Australian art, culture, etc. Issue 6, 2016
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Sturgeon Issue 6, 2016
An Uncanny Symmetry: Técha Noble Eleanor Zeichner
Getting to know you, putting it my way, but nicely Mark Shorter, Renny Kodgers & Tino La Bamba
Outrageously Aesthetic: the Art of Andrew Nicholls Macushla Robinson
Editorial Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Working Class Man (Now Famous): Liam Benson Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Things that Quicken the Heart Gina Mobayed
Needlepoint of no return... Miriam Kelly
How Many Times Can You Keep Painting the Mona Lisa? Kate Britton
Exploratory Surgery Rebecca Gallo
Work and One’s Work Sean Rafferty, Alex Kiers & Paul Williams
I Won Some Money and Went Travelling Jason Phu
Darkness on the Edge of Town Clothilde Bullen
Consider the Ibis Eddie Sharp
Damaged Gods Tom O’Hern
Totally Entwined Benjamin Chadbond & Patrick Mason
Sydney booksellers specialising in mind-opening art, photography & architecture titles for smart people. www.bigegobooks.com Instagram: @big_ego_books
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AN ARTIST-CURATED COLLABORATIVE PROJECT KATE POWER SALOTE TAWALE GEMMA WESTON JODIE WHALEN WITH BRIGID NOONE
5 NOVEMBER 2016 – 5 FEBRUARY 2017 CONTEMPORARY ART CENTRE OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA 14 Porter Street, Parkside, South Australia 5063 • www.cacsa.org.au Image: Brigid Noone, Drawing offering (send to Salote Tawale), 2016, digital drawing. Image courtesy the artist. CACSA is supported by
Sturgeon Editor Daniel Mudie Cunningham Editorial Committee Ben Bertoldi Miriam Kelly Gina Mobayed Daniel Mudie Cunningham Tony Stephens Art Direction Collider Publisher Artbank Contributing Writers Kate Britton Clothilde Bullen Benjamin Chadbond Rebecca Gallo Alex Keirs Miriam Kelly Patrick Mason Gina Mobayed Daniel Mudie Cunningham Sean Rafferty Macushla Robinson Eddie Sharp Mark Shorter Paul Williams Eleanor Zeichner Contributing Artists Samuel Hodge Tom O’Hern Jason Phu Contributing Photographers Silversalt Photography Artbank Artwork Photography Jenni Carter Jeremy Dillon Silversalt Photography Stephen Oxenbury Special thanks Dr Richard Gallagher and Shona Gallagher Romance Was Born All staff at Artbank 5
Sturgeon is a conceptually driven publication which commissions original content addressing issues relevant to Australian cultural life. Sturgeon is an initiative of Artbank and seeks to further promote the value of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian contemporary art to both the public and private sectors nationally and internationally. sturgeonmagazine.com.au Sturgeon Published by Artbank 222 Young Street Waterloo NSW 2017 +61 2 9697 6000 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Printing Toppan Pre-Press Splitting Image, Melbourne All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted in any form without permission from the publisher. Artworks from the Artbank collection have been reproduced under the Statutory Government License outlined in section 183 of the Copyright Act, 1968. All other images are reproduced with permission of the copyright holders. ISSN 2202-5294 Typefaces Lyon Text, designed by Kai Bernau Founders Grotesk, designed by Kris Sowersby Cover Tom O’Hern Damaged Gods 2016 Ink on paper, 150 x 220 cm Artbank collection, commissioned 2016 Disclaimer The opinions expressed in Sturgeon are those of the respective authors and are not necessarily those of the editors, publisher or the Australian Government. Sturgeon may contain material which offends some readers. Artbank is a Commonwealth Government program mandated with a support (through collecting and commissioning) and promotion role for Australian contemporary visual art and artists. Artbank is one of the largest institutional collectors of Australian art in the world—making its collection available to the broader public through a leasing program operating nationally.
Contributors Clothilde Bullen , a Wardandi
(Nyoongar) and Yamatji woman, is currently an independent curator and the Assistant Producer at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company in Perth. She was the Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia for over a decade and prior to that managed a commercial Indigenous gallery in Perth. Bullen is working with the Ballardong Nyoongar community currently as the curator for a purpose built interpretive centre based in Northam, and is also an alumni of the British Council’s ACCELERATE program.
Benjamin Chadbond and Patrick Mason are the co-founders
of the online publication Try Hard Magazine. Last year they launched their in-house publishing imprint Try Hard Editions, a print-based extension of their online format.
Rebecca Gallo is an arts writer,
artist and editor based in Sydney. She is a regular contributor to Vault and The Art Life, and her written work has also been included in Runway Australian Experimental Art, Inside, Framework and numerous exhibition catalogues. She is a former director of Archive Space and editor of Raven Contemporary. Gallo has a Masters from UNSW Art and Design and a Bachelor of Fine Art from the National Art School, Sydney.
Miriam Kelly is Curator & Collection
Coordinator at Artbank, Sub-Editor of Sturgeon and Chair of the Runway Australian Experimental Art board (2016).
Alex Kiers is a Sydney based artist and musician. His practice spans a broad range of mediums including painting, embroidery, performance and sound design.
