March 2010, Interview with Richard Bell

Richard Bell, Scratch an Aussie #4, 2008
Digital Print, 98 x 65 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery


Jill Conner talks with Australia's Richard Bell about myths of cultural knowledge, racism and artistic apropriation.

Richard Bell’s exhibition at SoHo’s Location One titled I Am Not Sorry, revealed a contemporary critique of the Western world grounded strongly in his Aboriginal heritage. Bell appropriates paintings from Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism in order to open up new meanings that successfully cut through layers of a cultural conflict that has long framed the hinterland of Australian society. I Am Not Sorry also introduced a set of counter-cultural concerns that have been misunderstood as exotic, but it is this particular element of charged opposition that makes Bell’s work so intriguing. Since racism and inequality appear consistently throughout Western society the paintings, photographs and videos featured in this show are far more relevant on a global level. Meeting with Bell brought on a lively discussion that provided a different, refreshing read on the notion of civilization, pointing out the ignorance that grows from the desire to know.

Jill Conner:
 When I first saw the card for I Am Not Sorry and saw you portrayed as a therapist surrounded by four erotic youths in bikinis, I wondered if you were really an Aboriginal artist since it looked far different from what is covered in art history courses.  

Richard Bell: I don’t actually make Aboriginal art most of the time. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. 

JC: You indicated on the phone that there is a significant problem with ethnography in the discourse of Western art and art history. I think that is why I was not aware of anything beyond the narrow scope that was given to me in college.

RB: That’s right, that’s right. What else would anthropologists do in Australia? How about looking at the racist policies since the birth of the nation, or how the symbolism enshrined in Australian culture, iconography, myths and legends and how that’s had an impact on Aboriginal people? They could work back from there and fix it, but they don’t bother.

In America, instead of trotting out the American reservations observing the native peoples, why don’t they go into poor depressed neighborhoods and search out the link between terrorism and depression?

JC: What do you think of the changed art market? Galleries say they’re selling art but some say they’re lying.

RB: Now is the best time for people like me. I’ve been poor before so I can go back to being poor. In a climate like this when there’s no pressure to sell, everybody else should be cleaning up too!

They’re really superficial. This is the first time that young artists are having to struggle because their parents have lost their jobs. Some people do art since they think they’re fucking rich. I describe the art world in Australia, and I think it’s the same here: the American art scene is a sheltered workshop for rich white kids.  
JC: That’s interesting. I started out covering art on the fringe of the mainstream, a place where there was theoretically no money.

RB: I started making art, encumbered with metaphor to add some depth and meaning but I said, “Fuck this shit, this is too complex.” Most people were rushed by television and radio. Do you hear how fast those guys talk? They try to get their ads in, but that rushes people, making them unfamiliar with wanting to look at art.

JC: Upstairs, I noticed that you created a lot of appropriations of American Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Were you trying to speak easy to the crowd?

RB: My work is about communicating ideas to audiences. I used different methods of delivery for those messages. I’ve had a good art education. I’m appropriating because I can. It’s an accepted part of art practice. I also see it as the colonized colonizing the colonizer.

Just throw it out there. I’ll do a Jackson Pollock – who the fuck is Jackson Pollock?

JC: I wondered if this show would appear the same way to a non-American audience. Do you adjust your work depending on where exactly you exhibit?

RB: There was a guy from Leipzig who saw my work in a show earlier this year. He planned a flight out to Brisbane with his family. I took him around Australia. He wanted to buy that painting but it wasn’t available so he bought another one as well as two other works. One was like a Lichtenstein rip-off. There was another one – there were three different styles. The info I’m talking about, I’m trying to share with people. It’s universal and experienced in every country. Here it’s much harder in New York and it’s hard to keep the message true.

Richard Bell, The Peckin' Order, 2007
Acrylic on canvas, 150 x 150 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery

JC: Have you heard that the Wampanoag Indian near Plymouth Rock is quite possibly an actor who performs for tourists curious to see the last true Indian alive?

RB: This is the thing with Anthros, too. They think, “If we don’t record it, this thing will be lost!” Anthropology is the study of dead civilization, so what are they doing with humans? They go to Australia, they speak to Aboriginal people, get stories, go away and write books. They take the information away and make all that money from writing books. They get all the information for free and when the government needs advice on Aborignes they go to the Anthros who don’t even live there.  

JC: When I studied Oceanic art history, my professor had said that the Aboriginal people were dying out. But since Dream Paintings have been exhibited in Paris, the genre has been internationally popular.

RB: It’s still popular. It’s the single biggest genre of art in the world, in volume sold and dollar value.

They’ve captured Aboriginal culture at a particular time and that’s the original, the authentic, even though Aboriginal culture has grown dramatically. Television, for example, changed culture almost immediately. People sit around watching shows and have stopped talking to each other. It’s not legitimate for us to do that. Aboriginal culture has changed. It’s unrecognizable from the 19th- century. Whatever incarnation it has now, ten years ago it was very different, even one to five years ago.

Take some sort of natural disaster, for instance. That changes the dynamics in a culture, but no, not in ethnography. It’s about what they know from a culture at a specific time that is a measure for culture today. And that sort of behavior is dehumanizing since they have no idea what they’re doing at all, bringing in their own assumptions on a culture. 

All these DNA studies out of Africa don’t correlate with our myths and legends. Our culture is 40,000 years old. Darwin’s theory is just another fuckin’ theory. Fire has been proven to happen all over the world at the same time; also known as parallel development. This happens with artists too. Who’s to say that human life didn’t emerge parallel in different continents? 

