned to Indonesia, collaborating in Sumba with Agustinus Tonga Retang and Monika Uru Emu on ikat weavings. Culture and Imperialism (1995) has a road king again, now holding a guided missile, while at the sides snakes whisper dollar signs into telephones like a Telstra float depicted in embroidered cotton. This technology does not improve things too much for the local population being squashed below by the weight of ‘progress’.

Since 1994 Rish has been collaborating with Aboriginal artists. Initially at Delmore Downs he worked with artists such as Annie and Jessie Petyarre then on subsequent trips with artists Fred Tjakamarra and Freda Napanangka at Balgo, Lily Karadada at Kalumburu, and Terry Platt and Silas Hobson at Lockhart River. The main collaborations, however, have been with Turkey Creek artists - in particular with Hector Jandany. In these works the artists share the painting, sometimes working simultaneously on the same canvas, but more usually on two canvases with regular exchanges. The images   relate to dreaming sites and the narratives around them. Rish’s contribution is to place these events in a contemporary context by inserting the kartiya (white person) elements: Thus we see Toyota and Aeroplane Dreamings, a Guirirr Guirirr ceremony Dewari (devil) appears on the midday show, an owl reads the late, late news, and a Wandjina figure alights from a Weber barbecue, flying saucer carrying Erich Von Daniken's guidebook.

Other collaborations have included with confectionary manufacturer Alan Rich, producing works such as Misguided Missile (1994) - a chocolate missile crash landed into a sea of Mars bars. While house painter Bernard Harte produced paintings such as A Suitable Case (1994) for Rish from a written fax description. In 1999 Rish spent time at the Institute American Indian Arts in Santa Fe working with Navajo printmaker Melanie Yazzie and visited Tonga producing an exhibition of tapa works with Palema Tualau.

Rish’s work raises many intersecting and complex issues concerning reliance on documentation, ‘the utility principle’, framing, craft versus art, anthropology and primitivism. While recognising his practice as polemical he refutes arguments that these collaborations constitute cultural imperialism. As Rish claims: "Firstly I make little financial profit (unfortunately) from the pieces, the traditional production of which is integral to the village, homeworker economies of their origin. Secondly, I am offering an alternative model to the ethnocentrism of much contemporary art practice based solely on American or European urban influences. And thirdly, opposing such collaborations patronises the resilience of indigenous peoples (to one white, urban artist), while guarding the (so called) "authentic" paradoxically leads to a kind of cultural death via stasis and nostalgia."

Adam Rish sees his role as an artist as a "re-presenter" interpreting traditional codes and signs into their equivalents for post-Christian, bourgeois, domestic culture. Using iconoclastic humour his aim is a subversive maximalism making a range of objects which exalt in the rich sensuality of traditional media such as gold, bronze, tapestry and chocolate. His wager is to support these sumptuous, haptic (resisting the mathematicisation of reproduction), eco-significant (the use of local, natural materials) egalitarian and functional (the use of textiles as transportable covering, warmth and shelter) indigenous art practices as an act of resistance to the tidal wave of digitised, Western, imperialistic, tele-visual culture.