Gina Mobayed is an Art Consultant at Artbank and a Co-Director of Firstdraft (2015–16). 7
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
is Assistant Director & Head Curator at Artbank and Editor of Sturgeon. For the past two decades he has been productive as a freelance writer, curator and artist.
Tom O’Hern draws pictures on top
of a big hill in Hobart. His work explores masculinity, colonialism and environmental catastrophe. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours from the University Of Tasmania. O’Hern is represented by Bett Gallery, Hobart.
Jason Phu is a Sydney based artist. “My work is about things I see, like a bird pooping on a man’s head.” Sean Rafferty is a Registrar at Artbank. He has previously worked as a technician in a range of galleries and organisations in Sydney and London, and co-directed artist-run organisations including Firstdraft, Runway Australian Experimental Art and Breezeblock. He has a background as an artist and is currently collecting and mapping fruit cartons, which he calls Cartonography. Macushla Robinson is an
independent writer and curator who currently lives and works in New York City. She is descended from Josiah Spode, founder of Spode Ceramics.
Eddie Sharp is a Sydney based comedian, writer and artist. He hosts Versus on FBi radio, appears on ABC TV’s The Mix and runs Erotic Fan Fiction Readings in both Sydney and Melbourne. Mark Shorter works across sculpture, installation and performance. His practice frequently deploys performance as an aesthetic strategy to challenge established conventions and to open up new ground for exploration, particularly in relation to the artist’s body and its representation. Grounding these works is an interest in how performance functions within the visual arts and broader contemporary culture.
Paul Williams is a Sydney based
artist and casual academic at UNSW Art and Design. He also works as a mentor at Studio A and installs exhibitions across Sydney.
Eleanor Zeichner is a Sydney
based writer interested in the intersections of visual arts practice, performance and fiction. She is a board member of Runway Australian Experimental Art (2015–16), and Assistant Curator of UTS Gallery. She recently produced Separating Hydrogen from Air, an anecdotal archive and reading room for Next Wave Festival 2016.
Tear repair to painting verso, Sydney 2016 patience plays at the edge of concentration surgical dexterity teases out the connections lacunae shrink slowly, dematerialised layers of experience complete the work
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Editorial: Keywords 1
across 1. The outskirts 6 5. Rabble-rouser 10 9. Scottish dish 6 13. Mythical sea goddess 7 15. A sweeping visual field 5 17. Vacuous feels 8 18. Humans as pets are this 15 22. A state of having boundaries 8 24. What comes next? 9 26. Forger of paths 7 28. R. Mutt 7 29. Combination of elements 6 9
down 2. Mechanical corporeality 7 3. Period after major survey show 8 4. Imparting poetic spatiality in a room 12 6. A site of conflict (not the art world per se) 12 7. Biblical utopia 4 8. A repetitive action imbued with meaning 6 10. Home lyfe 11 11. A society that has worked itself out 12 12. The death of the bubble 5 14. Fancy word for ‘meaning’ 9
16. Macho blank state 10 19. When animals become sculpture 9 20. Portion 7 21. What you hold in your hands 8 22. Magical (sometimes sexy) talisman 6 23. Blue cups 8 25. Woody Allen’s favourite media theorist 7 27. Edible entrails 5
Daniel Mudie Cunningham Editor, Sturgeon
Working Class Man (Now Famous): Liam Benson Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Even though Liam Benson and I first met in 2004, in all of our many conversations we have never broached the topic of jobs we had in our early years. When I tell him my first job during high school was a suburban butcher’s assistant— ‘butcher’s bitch’ to use the precise terminology—he lights up and tells me that male butchers in Ancient Egypt wore high heels to avoid stepping on offal. By contrast, for nearly a decade while Benson was an emerging artist, he was a toll collector on Sydney’s M2. He describes the experience as one where he was relatively still within a motorway coursing with movement. While taking change from motorists he would multitask by sewing, beading and embroidering his opulent costumes and headpieces. A high-vis vest wearing man making drag attire in a toll booth is not something you see every day. But if you know Benson, it is something you cannot imagine him ever having not done—sitting in high heels, as it were, on a highway of offal.
