Looking at a household spice drawer crammed with split packets of nutmeg, turmeric or cumin might seem a strange way to tune up for Treasure Ships.
But to appreciate this exhibition you need to fantasize the familiar – be prepared to travel in the imagination to a time when, for Europeans, the East was a fabulous, exotic place – and where the spices we now take for granted were fought over by nations and blood was spilt. As the exhibition demonstrates, this lust for the exotic extended beyond spices and foodstuffs to all manner of beautiful objects – carpets, fabrics, clothing, ceramics, furnishings and more. Ultimately it tells of a lust for power and wealth and for control of hearts and minds. Treasure Ships has the feel of a ramble through a grand bazaar. Of its very nature, given the large number of very diverse objects demanding attention, Treasure Ships was never going to work as a coherent whole, anymore than Asia, with its multifarious regions and cultures and international connections, can be squashed into a single mould. Treat viewing as a campaign best mounted in bursts, over a day or through repeat visits. Viewed in isolation from the remainder of the Gallery, it has sufficient material to be a permanent display for an outstanding niche gallery specialising in Asian art. The recently revamped Asian collection display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is an example of how objects come alive in the right setting and are give room to breathe. The Art Gallery of South Australia’s chronic lack of display space for its collections (second only in size to NGV’s) is ironically accentuated by the expansiveness of this exhibition. Oddly enough, there isn’t a modern day map in the exhibition signage, so Google before you go and check out principal trade routes. There are historical maps on display including some which dispense with cartographic accuracy in favour of cosmology. In the context of the exhibition they act as a link to the shaping forces of maritime technology and knowledge without which Arab and other traders might have gone about their business undisturbed for who knows how long. Add to this mix the power of the printed word and image that syndicated information across the globe from the 17th century. That’s the subtext of this exhibition really – the formulation of technologies and databases which gradually mapped and catalogued this once imagined world. One Dutch 17th century engraving, for example, resembles an internet screen with a central image surrounded by subsidiaries within a modular layout grid. It is important to keep making such connections with Treasure Ships if it is to be more that a ramble through a grand bazaar. The artefacts may be ancient but the lessons the exhibition holds are contemporary. Regional trade agreements are not glamorous things but they function to this day within a context of perceptions about ‘other’ (perceived ‘exotic’) cultures and peoples. With this in mind, it is useful to view the exhibition as an unfolding menu of opportunities to come closer to an appreciation of this ‘otherness’ through direct engagement with individual objects—rather than feel compelled to ‘op till you drop’. What objects depends on individual curiosity and taste. If interested in Christian cross-cultural exchange then you might want to hover on a reliquary of St Francis Xavier featuring the crab which restored a lost cross. While doing this you may be drawn into wondering what the Jesuits were up to in Goa, Melaka and Beijing. The ‘Tree of Life’ depicted on 17th and 18th century Indian trade cloths has connection to the popularity of flower patterns in the Muslim world inspired by a history of garden cultivation and romantic poetry. An 18th century screen painting from Kyoto, depicting an archery contest, opens a window on the influence of European pictorial systems (particularly vanishing point perspective) on Japanese art. A well-known Art Gallery painting, a portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, shows the Duke wearing an elaborate string of pearls. The pearl diver within is invited to speculate on their source – the Persian Gulf or Sri Lanka – or perhaps the newly discovered shellfish banks in Caribbean and Venezuelan waters? There is a catalogue. Make that a book – a very stylish, lavishly illustrated book which includes a series of thematic essays by the curators and guest historians. These complementary narratives build on the pioneering work of previous Art Gallery curators and other researchers to create (often for the first time) a real sense of ‘home’ and identity for many works in the Gallery’s collection. The Curators’ acknowledgments in the close out section indicate how generous and extensive support and scholarship for this project has been. Treasure Ships, deliberately or otherwise, is infused with a barely controlled, idiosyncratic lust for beautiful things and a problematic, ‘lure of the Orient’. Viewed in a wider historical context it is like a beautiful, shot silk fabric drawn across centuries of colonialism, violence, exploitation and slavery. If this reality adds a slight bitterness or pepper to its aftertaste then so much the better. Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices Art Gallery of South Australia Until Sunday, August 30 artgallery.sa.gov.au