Mention dots in art and works by the Papunya Tula artists or Japanese art-star Yayoi Kusama are likely to come to mind. But in this personal account, artist Janelle Evans points out that the dot belongs to everyone.
My earliest recollection of encountering the ubiquitous dot was at the age of five during my first week of school at Blair Primary in Ipswich, Queensland. I had tearfully faced the mean and derisive taunts of my classmates for wearing a red polka-dotted raincoat instead of the standard school issue of bright yellow. There had been other outbreaks of vicious nastiness earlier in the week, the purpose of which was to bully, intimidate and isolate me for daring to be different. On this tearful, soggy day I attacked my beloved raincoat with a pair of scissors and cut out all the dots. My mother, who had given in to my pleadings and demands for the non-standard issue raincoat, forced me to wear it, holes and all, for the remainder of the school year.
Looking back, it is tempting to see my act of wilful destruction of a loved object as my first post-modern artistic expression; as the first of many artworks that searched for meaning in the dot. However, at the age of five, my understanding of art was formed by lessons under my father’s tutelage. He, as a young boy, had been taught to paint by Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend during their sojourns in Hill End during the 1940s. It wasn’t until my first year of undergraduate studies, in Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art at Queensland College of the Arts in 2006, that the ‘dot’ would once again explode into my world.
During the 40-year period since the 1970s, when the Papunya Tula paintings rocked the art market, dots (at least in Australia) have been associated with Central and Western Desert Aboriginal artists’ social and cultural expression of ancient Dreamtime stories and spiritual associations with the land. So successful has this style of painting become that, through appropriation and marketing in tourism iconography, the dot itself has come to signify not only being Aboriginal, but also being Australian. A video interview I conducted with the artist Richard Bell in 2006 about this phenomena, in which he stated that Aboriginal art could be seen as something more than “dots and lines,” resulted in my own search to explore the use of the dot as a metaphor for ways of viewing the world which were not derivative of the Papunya Tula style.
My prints Social Fabric i and ii, 2007, are a diptych ofzinc plate soft ground etchings and oil crayon. The soft ground etching was made using discarded remnant pieces of fabric used to upholster the chairs in Queensland’s Parliament House. Here, dots are woven into the very fabric of the material where government representatives sit to meet and decide on policies that effect the lives of Aboriginal people in Queensland. Overlaid on this are my autographic marks in oil crayon depicting an Indigenous yarning circle, (Social Fabric i) and the Aboriginal symbol for kangaroo (Social Fabric ii) symbolising a society whose fabric can only have meaning and strength when all parties come together to meet and talk with mutual respect and recognise that there are multiple perspectives in any discussion. This work was a direct response to the government’s intervention in Arnhem Land, where a ‘kangaroo court’ led by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs sent the army into communities as a result of spurious claims of paedophilia being perpetrated by Aboriginal men.
My subsequent works with dots include Dots on Trees, 2012, a triptych of photographic prints on aluminium which depict areas of native forest reserve in New South Wales and Queensland earmarked for destruction by coal seam gas mining activities. The work was commissioned for the exhibition Beyond the Papunya Dot, 2012, held at the Musée du Montparnasse in Paris and co-curated by International Development for Australian Indigenous Art (IDAIA) and Géraldine Le Roux. In this work I invited viewers to participate by replicating the activities of CSG miners by placing a dot on a tree to mark it for removal, provided they agreed that extraction of gas through fracking as a source of fuel to heat homes was more important than deforestation and the loss of habitat for native animals. The intention was to see if the surface image of trees would be obliterated by a screen of hand drawn dots. This is an ongoing project and to date there are surprisingly few dots marked on the work.
Beyond the Papunya Dot also showed the photographic works of Vietnamese-Australian artist Dacchi Dang. For a number of years he has explored the dot as a metaphor for ways of viewing the world through the use of his pinhole camera. Through his avatar Captain van Dang, he explores the Australian landscape through an apparatus that contains no lens, only the simple pin prick of a dot/hole to record an image onto photographic paper. A dot is not only a mark, but can also be a point: a point in time, a point of departure or arrival, a point of dislocation and relocation, and a point of view or a fixed point of single perspective.
Many artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Monet, Picasso and David Hockney, have tried to find ways to challenge single point perspective in 2D works. Da Vinci’s use of the camera obscura (the precursor of the pinhole camera) used multiple dots or pin points to mark out his initial cartoons to create a perspective that would be similar to how the human lens views the world. Recent findings by scientists and art historians have shown that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting is constructed of thousands of tiny dots, especially around the mouth. These dots are invisible to the naked eye, in the same way that printed images using modern technology are, and were no doubt made through his use of the camera obscura.
The millions of dots per inch used in computer graphics programmes, screen printing and television are synonymous with artist’s early use of the camera obscura and the pinhole camera. Two Sydney based artists who explore the indexicality of the dot through these mediums are John di Stefano and Ms Saffaa. Melbourne artist Jon Cattapan uses dots to plot out energy points of buildings and people, and his paintings map out a cosmos that is not dissimilar to the cartographic view point of Aboriginal people. These artists, and others including Lindy Lee and Dacchi Dang, joined me in the exhibition I curated recently, dot, dot, dot […], held at SCA Galleries in July 2017.
The dot has always been a universal symbol. It can be found in cave paintings and in cultural practices all over the world. As Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama shows, dots open a world of infinite possibilities. Reflecting on Pat Hoffie’s catalogue essay from the Beyond the Papunya Dot exhibition, it would be true to say that my use of the dot seeks to encourage the viewer to consider the evolving relationships, ideas and differing points of view that invite deeper understandings about who we are (or indeed who we could be) outside the constraints of a national or cultural identity.