Photography Samuel Hodge Clothing Romance Was Born
WORKING CLASS MAN (NOW FAMOUS): LIAM BENSON
One time Benson went to an art opening straight from the toll booth. A (now famous) artist peer—who he knew of but had not previously met—came up to (now famous) Benson and barked: “Are you Liam Benson?” After confirming his identity, said (now famous) person looked Benson up and down and, clearly unimpressed with the working class man attire, turned around marched off in a snide snub. Aside from its gossipy appeal, this encounter is ironic considering the common thread in Benson’s practice is the assumptions and social perceptions that underline gender, race and cultural identity. Through performance, photography and video, Benson responds to contemporary Australian attitudes to identity politics with great affection and pride, focused with a critically engaged lens. Since graduating from the now defunct art school at the University of Western Sydney in 2002, Benson has fashioned a body of work that begins with the body; his own body. Adorning that body is a language of drag that is important for the statements it makes about femininity, masculinity, and the in-between. As much as Benson is recognised for his use of female drag, what is often misunderstood is that his work is really about what it means to be male in Australia. By extension, the politics of gender intersects with race and class to present his own take on history and being as it relates to life in this country. In an artist statement for ‘Western Front: Art is a Social Space’, curated by Sophia Kouyoumdjian at Blacktown Arts Centre in 2005, Benson claimed his work addresses the “unspoken language of men”. Fast forward eleven years his conceptual focus retains this fixation on the complexities of how maleness is performed and understood. Emerging as an artist in western Sydney has impacted his practice considerably. “Western Sydney embraced me—it made me fall in love with it,” he says to me over lunch of slow cooked beef cheeks (no offal in sight). The language of suburban life—its poetry and familiarity, but also its alienation and menace—extends to his collaborative performance project The Motel Sisters, co-founded in 2004 with Blue Mountains based artist Naomi Oliver. Unlike his solo practice, which consciously has a sociopolitical message to convey, The Motel Sisters was deliberately about “being literal but having nothing to say”. In 2006 they were invited to be a part of a cultural studies conference called UNAUSTRALIA in Canberra. So off they went to be, “like, political and stuff in, like, Canberra” by posing in front of Parliament House in the style of the airhead celebrity selfies they had become quite hilariously good at emulating. That same year, Benson’s own practice traded overtly in celebrity and fame with his ominous series ‘Werewolves’ (2006), which mashed together a suburban nightmare starring a 13
Little Red Riding Hood and a ‘white’ Michael Jackson hybrid. Executed only three years before the pop star’s untimely death, Benson muses: “I can’t believe he existed and we all went along with it!” I’m struck by this insight because it occurs to me that at the heart of Benson’s practice is precisely that: he does not ‘go along’ with the mainstream. He might live and work within ‘middle Australia’ where selfsameness is echoed in the endless repetition of suburban sprawl, yet he gently undermines this hegemony through a politicised celebration of difference that eschews didacticism. Benson’s affiliation for life beyond the centre was embedded from childhood, having grown up in Glenorie in the rural north west region of New South Wales. Much of his photographic work trades in ‘frontier’ archetypes drawn from settler mythologies and folklore of the Australian bush. His landmark photo series ‘The Pioneers’ (2011) mines the conventions of portraiture with Benson placed front and centre within the frame, resplendent with glitter, makeup and totems of kitschy Australiana. Drawing from Australian iconography of the 1980s, the decade which birthed him (Benson was born at Westmead in 1980), an undeniable sense of nostalgia for the popular culture of the time is evoked. Benson cherrypicks the tropes of rural Australian life as it was depicted in children’s television shows like Secret Valley (1980) or films like The Man from Snowy River (1982). In a catalogue essay, artist Bridie Connell dubs the series “a eucalyptus infused love story”. Indeed, there is a great love and affection for the material he mines as much as there is a subtle critique of how we can turn our backs on its inherent ‘Australianness’ as the cultural cringe sets in. In some ways a great deal of progress has occurred in Australia since the eighties. Benson’s work acknowledges this while simultaneously pointing out how nothing has changed; how it has merely been repackaged under the “silencing power of political correctness,” to quote Connell, or repurposed into extreme nationalism in the hangover of the Cronulla riots of December 2005. In some ways ‘The Pioneers’ series is a reflection on Cronulla five years on. While there is a gentle humour, a greater sense of weight or gravity permeates. In the two years following the Cronulla riots, Benson made works in the Sutherland Shire about Cronulla, for exhibitions at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre. Benson’s contributions to the exhibitions ‘Our Lucky Country (difference)’ in 2006 and ‘Our Lucky Country (still different)’ in 2007, both curated by George and Ron Adams, were some of the most memorable, if not entertaining works commissioned by Hazelhurst at the time. The Shire did not know what hit it when Benson came to town: he appeared in drag on Cronulla beach sporting a t-shirt that read ‘I The Shire’; made a celebrity appearance at a local fish and chips shop
WORKING CLASS MAN (NOW FAMOUS): LIAM BENSON
