Eden burns 1991 acrylic on canvas 152 x 214cm (59 13/16 x 84 1/4in).
PROVENANCE Mori Gallery, Sydney The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1991
EXHIBITED Steam (Australian Perspecta 1991 artist's project), Australian Steam Navigation Company Building, Sydney, 24 August 22 September 1991 (no catalogue list) Tim Johnson: Armageddon, Mori Gallery, Sydney, 20 November 7 December 1991, cat. no. 23 Documenta IX, Kassel, Germany, 13 June 20 September 1992 Tim Johnson: painting ideas, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 13 March - 17 May 2009; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 20 June - 11 October 2009; Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 10 November 2009 - 13 February 2010
LITERATURE Vincente Butron and Janet Shanks, 'Steam', Australian Perspecta 1991, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1991, p. 160 Sue Cramer, et al, Johnson, Mori Gallery, Sydney, 1992, pp. 12-13 (illus.), 17 Wayne Tunnicliffe, Julie Ewington, et al, Tim Johnson: Painting Ideas, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2009, pp. 60, 62-63, 80, 159, pp. 59, 136-137 (illus.)
Eden burns was painted over the seven months of the first Gulf War. The conflict began in August 1990 with Saddam Hussein's decision that Iraq should invade Kuwait. Intense diplomatic pressure followed, but when no settlement was achieved a coalition was formed to assemble a ground force. Operation Desert Storm began with aerial bombing in January 1991, and a ground invasion followed in February. Kuwait was quickly liberated, leading to a rout of Iraqi forces, who were bombed as they fled - but not before they had torched over 700 Kuwaiti oil wells.
The conflict generated some iconic images - people fleeing in panic in every form of transport on grid-locked highways running through empty desert, thousands of bombed out and abandoned military vehicles lining the so-called Highway of Death, and skies black smoke belching from burning oil wells and pipelines. It was like a vision of Armageddon.
For Tim Johnson, in whose work spirituality has been a major theme, the Gulf War was the ultimate indication that contemporary conflict was destroying centuries of civilisation literally, it was destroying the landscape that was itself the cradle of that civilisation. The Garden of Eden is thought to have been situated in what is now northern Iraq, and Abraham, father of the three monotheistic religions, was living in Ur Kasdim near the Euphrates River in Iraq when God called him to travel west to the land of Canaan, the promised land.
Tim Johnson's conceptual painting practice began in the 1970s. In 1977 he became interested in Aboriginal art. He began to collect the work and in 1980 travelled to Papunya to meet the artists. Initially in his work he painted photographs he'd taken of the artists and their works. Later he was given permission to use dots in his own work, and collaborated with artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Michael Nelson Tjakamarra. As he said later:
"When I saw the paintings from Papunya I was immediately aware of something being achieved that I'd been struggling to do for years. Here were paintings that looked abstract, came with stories, used symbols that you had to know how to interpret and which were also landscapes with a strong feeling of the desert in them. I decided to adopt some of the aesthetics of these paintings."1
Aboriginal cosmology connected with his developing interest in Chinese cave paintings and Buddhism. Later in the 1980s he became interested in Native American belief systems and cosmology. By 1989 he was a practicing Buddhist. In his paintings of the early 1990s imagery and iconography from all three traditions co-exist together.
In his catalogue essay for the exhibition Tim Johnson: painting ideas, curator Wayne Tunnicliffe discusses the development of Johnson's work over three major paintings in the early 1990s, including Eden burns -
"The title Eden burns refers to the end of a prelapsarian paradise, as if innocence or the hope of redemption had been destroyed forever. Johnson does not depict a literal battle or even a vision of the end of the world and, as always in these mature works, the sources of these images are varied - Native American culture, Tibetan and Buddhist cultures, and Aboriginal Australia, cultures which have been exposed to genocide or colonisation, or both.
Eden here is not just a world in turmoil, as the title also refers to Australia as an Eden lost... by the early 1990s, the possibility of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians seemed unattainable.
Despite the apocalyptic frame of reference for Eden burns, there is a shimmering optical beauty in the haze of ground colour, the carefully placed dots and the individual figures. The work suggests that beauty and destruction are two elements of the same cosmology and an inevitable part of Buddhist samsara - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth to which we are all condemned unless we escape through understanding, compassion and enlightenment." 2
Perhaps the most striking element of Eden burns is the assembled collection of figures that stare out at the viewer including Buddhas, saints, Native American spirits and mothers cradling children. It is hard not to view their collective gaze as reproachful and imploring, a reading supported by the presence of a peace pipe in the top left corner, which as Sue Cramer has noted3, also echoes the form of a nuclear submarine.
1 Nicholas Zurbrugg, 'Tim Johnson interviewed', Art and Australia, vol . 29, no. 1, 1991, p. 46 2 Wayne Tunnicliffe, Julie Ewington [et al], Tim Johnson: painting ideas, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2009, p. 60 3 Sue Cramer, et al, Johnson, Mori Gallery, Sydney 1992, p. 17