The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

This is what makes the con­fronta­tion be­tween the Catholic Church in Bris­bane and Fa­ther Peter Kennedy so com­plex; it is easy to sym­pa­thise with the priest’s sin­cer­ity, but im­pro­vised cer­e­monies that de­pend on an in­di­vid­ual’s charisma are nat­u­rally viewed with mis­giv­ing by an in­sti­tu­tion that has lasted for two mil­len­nia and hopes to en­dure for­ever.

Apart from those cer­e­monies that deal with the life of the in­di­vid­ual ( birth, death, mar­riage), pe­ri­od­ic­ity is vi­tal. Cer­e­monies give shape to the pas­sage of hu­man time. The most im­por­tant ones oc­cur at fixed in­ter­vals in the year, and it is no co­in­ci­dence that the three rep­re­sented in this ex­hi­bi­tion are all in a sense mark­ers of a new year.

The Tet Nguyen Dan fes­ti­val in Viet­nam is the lu­nar new year. Ra­madan is not the Is­lamic new year, but is a more im­por­tant ob­ser­vance, with its con­no­ta­tions of moral cleans­ing and re­newal. Easter is sim­i­larly the most im­por­tant of Chris­tian feasts, while our new year has no litur­gi­cal sig­nif­i­cance. As a feast com­mem­o­rat­ing death and re­birth, Easter is the cel­e­bra­tion of a spir­i­tual new year; and its date, based on that of the Jewish Passover, co­in­cides with the re­newal of nat­u­ral life in the north­ern spring.

Huynh’s pho­to­graphs cap­ture the ma­te­rial re­al­ity of th­ese fes­ti­vals, the prepa­ra­tions and cus­toms that make them real for those in­volved. Para­dox­i­cal as it may seem, for the spir­i­tual to be ex­pe­ri­enced deeply by hu­man be­ings, it must as­sume a phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion. One has to kneel to pray. One has to walk to make a pil­grim­age. Cer­e­monies need to take our time, claim our at­ten­tion and de­mand our ef­fort. Eat­ing, the most cor­po­real of ac­tiv­i­ties, is one of the most cru­cial in re­al­is­ing the spir­i­tual.

Thus, Mus­lims fast dur­ing Ra­madan. Hunger and the ef­fort of will re­quired to en­dure it mark the sig­nif­i­cance of the time for even the coars­est sen­si­bil­ity. There are meals af­ter sun­set and, when the month ends, the feast of Eid ul-Fitr. Chris­tians fast dur­ing the 40 days of Lent, which con­cludes with the cel­e­bra­tion of Easter. All serve tra­di­tional dishes at the cul­mi­nat­ing feasts and the prepa­ra­tion of th­ese foods is an im­por­tant part of the rit­ual.

The most in­ti­mately doc­u­mented feast in Huynh’s ex­hi­bi­tion is, per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, that of Tet. It is also the one in which the prepa­ra­tion of the meal seems to as­sume the great­est im­por­tance. Huynh shows the var­i­ous stages of pre­par­ing banh chung, cakes of sticky rice, pork and beans wrapped in dong leaves and cooked for six to eight hours. The process starts days be­fore the cel­e­bra­tion and in­volves a con­sid­er­able ef­fort. We see housewives wash­ing vast quan­ti­ties of rice, pound­ing an enor­mous tub of beans and assem­bling the cakes in wooden moulds to en­sure they are square. A large num­ber will be made, be­cause they are of­fered as gifts.

An­other set of pho­to­graphs shows prepa­ra­tions for the meal and the fam­ily gath­ered to share it in a pri­vate house. The fes­ti­val in­volves the wel­com­ing and then farewelling of the gods among the fam­ily and com­mu­nity, and ev­ery home has its own small shrine, some­times set on a dresser with more mun­dane ob­jects such as the tele­vi­sion. An older cou­ple is shown mak­ing a more for­mal visit to a Bud­dhist tem­ple.

Cul­ture is a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non but the con­cept, in the an­thro­po­log­i­cal or so­ci­o­log­i­cal sense, orig­i­nated in the ro­man­tic pe­riod. The ro­man­tics re­acted against the uni­ver­sal ra­tio­nal think­ing of the En­light­en­ment and re­dis­cov­ered imagination, re­li­gious feel­ing and other di­men­sions of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence so re­cently dis­missed as ir­ra­tional. Ger­man thinkers in par­tic­u­lar felt En­light­en­ment stan­dards masked French hege­mony, con­sign­ing ev­ery­thing that was Ger­man to the sta­tus of the bar­baric or the quaint.