with Anastasia Zaravinos standing in as a Motel Sisters ‘stunt double’ for Naomi Oliver; led a performance with the local community’s belly dancing troupe; played cross-cultural dress-ups with Manizé Abedin at a suburban shopping mall photo studio, where he was ‘Ned Kelly’ to her burka clad‘Fatima’; and lastly, sang Kylie Minogue’s I Believe in You in a video where the title of the song was etched on his bare chest like the Bra Boys’ ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ tattoo. Benson looked directly at the camera, framed by long, flowing, curly Christ-like locks, appearing to be all-embracing while simultaneously cynical of Australia’s status as a ‘Christian country’. This is an idea also explored in one portrait in ‘The Pioneers’, where he is presented as a Jesus apparition emblazoned with a body-painted national flag. The tenuousness of nationhood as it is performed and understood in Australia continues to manifest in Benson’s work beyond this immediate post-Cronulla period. In 2012, his series ‘Motherland’ added matriarchy and motherhood into the mix on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth II and, more personally, the recent deaths of the artist’s mother and grandmother whose adult lives spanned the Queen’s reign. In Benson’s version, native flora and fauna, including an owl, possum and koala, adorn as heraldic motifs for an ironic drag fantasy of an Australian National Queen. ‘Motherland’ starts to feel like a shift in his practice where the juncture of queerness, gender performativity and national identity give way to a more rigorous interrogation of how whiteness is culturally constructed. “I’ve come out as white— I just thought I was gay, but it turns out I’m white,” he tells me. His most recent series ‘Noble Savage’ from 2015 overtly explores the dilemma of whiteness and what it means to be a gay Anglo male, an identity composed of privilege and marginalisation. A series of portraits depict Benson with full Ned Kelly bushranger beard, now popular among urban hipsters. With a searing gaze, Benson’s face is painted in camouflage drawn from the hues and patterning of barks from different Eucalypt tree species. The various shading, on the one hand emulate race, whether ‘coloured’ or white, while on the other hand paradoxically use the disguising tactics of camouflage to draw attention to the self and how it is defined. A further three portraits from this series depict the artist in diaphanous handmade embroidered veils or hoods that make potent reference to the archetypes of ‘executioner’, ‘crusader’ and ‘terrorist’. Seductive, yet potentially terrifying in its clash of signifiers and codes, Benson’s images show how whiteness has gained its self-proclaimed sovereignty and privilege through the classification of the racialised ‘other’ and its subsequent unracialised invisibility. “I’ll never know what it is like to be black; and I am struggling to understand what it is to be white.” 19
Liam Benson Stealing Horses 2011 ‘The Pioneers’ series Digital Type C print, 61 x 91 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2016
WORKING CLASS MAN (NOW FAMOUS): LIAM BENSON
A Christian Country 2011 Digital Type C print, 61 x 91 cm ‘The Pioneers’ series Artbank collection, purchased 2016
Work and Oneâ€™s Work Sean Rafferty Alex Kiers Paul Williams in conversation
Paul Williams Confetti Solution 2011 Installation view, Firstdraft, Sydney Image courtesy of the artist, photography Silversalt
following Claire Finneran and Alex Kiers Well Beings 2015 Installation view Image courtesy of the artists
WORK AND ONE’S WORK
We began by talking about a text titled “I’ve always found inspiration in places where I worked”, published in Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach, which accompanied the artist’s 2015 survey at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. “When I was a Colour Field painter, I was painting and docking through probably 63 to 68, at Cairncross, at the big dock, with those big roll-on, roll-off vessels... big tankers, they’re all flat bottomed, they’re up on the dock, the dock gets pumped out, a couple of hundred men sitting underneath with a tray and a big double roller with this anti-fouling [paint]... I would go home from there where there’d be all this incident. Everyone would be covered in it. You had to put [the paint] on and load it over an uneven surface. So the paint would come down. It was very beautiful. It was red but when it hit the ground it was silver... everyone was covered in this stuff... I used to wonder how I could take that from there and go home and do my little homage to Greenberg, how I could control that? In those days, I could cut a Plimsoll line up a long vessel with a double roller on a 20-foot arm. How could I come home and do that?” sean rafferty: At the beginning of this text, MacPherson talks about his time as a night services manager for the Brisbane City Hall. It freed time up during the day to make artwork. His art was also influenced by the things that he was doing in this paid work. They weren’t direct translations, it wasn’t like that. The works were more about processes and the idiosyncrasies of process-driven exercises. MacPherson also talks about working night shifts because it was quieter and gave him “time to think, dream and draw.” In the past I have had jobs like that, where it was repetitive processdriven and didn’t absorb my creative energy so I could reserve that for my artwork. Is that an idea that you guys can relate to?
alex kiers: I don’t particularly like mindless jobs, otherwise I just think about the fact that I’m working too much. I don’t think I can necessarily relate to MacPherson. When I’m at work and I am doing a really tedious task in a gallery, I’m thinking about all the other things that I want to be doing. I’m not concocting ideas, I just wish I was trying to paint or whatever else. sr: Is that the same for you, Paul? paul williams: For me not so much. Some elements sure, they occur outside of installing, but have been reinforced by being an installer, such as being introduced to ideas of precision and quality of materials, or how a space operates. I have definitely found that strange things happen, where you see work in a different way. You seem to pick things apart a lot more. sr: So when you are mounting shows as a job, you think about how your work could be seen in that kind of context, and then you start critiquing the way that people are doing it? ak: Definitely. I think, in terms of informing practice it is mostly for me just making things clean. I guess you notice meticulousness in presentation. Someone like Kenzee Patterson for example, is incredibly neat in his presentation. You can definitely pick up on his background in art installation. sr: That’s interesting. The idea of the artist’s practice in and of itself is making an object, but when you’re also a technician you’re thinking about your own practice at the same time how it is being staged. All the processes lead up to that, and so you have this longer timeline that you perceive your own art practice within. As a technician, when you start receiving works for exhibition and you look at them and you think, “Well they haven’t thought about how they are going to hang this work.” It’s as if the artist hasn’t thought about the life-cycle of their work. pw: I think the one thing that made me think directly about my experience as an installer in the MacPherson article, was when he talked about his time painting boats. It made me think of painting walls in galleries and how I’ve observed things like the drop sheet with confetti-like paint flecks all over it, or the process of sanding back walls. There are a couple of my works that directly reference the idea of labour or using that as a kind of markmaking process. ak: One work in your last show you included text that said: “I don’t want to die an installer.”
