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Johnson, Tim - 2015.8.3

Tim Johnson

Induction 1972
black and white photograph
21 x 29.7 cm
Purchased 2015

While Tim Johnson is best known for his finely detailed and frequently collaborative painting practice, he abandoned painting for several years at the beginning of the 1970s. There had been a division, particularly in Sydney, between proponents of pure abstract painting, championed by the likes of American critic Clement Greenberg, who delivered the inaugural Power Lecture at Sydney University in 1968, and those pursuing a shift from object-based practice into conceptual art. In 1969, the Power Institute’s resident critic and philosopher, Donald Brook, delivered a riposte to Greenberg’s lecture, titled ‘Flight from the object’. Johnson’s practice manifested this split; he had executed a number of colour-field paintings in the Greenbergian vein at the end of the 1960s, but with the new decade he experimented with electric light as he moved towards the post-object art espoused by Brook. A transitional work in the Monash University Collection, Yellow slip 1970, comprises a yellow-painted wedge-shaped, canvas that flares upwards from an illuminated light bulb.

While travelling in Europe during the northern winter of 1970–71, Johnson made ephemeral installations in hotel rooms and outdoors, working for the first time without conventional materials such as paint and canvas. He documented these works, the photographs becoming Out of the gallery: installation as conceptual scheme 1970–71, exhibited at Inhibodress, the Sydney artist-run gallery Johnson co-founded with Peter Kennedy, Mike Parr and others in 1970. Inhibodress actively connected the city's experimental art scene to international practitioners, and although operating only until 1972, was significant in the development of post-object and conceptual art practice in Australia.

Influenced by the counterculture movement, Johnson developed live performances that tested the boundaries not only of art but also of sexual mores of the time. In 1972, the University of Queensland’s Department of Architecture staged Art Experience Week, organised by Bill Carr, who invited filmmaker and director Albie Thoms, Oz magazine art editors Garry Shead and Peter Kingston, and artists Franklin Johnson, Tim Johnson and Vivien Elliott as tutors. The week began on Monday 31 July with Johnson’s artist-led performance Induction, in which participants were invited to lie on the floor of the Masonic Hall, in Alice Street, and follow instructions chalked-up on a blackboard: ‘Lying on your back, attempt to produce an erection (penile or clitoral) by directing your thoughts towards erotic subjects and attempting slight movement of your organ inside your underclothes’.

Four documentary photographs represent this performance in the Monash University Collection. They show the chalked-up instructions, prone students and the video camera operated by Thoms, the assigned technical assistant having left in protest. The performance elicited complaints and Johnson’s subsequent workshops were monitored by staff. By the end of the Wednesday, and after performances of Disclosure (tickling a woman covered in flour) and Fittings (1 pair of pants in 6 positions on 2 bodies), the acting head of department, Bill Greig, cancelled Art Experience Week and ordered everyone out of the building. In September the Member for Townsville South, Tom Aitkens, raised questions about the event in the Queensland Parliament; his already exaggerated account amplified in the Queensland press under headlines such as ‘Erotica display at uni’ and ‘Filthy sex show at uni’.[1]

If Johnson’s intentionally comic performance works were explicit, it was in foregrounding the inherent voyeurism of looking at art. As the artist has said:

I was consciously using it [sex] as subject matter because it represented an extreme and fitted in with the idea of an artwork using more than one of the senses. It wasn’t really that I personally was interested in sex, it was that I chose this as something to make art about. The new way of making art about life meant that anything could be art, so why not work in new more extreme areas?[2]

Looking at this performance through its documentation, the apparent irony is that despite society having since become more sexually open, it is difficult to imagine the performance being staged now.

Francis E. Parker is Curator - Exhibitions, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne.


[1] See Naomi Flatt, ‘Be an artist: a biography’, in Wayne Tunnicliffe and Julie Ewington (eds), Tim Johnson: Painting Ideas, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2009, pp.72–81.

[2] Tim Johnson quoted in Julie Ewington, ‘Paint – concept – paint’, ibid., p.16.