In con­trast such au­thors as J. G. Herder up­held the idea of a fab­ric of be­liefs, prac­tices and habits that evolved or­gan­i­cally ( an­other ro­man­tic con­cept) among a peo­ple liv­ing to­gether through time. This new per­spec­tive al­lowed Ger­mans — and other peo­ples — to value their very dif­fer­ence and speci­ficity. There was no longer sim­ply one right and ra­tio­nal way to do things, but the many ways proper to var­i­ous peo­ples.

The idea of cul­ture has be­come enor­mously im­por­tant in the past two cen­turies. We re­fer to it al­most daily, whether in the con­text of the way of life of in­dige­nous peo­ples or the pe­cu­liar ethos evolved within an in­sti­tu­tion. It has been in­valu­able as an an­a­lyt­i­cal con­cept and for the part it has played in cul­tural con­ser­va­tion.

But it has also been ap­pallingly abused. The idea of cul­ture blended with the new po­lit­i­cal think­ing of the 18th cen­tury — notably the cult of the state — to give rise to the danger­ous com­pound called na­tion­al­ism, and that mix­ture was made even more lethal when ge­net­ics al­lowed the vague idea of ‘‘ a peo­ple’’ to ac­quire the pseudo-sci­en­tific pre­ci­sion of a race.

Ideas about the nexus of race, cul­ture and ter­ri­tory have prob­a­bly caused even more havoc than the il­lu­sion of utopias to be achieved through revo­lu­tion. Leav­ing aside the dis­as­ter of Nazi ide­ol­ogy, we have re­cently been through such hor­rors and ab­sur­di­ties in the Balkans and the Mid­dle East that we may well long for uni­ver­sal En­light­en­ment stan­dards and be tempted to dis­miss what is called cul­ture ( which too of­ten en­tails in­tol­er­ance of other groups) as bar­baric ig­no­rance to be swept away by progress.

But what is left without cul­ture? The life of mall-man, as the con­tem­po­rary con­sumer has been called, is prefer­able to one of civil strife and ran­dom butch­ery, but is this the only choice? We like to think that Aus­tralia is a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety, but it is per­haps re­ally one in which var­i­ous im­mi­grant cul­tures per­sist in their iden­tity for a time be­fore suc­cumb­ing to a gen­eral re­al­ity that could be called postcul­tural.

It is not clear how we deal with this prob­lem. Many cul­tures con­tain nox­ious el­e­ments as well as good ones; many have cus­toms that can­not be tol­er­ated. There can only be one law in a so­ci­ety and when a cul­ture has to re­lin­quish its laws and ac­cept oth­ers in their place, it can be in dan­ger of shriv­el­ling into lit­tle more than eth­nic cui­sine and folk-danc­ing. But this does not have to be the case. Di­as­pora peo­ples such as the Jews and Chi­nese have been ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing un­der the civil laws of other so­ci­eties for cen­turies and have lost lit­tle of what es­sen­tially mat­ters: the be­liefs and cus­toms that form the struc­ture for their com­mu­nal life and their dis­tinct iden­tity.

In truth, it is still only through shared and col­lec­tive val­ues that hu­man be­ings can be­come in­di­vid­u­als. The in­di­vid­u­al­ism of con­tem­po­rary life — in re­al­ity merely ego­ism — pro­duces iso­la­tion and alien­ation without char­ac­ter. Mean­while the dan­ger of cul­tures is that they can only ex­ist in op­po­si­tion to what they are not.

The con­trast, in the ex­hi­bi­tion, be­tween the lux­u­ri­ant dec­o­ra­tion of the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox church and the stub­born plain­ness of the Is­lamic mosque is not ac­ci­den­tal: each partly de­fines it­self by re­jec­tion of the other. The En­light­en­ment dream of uni­ver­sal civil­i­sa­tion is not a cul­ture in this sense and can­not play the same role for the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Per­haps the best we can hope for is that cul­tures be­come flex­i­ble and tol­er­ant enough to flour­ish within tran­scul­tural so­ci­eties based on uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples.

Time of spir­i­tual re­newal: Left, Eid ul-Fitr pray­ers at Bon­nyrigg mosque ( 2007); and be­low, mehndi pat­terns be­ing ap­plied for a cel­e­bra­tion ( 2007), by Danny Huynh

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