pw: So that’s the other response. That ceramic piece had a direct reference to my means of income being an installer, and actually finding that whole experience of installing other peoples’ work as a constant visual bombardment in the form of often dodgy artwork. It also made me realise that there are few artworks that have really stayed with me over time; in fact I’m trying to think of an artwork over my four years of installing. In a way it has made me switch off from viewing arworks as creative pieces, and more as just objects to handle carefully and put up on walls and place on plinths. So it’s had this impact on me personally, demystifying the whole industry. What it makes me want to do is move away from any banality in my own work, and instead use my practice as an escape, something in which to become fully absorbed while I am in the studio, where I can forget about things like pragmatism. I’m really grateful for having learned to put two screws in the wall, but as a painter I still reject those parts of my working life that involve precision. I find that a big part of my philosophy as an artist is chance and the incidental, while also having intention. There’s a kind of opaqueness about being an installer, where you have a job to do and that space for the enjoyment of art is reduced by the weekly pressure of completing a show. I’d like to separate myself from that. I almost feel nostalgic for those times when I was a bartender, a cleaner in a butcher or a shelf-packer at night; I was really productive during the day as a painter and I would even come home after a late shift and paint into the night. sr: That’s interesting that you are aware of the influence your paid work is having on your practice, and maintaining your practice as the primary thing and then pushing back if something starts to interfere. You become this kind of itinerant worker, where you are in one field and that starts to put some pressure on your practice so you move on and set up shop somewhere else. ak: There’s a whole lot of pros and cons in terms of who you come into contact with, like curators for example. You are there and yet you are not ‘the painter in his studio’ any more. You are kind of the like the workhorse in the gallery just doing the labour, and maybe that changes a curator’s perception of you. pw: You are more a technician than an artist. sr: Yes, you are kind of demystified as an artist. ak: I think everyone who works in galleries thinks about that; “I’m not the guy that is scrubbing paint off the floor, I’m the guy that is making beautiful paintings.” I tend to work as an audio visual installer because the problem
WORK AND ONE’S WORK
solving is really good for me, I really enjoy that part of it. I’m not necessarily an artist who does a whole lot of video, but I have recently—I guess this work has informed what I do. I did an installation with Claire Finneran at Waverley Library and if I had not known how to install screens we would never have made the work that we did. We hung a chandelier of televisions on a grill from the ceiling in the big open atrium of the lobby. I would never have made that had I not been an installer. I would’ve just had the same videos and just mounted the screens on the wall. sr: I’m quite interested in the ideas that come when you’re working together as a team of technicians, and there is a lot of chat. Has that been embryonic for something else, or changed the way that you approach your own practice? You know, just talking to someone else in a working relationship is different than talking to someone in general conversation because you’re working together. It’s kind of like this ongoing thing that’s stretched over the length of an install, and you pick up on stuff and you leave it off, and then you pick it up again a bit further down the track. ak: I love that. That’s what I like most about install work, but you don’t want to do that too much because there’s the side of it where you are stimulated by problem solving, and there’s the other end where you just put a podcast on and paint a wall for a day because you don’t feel like talking. 25
sr: I am also interested in the idea of being mentally agile when you’re working as a technician, for example, and you’ve got your practice and you’re managing more than one job at a time. pw: That’s definitely been my life the last four years, just constant juggling. ak: I just want to lock down. I don’t want to be installing while I’m working on my own show. I just like to have the one thing that I’m focusing on and that’s that. pw: So you’re more block-orientated? ak: Definitely so. I do my three weeks straight of install at two different places and then I’ve got two months to pull a show together and that’s all I do. pw: I try and look at installing as a necessary distraction. If I had all the time in the world I’d probably just be in the studio making lots of different paintings. Maybe there’d be a continuity there, but in a way being taken away from your work is like someone intervening and having a conversation and asking: “Have you thought about it this way?” Being away from your artwork gives you time to have conversations or form a new perception that might find its way into what you’re doing in a way that you hadn’t anticipated.
