MAT­TERS OF LIFE & DEATH

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

But what is even more strik­ing is that to­day, with so-called so­cial me­dia, mod­ern civil­i­sa­tion has pro­duced a tech­no­log­i­cal means for giv­ing the hos­til­ity of oth­ers an ob­jec­tive and some­times fa­tal form.

So­cial me­dia of­fers the il­lu­sion of so­cia­bil­ity, but there is no so­cia­bil­ity with­out the con­ven­tions of ci­vil­ity and the bound­aries of pri­vacy; in re­al­ity, it is a post-so­cial en­vi­ron­ment in which peo­ple will­ingly ex­pose them­selves to the mal­ice of oth­ers, given con­crete and wound­ing form in words and im­ages, am­pli­fied by the eyes of third par­ties and strangers; in which a per­son’s life dis­solves into hys­ter­i­cal self-parad­ing in the face of ubiq­ui­tous envy and ridicule. It is a world in which the word friend has be­come a verb, yet where ev­ery friend is, po­ten­tially at least, an en­emy.

A third ex­hi­bi­tion, Var­i­laku: Pa­cific Arts from the Solomon Is­lands, in 2011, con­sid­ered the case of a par­tic­u­lar cul­tural group in the South Pa­cific that had the pe­cu­liar­ity of be­ing built around the prac­tice of head­hunt­ing. The case was in­ter­est­ing be­cause it was so un­am­bigu­ous: this was a cul­ture in which a youth could not be­come a man with­out killing an­other and col­lect­ing his head. The whole of the so­cial fab­ric was based on this pri­or­ity, and peo­ple lived in ter­ror of raid­ing par­ties from a neigh­bour­ing com­mu­nity land­ing with the ex­press aim of killing.

Yet this cul­ture also pro­duced some finely crafted ob­jects and had its own cult of beauty, typ­i­cally fo­cused on the young male war­rior rather than the women, whose role was more util­i­tar­ian. It was an ex­hi­bi­tion that made one pon­der the re­la­tion of vi­o­lence and beauty, again hold­ing up to us an im­age in which we could recog­nise, even in ex­treme form, some­thing of our­selves. And it forced one to con­sider, too, an­other theme that is of ur­gent rel­e­vance across the world: at what point do par­tic­u­lar cul­tures and be­lief sys­tems over­step the bounds of univer­sal prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and hu­man rights? Will a cul­ture col­lapse en­tirely if a cen­tral but morally un­ac­cept­able el­e­ment of it is ex­cised, and does that mat­ter?

Now a fourth ex­hi­bi­tion is de­voted to an­other South Pa­cific peo­ple: Kas­tom: Art of Van­u­atu deals with a much less vi­o­lent cul­ture, but one that again is fo­cused on the sta­tus of the male, and in which the ob­ject is to gain ac­cess to suc­ces­sively higher sta­tus lev­els through­out one’s life. Per­haps the thing that strikes us spon­ta­neously about this sys­tem is the ab­so­lute lack of freedom or in­di­vid­u­al­ity it im­plies. There is not a choice of ways to live a mean­ing­ful or so­cially recog­nised life: there is only one path, a sin­gle way to so­cial em­i­nence.

But once again, when­ever we look at an ap­par­ently sim­pler and more rudi­men­tary cul­ture with an at­tempt at sym­pa­thy rather than a self-as­sured con­vic­tion of our own su­pe­ri­or­ity, we dis­cover that it un­com­fort­ably mir­rors fun­da­men­tal re­al­i­ties within our own lives. The sim­pler cul­ture, in which cer­tain fea­tures are more nakedly vis­i­ble, can be like a fa­ble re­veal­ing pat­terns that, in our own lives, we try to hide from our­selves.

How many of us in con­tem­po­rary con­sumer so­ci­ety pur­sue a pre­de­ter­mined sta­tus path with­out con­sid­er­ing whether we are sac­ri­fic­ing more im­por­tant pri­or­i­ties?

In Van­u­atu, the ac­qui­si­tion of higher sta­tus grades seems to be largely a mat­ter of wealth, and of the amount of wealth that one is able to

Chub­wan mask (15th-17th cen­tury), Pen­te­cost Is­land

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.