JC: And the way it looks now, policies aren’t changing for the easier but are becoming more difficult?

RB: Symbolism, myth-making and iconography is manipulated in the media. We’re bombarded with television screens, billboards and advertisement. My work challenges that. If I don’t challenge them, who is?

Art is a collaboration between artist, dealers, collectors, critics, institutions that collect the art, teach the art and then the community. Without community you can’t have art. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be collectors and dealers. The artist-star, collector-star and curator-star is nonsense. The art should be the star. We should move away from celebrity and move toward a measure of social progress, survival.

JC: Somewhere we are told not to connect politics and art. However the Fluxus show at the Museum of Modern Art, 40 years later, seems like the museum is finally saying it’s ok. The idea that Fluxus is there is a total contradiction. Is there something I’m missing?

RB: Institution as star. Fluxus at that time was dynamic and captured what was happening to those artists in their community. They will be able to trade off that sort of thing for years. It’s obvious that’s the way to go.

JC: And yet, the Urs Fischer exhibition at the New Museum was so shallow and seemed to exacerbate the greed for consumption.  

RB: Some artists should be removed from the art scene. I’ve had assistants help me with my work. I had two when I had a by-pass operation to help me. I enjoyed painting quite a lot. I studied economics for a couple of years and, you know, price meets demand. If I get written up, prices could go up 20%. I’m not in this game to make money. I only make between 6 and 12 sales in a year, so they have to be big prices. Due to the nature of the work that I do – there’s only a narrow audience that I play to. 

JC: Does that include the Anthros?

RB: I think the Anthros would like to engage with me but they’re afraid. I think they’re afraid of discovering how much they don’t know. Consider the fact that much of what they’ve been told by Aboriginal people around the world isn’t true. All that documentation of information – the phrase is: 'lost in translation'.

This appropriation game – I’m a master at it now.  

JC: It’s a good way to up-end the culture and talk back to it.

RB: With appropriation it’s really powerful for us to do it back. Remember identity politics in art? It was huge for a short period of time. It was so short, because the people of color were better at it than those who were white. Check it out!

How about equality? They talk about affirmative action. There’s already affirmative action for white people, it’s called White Privilege.

Richard Bell, Pay the Rent, 2009
Acrylic on Canvas, 240cm x 360cm
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery

JC: You’re a known quantity in Australia. Are you considered mainstream popular?

RB: I’m mainstream unpopular. Like those German people I was telling you about, they came from Brisbane to buy those paintings of mine. They spent 100K. He and his wife said that whenever they asked people about me and my work, no one wanted to talk about it. Everywhere they went, nobody wanted to talk. I was thrilled “yes, I’m still the shit!” I tell them in my talks that I’m the white man’s bogeyman.

JC: Are the people sensitive in Australia?

RB: They’re confronted by it and offended by it. Most of them would never admit it.

JC: But they repress their responses in staid British fashion?

RB: Yes! That’s why I psychoanalyze them in my work.

JC: The Freudian picture – is that why you dressed as an analyst?

RB: Everyone comments on the girls even though there are two boys there. Those two boys are in the background, reverses the sexual power. Everyone sees the girls before they see me. But most people just see those girls in gold bikinis – how dare he!

JC: I don’t know why people get so afraid by it.

RB: I’m the bogeyman, the fuckin’ ape. What’s that picture? King Kong! He represented the black man.

The other amazing thing about America is that they recoil at the thought of welfare for the poor. But they have no problem with corporate welfare. They can give trillions of dollars to companies and be ho-hum. But to take one-thousandth of that to poor people at welfare, there would be fires all over America. Can you imagine if they raise the value of food stamps 100%? 

It’s amazing what people say about the colonization of Australia. The British have said, “You’re lucky it wasn’t the French!” The French left all their colonies.

JC: But you have some power there since you’re able to irritate the government, right?

RB: What we have is their weakness as their guilt. You know those heart-strings? “Bing!”

JC: Do you think art could solve these problems?

RB: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it could.

JC: I was disillusioned for most of the Bush era since most of the young artists were not engaging the issues as much as they could have.

RB: The 1960s might happen in another 500 years. The conditions have to be right: you had to have had 2 world wars, a huge influenza thing that killed more than both wars combined.  

Australia was a poor country at that time. Only the rich people at that time had a telephone. Anyone who owned a home was rich. Hardly anyone owned cars. I still love traveling by train.

My work is aimed at disarming racial fears and putting everyone on the same level. People talk about equality but it doesn’t exist. Affirmative Action is the only way to accelerate the process. What they could do is have real equality. They could do it really simply, like just change the tax laws.  

You can change everything almost overnight, just by changing the symbolism. The change happens through the process of pomp and circumstance. If you can create mythologies, iconography and symbolism, people will abandon the old ones and adopt the new. At the end of the day, everyone is looking to make alliances with each other. These are my observations.  

I live in a really eclectic area in Brisbane and grew up in the Aboriginal world with hardly any contact to white people, by choice. 

JC: Contrary to popular belief…

RB: Yea, but we evolved. We still had the beliefs and attitudes. One of the things that I just noticed in the last 10 years, or so, is how busy Aboriginal people are, for people without much to do. They’re always busy because they’re never fucking on time.

We’re an oral culture. We’ve got something of value. Rather than try to put us to work, shouldn’t the whites be encouraging us to maintain our culture?

This is an introductory show to my work in New York and they’ve offered me another show in June of 2010.

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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