sr: So how would you characterise your practice at the moment? pw: I guess I always see myself as a painter, or that I think about things through that medium, but I don’t necessarily produce works that are straightforward paintings. More recently I’ve done paintings on bed sheets and ceramic works that focus on surface treatments as sculptural elements. I’m always making images and always finding ways to use not necessarily representational or pictorial content, but always mark-making as my primary thing. That can take the form of image or text or a scuff mark. sr: What about some of the text based works that you have done recently. pw: They came from music sources and also the nature of being an artist, pairing them together or mixing it up a bit, even appropriating the format of album covers or titles of songs. ak: What about your show that was called ‘One-Day Painter?’ (2015) That whole show... there was a little bit of angst in there right? pw: More anxiety, I think. ak: But tongue-in-cheek angst? pw: In a way, I guess. If I think about it, I was using the tropes of Heavy Metal language and the style of the genre, the dramatic one-liners that they might come up with. I did see that title of my show as a kind of pun on Heavy Metal album or song titles. But I think you could bring that back to anxiety over time as well, and how some of that work was addressing notions of work and escapism. So, one work would be about always being an installer, and then another was a series of words that alluded to a more hedonistic approach to living, like Cars girls palm trees milkshakes tequila (2015). There was a kind of polar split or duality. sr: I’ve always thought your work evokes a kind of suburban coastal spirit in a way. You almost seem to be making compositions that mine that landscape; I think about your work more like coming out of the landscape, rather than depicting it. pw: Yeah definitely, that was my starting point for being an artist: looking at the landscape. I guess I am just viewing it in a different way now. Like you said, mining the landscape for icons or ideas, or even something that is a little unusual
or tacky, having fun with that to some degree, but acknowledging there is an underbelly. I guess within the individual there is an observation of the surface and what lies beneath. sr: Alex? ak: I’m at a bit of a crossroads at the moment because I’m focussing on music and have been for the last six months or so. While I am doing that and working in galleries, it is actually really good as they are not informing each other. But where I am at with that? I guess you’d call it a sound collage in a way; lots of borrowing from genres. A bit of a mess, intentionally, which I guess is a form of collage. sr: And so how would I encounter or experience a work like this? ak: I’ve started playing gigs again, and because there are experimental elements to this work, it does lend itself to being presented in a gallery context. My actual visual art practice is a similar because I do jump around a lot. There is a consistency, but I’m pretty erratic in terms of medium. I’m not just a painter, I’m not just a video artist. I don’t want to lock down to a medium or an aesthetic. sr: That’s interesting, I would also characterise my practice up until the last year or so as very project-toproject. With each one the ideas would be fairly selfcontained and self-referential. Something I’ve noticed recently is that since I’ve been working full time as a registrar at Artbank I’ve fixed on one thing. It makes me think that there is a relationship between one’s practice and the work they are doing in those terms, where if you are jumping around a lot in work you are doing the same in your practice. ak: The thing that I realised lately that is crazy about being an art installer that you are working to extreme deadlines week-in week-out. You are there at the most stressful time, every time. sr: You come in and you crisis manage and problem solve, and maybe you even absorb a bit of that stress too... [phone rings] ak: I’ve gotta go. Got this install...
WORK AND ONEâ€™S WORK
Paul Williams The Skeleton Painter (Sonic Melodic remix) 2016 Oil on canvas , 137 x 101 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2016
Darkness on the Edge of Town Clothilde Bullen
At their heart, movements led by the marginalised and dispossessed of western countries—in Australia’s case Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—have a sense of being unheard and unseen, of speaking a different language to the oppressor, the coloniser. The ‘Indigenous Art Movement’—the last great art movement of the twentieth century according to art critic Robert Hughes—is essentially a response by Indigenous artists that communicates critical ideas about essence, belonging, history, politics and human rights. Art in this case can transcend language, bridging multiple groups through non-lingual communication and, most importantly, between those who would seek to colonise and those who resist.
Christopher Pease Balga Resin 2008 (detail) Balga resin on hessian on canvas 217 x 303.5 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2008
Ian W Abdulla Night Boxing 1992 Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 125 x 125 cm Artbank collection, purchased 1992
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
The visual semiotic of contemporary art by Indigenous Australian artists becomes an incredibly persuasive tool for change when reflecting upon identity and depicting immutable connections to country, as well as discussing the narratives of systemic racism and challenging power structures. Indigenous art can take a powerful stance as it relates to the idea that Aboriginal voices and black lives matter. Indigenous artists effectively clarify this concept with works where narrative is characterised by a sense of unapologetically standing in their own truth, and of being at the centre of the world as opposed to being relegated to the margins. Indigenous Australians’ lives have been irrevocably affected by the colonial legacies and history of this country. The way in which we have as a people historically been categorised, classified and oppressed, and the ways in which we now embody who we are has a profound effect upon the (at times subconscious) awareness, appreciation and understanding of who we are as a nation. Indigenous art can evoke a more conscious awareness and challenges viewers to consider the lives and concerns of the artists, and by extension all Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians have so often in the history of this country been left or pushed to the borders; fringe dwellers on the edge of town, not permitted to be seen after curfew. The title of this essay, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, alludes to the dark history of present-day Australia lingering in the minds of contemporary colonisers; the same darkness that exists in all of us when we shut out what we don’t wish to acknowledge. On one hand, ‘darkness on the edge’ is a metaphor for Indigenous Australians as dwellers on the outer of western culture—a deceptively powerful position to be placed in if one wishes to critically address relational identity frameworks. After all, it is when you’re ‘at the edge’ that you can survey a particular worldview and utilise the information gained to subvert that perspective. On the other hand, these words refer to the history of Indigenous people as inhabitants of town camps, and to the fearful derision with which groups of Indigenous people were held. Fringe dwellers, also known as town campers, have historically been defined in Australia as “Aboriginal people living at identified campsites near or within towns or cities which form part of the socio-cultural structure of the towns and cities, but where the lifestyle doesn’t conform to that of the majority of non-Indigenous residents, and where those people are not provided with essential services and housing on a basis comparable to the rest of the population.”