Let us assume that artistic practice begins with daydreaming. The place for this is normally associated with the studio. However, Patricia Piccinini once told me that her ideas for her artworks emerge and take form while driving between manufacturers in the outskirts of Melbourne. The studio is her car. I imagine then that Phillip George's images come to him while sitting on a surfboard.
In the first known map of the world Anaximander presented it in the shape of a cylinder. The earth was surrounded by the heavens. Suspended in the heavens, people lived on the upper surface. The philosopher was Greek but the centre of the world was the Aegean Sea. The shores of Europe and Asia frame the edges of the then-known world, but the point from which they are seen is the flowing azure. It is timely to recall such a fluid perspective.
George surfs on a daily basis. He has learnt to read the direction of the wind, knows the tidal patterns and remembers where the hidden reefs lie as the waves are formed through the interplay of these forces. While waiting at the mercy of the big ones, I imagine that his gaze rebounds between the rugged sandstone cliffs and the horizon, prompting tremulous thoughts about the secrets hidden in all directions. Judging by his 1998 series of photographs 'Little Bay', George regards both sea and shoreline with a heavy degree of apprehension and wonderment. In these works, he created an imaginary reception of Byzantine icons amidst the cliffs and rockpools, where the local Indigenous people took sanctuary after contracting infectious diseases from the white settlers, long prior to Christo's famous wrapping of the site. In his 2008 project, 'Borderlands', a similar perspective is at play.
The exhibition at Casula Powerhouse in Sydney's south-west comprised an interplay between two installations. As you entered the main turbine hall there stood thirty different Thruster surfboards, all facing east towards Mecca, and lined upright in a strict modernist grid. Each board was emblazoned with an intricate Islamic pattern, collectively referred to as Inshallah (God Willing). Some of the designs were direct reproductions of traditional patterns of the Tree of Life and Garden of Eden that George had photographed in Ottoman, Persian and Arabic mosques. A few, and apparently the ones most admired by younger viewers from Sydney's outer suburbs, included new hybrid images that George manipulated to fit the mould of the board. Each board had an exquisite quality, as luminous as Bursa tiles and ripping with aqueous grace.
Along the perimeter of the upper wall was a long photograph called Border patrol, depicting a 6 km stretch of Sydney coastline. The image is heavily tinted in green evoking the night-vision goggle effect emblematic of the paranoid perspective that has shaped both the War on Terror and the war on refugees. Looking at the Australian coastline through the eyes of the American military, the cliffs and beaches merge into a murky shadow-space of repulsion and menace.
The two parts of this exhibition articulated opposing aesthetic strategies. The first part Inshallah has now attracted the attention of the global media. By combining Islamic design with the iconic Australian surfboard George has not just brought together two cultural practices that are normally kept apart, but also initiated a gesture of welcome. This interest in the social activity of cross-cultural hospitality, accommodation and exchange is consistent with an enduring trajectory in the artistic imaginary that is motivated by an attraction to the signs of difference, and is constantly allowing curiosity and wonderment to test the boundaries of communication and interaction. George's surfboards have turned heads all around the world. This playful and affirmative gesture has not only offered an instance of possible cross-cultural reconciliation but, for me, it also prompted the question: why was this not already in existence? The synchronicity between the surface of the boards and the visual designs seemed so 'natural' that they must have already been there, somewhere in our cultural unconscious ...
This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the entire article in Art & Australia's Winter 2009 issue.