(ALRC, 26) Many Indigenous Australians lived and still live in this way across a predominantly westernised nation. How this is still accepted is beyond the scope of reason. However, it has been the subject matter of the work of many Indigenous artists over decades of visual and performative art forms. The work of artist Ian W Abdulla is the visual manifestation of this kind of oral history and subject matter, related to his being a Riverland Nunga living in rural South 31
Australia. While joyful in his approach to the subject matter— depicting Nunga people participating in life with complete agency—there is a darker, subversive interpretation: that Abdullah examines the notion that many people lived their lives outside of the cultural experience of white Australians during the the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s often on the outskirts of western society as it were. Night Boxing (1992) for example, remains a charming but potent illustration of Nunga people partaking in tent boxing—an element of community life that was experienced covertly, under the cover of darkness, but through which many Indigenous people made their claim to fame and gained some measure of financial reward. There is a slowly burgeoning Indigenous middle class in Australia, but for those Aboriginal people living on the fringe, there has been many moments where the humanity of those people; their rights, their freedoms, indeed the value of their lives have been seen to be unequal to the majority. The massively disproportionate rates of incarceration, deaths in custody, suicide and self-harm, rates of preventable disease and lower life expectancy for Aboriginal people is a reality that is faced daily but is not seen as worthy of mainstream media reporting, nor addressed with and alongside communities in any genuine way. Recently in Australia, the Black Lives Matter movement has found traction within Aboriginal communities who have embraced its powerful position and what it can offer to those whose humanity has been neglected. Originating in the African American community in the United States in 2013—and now an international activist movement campaigning against violence toward black people—the BLM movement began with the use of the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter on social media in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman; implicated in the fatal shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin. BLM then became nationally recognised for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown—resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson— and Eric Garner in New York City.(2) At the time of writing in 2016, the BLM movement has again made global headlines with the tragic events following the peaceful intentions of the BLM protest in Dallas—a protest in response to the brutal killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers. The BLM movement protests in a variety of forms, including peaceful marches and demonstrations, viral social media campaigns, boycotts, sit-ins and other non-violent actions that highlight structural racism—the deaths of black people in custody, racial profiling, police brutality, and broader issues of racial inequality within the United States justice system. In Australia, the movement has found a level of support and has been embraced by the Indigenous community in smaller, but no less pertinent ways, through the SOS BLAK AUSTRALIA movement, which gathered momentum after the announcement of the forced closure of one hundred and fifty Indigenous communities throughout Western Australia by the state government.
It is not inconsequential that the communities targeted for closure are some of the most significant sites of contemporary Indigenous art production in Australia. As such, they have an important role to play in highlighting the needs and desires of Aboriginal people. To shut these communities is to shut down the voice of the people. It is not unreasonable to suggest that there is a clear link and that this is an example of the power of Indigenous art forms as a vehicle for important political messages. Work emanating from Indigenous artists living and working at remote communities targeted for closure—such as Kiwirrkurra, Papalungkutja, Irruntju, Warakurna, Patjarr, Parnngurr and Kunawarritji—is characterised by the deepest respect for the subject matter of historical narrative and kinship links to country, and by a complete irreverence with regards to the traditional western rules of style, composition and colour. Bold, confident topographical maps detailing historical record and lore make proud and visual statements about land ownership and association to place. The works document the ongoing status of the people who care for and belong to those vast areas of country they paint, describe how they keep culture and country strong, and with that, themselves. These black lives matter, and the country that they paint matters in ways that only the passing of time will illuminate. In the ‘frontier’ town of Perth, Nyoongar people—spelled differently according to which of the dialects of the fourteen Nyoongar nations it is describing—have had to stand up and state most clearly that black lives matter, and in particular Nyoongar lives matter. Nyoongar people have had a violent and disrupted history of relations with non-Indigenous colonisers and continue to have a fraught relationship with others in Western Australia, having to fight to explain identity and make claims to land, particularly in the most recent native title claim. The existence of Nyoongar people had been previously interrogated and explained within historical record according to the words and eyes of the ‘wadjella’ (white person) with Nyoongar people forced to become fringe dwellers on their own country. However, in their work Nyoongar artists place their voices first and upfront. Christopher Pease’s large scale painting Balga Resin (2008) makes a firm and resounding statement about Nyoongar identity. The work is organic in a literal sense, its media being Xanthorrhoea preissii—a species of the grass tree found only in the southwest of Western Australia. Other vocal Nyoongar artists include: Sandra Hill, whose work addresses the Stolen Generation and examines such feminist issues as the historical objectification and treatment of Aboriginal women; Janine McAullay-Bott, whose whimsical woven sculptural forms are motivated by ideas relating to the impact of introduced religion, as well as very personal stories of heartbreak when children were taken from their mothers; and the late Shane Pickett who painted abstract reflections on the deep and abiding connection to country.
In Perth in the 1960s, as in many Australian towns, a ‘whites only’ rule was strictly applied, and is the historical genesis for, and remains at the heart of, the persistence of ‘fringe dwellers’ in this country. The rule was the internal counterpoint to the White Australia Policy, enacted in 1905 to restrict non-European immigration into the country. Many Indigenous artists have spoken to this history in their work, one being Clinton Nain, an artist from the G’ua G’ua and Meriam language groups from the Torres Strait. What are you saying? (2007), a work from Nain’s bitumen-based series, is a somber painting that explores an aesthetic representation of the ‘whiting out’ of Australian Indigenous culture. Combining a background of black bitumen overlaid with gestural swirls of white acrylic, the work’s elegant abstract style belies the very serious intent and tone of its narrative. Across this series Nain has employed a range of motifs that refer to the quarantining and utilisation of power by this country’s dominant culture: the outlawing of traditional language and land use, as well as the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, placing them in missions, orphanages and other residential spaces. The combination of materials and concept in Nain’s work express in simple, at times ironic, symbolic language the deeply troubling concepts around oppression, dehumanisation and externalised governance; hallmarks of the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser. In a similar vein a sculptural work by the Mamu/ Ngadjonji artist Danie Mellor, A Shield for Nellie Kelly (2004), uses this form as a metaphor for the displacement of Mellor’s great-grandmother. Contemporising the object and updating its historical narrative, Mellor also makes a pointed reference to the multitude of Indigenous artefacts still held in museum collections across the country and the world. Traditional objects in early Australian history taken without consent were removed quite literally to the edges of other worlds where they were decontextualised by the colonists. In devastatingly similar ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were also taken, fetishised and used as objects. Karla Dickens’s recent works address the sensitive notion of the Black Madonna and its subversive form the ‘black gin’ or ‘black velvet’—a pejorative term for Aboriginal women utilised as sex slaves for the coloniser. Dickens’s profound and deeply unsettling work The Help (2015) is an object in the form a female mannequin, overlaid with a skirt made of feathers and white linen—linen being the material of the typical uniform of the Aboriginal domestic servant—with antique branding irons hanging from its undercarriage. This sickening representation of women as cattle, branded in ownership, is part of the truthful history of Australia’s mistreatment of Indigenous women that we might feel more comfortable ignoring. It lives in our periphery, however, a dark stain on the edge of our subconscious collective past.
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
Clinton Nain What are you saying? 2007 Bitumen and synthetic polymer paint on canvas 102 x 102 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2007
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
Mimili artist Robert Fielding, an artist of Afghan, Yankunytjatjara and Western Arrente descent, is known for his meticulous linear dot landscapes. Fielding has recently adapted his technique to overpaint in gold on photographs of car wrecks found on the roadside between Mimili and Indulkana. The road, some seventy seven kilometres of connective tissue between two important sites situated within the Anangu/Pitjantjatjarra/Yankunytjatjara Lands, is littered with rusted and ruined car bodies, or as they are known colloquially ‘mutaka katalypa’. Fielding has called this series ‘Graveyards in Between’, referencing not only the sites at which the cars are located but also the journeying space between them and notes that the cars continue to hold the stories of their owners and the passengers they once carried.(Fielding, 2016) Like the fictional ‘Christine’, the possessed car from Stephen King’s 1983 schlock horror novel and film, each wreck is in some way inhabited by the ghosts of its journeys and chequered past. Similar to works undertaken by artists who record history and the traditional stories of particular communities and families, these works present multiple hierarchies of time in one image. Fielding states too that by combining old and new—photography and painting, rust and gold—he is bringing life back to a thing that has long since stopped being alive or useful in the present moment. The cars become markers of experience, a complex and contained snapshot of time and memory. These works bring the lived experience back into our consciousness as viewers, challenges us to make conscious aspects of memory and history that many might prefer to forget. Many Indigenous artists produce work that sheds light into our deepest collective wounds. While as a people we might exist ‘on the edge of town’ in terms of economic participation, with regards to opportunity or agency Indigenous Australian lives matter.
references Australian Government Law Reform Commission (ALRC). “Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws (ALRC Report 31)”. 12 June 1986. alrc.gov.au/ sites/default/files/pdfs/publications/ALRC31.pdf (accessed 12 July 2016) Fielding, Robert. Artist statement, 2016. opposite Robert Fielding Graveyards in Between 2016 Metallic synthetic polymer paint pen on photograph, 42 x 60 cm (each) Artbank collection, purchased 2016
Totally Entwined Benjamin Chadbond & Patrick Mason
“The electric light is pure information.” —Marshall McLuhan, 1967
Let’s start with light —“pure information”. Quantum theory tells us that there is a duality at the heart of light. Depending on how it is observed it will appear as either a wave or a particle.
However, physicist David Bohm, in his notion of the implicate order, prefers to think of the wave and the particle co-existing simultaneously with the wave ‘informing’ the motion of the particle in a kind of dance. The etymological root of implicate is implicare—to entwine.
In 1948, while working at Bell Laboratories, Claude Shannon wrote his landmark paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. In this paper Shannon introduced the term ‘bit’, a portmanteau of binary digit, for the most basic unit of information.(1) The bit can be one of two states, usually represented as either 0 or 1, by which any form of information can be encoded. From this point on, information, like light, appeared to take two main forms: the smooth, undulating curves of a sinusoidal analogue signal and the concatenation of discrete digital bits—waves and particles.
The sine wave of an analogue signal could be seen as a graphic representation of the over and under process of weaving.
However, a woven pattern when viewed only from above—or below—has the appearance of a fragmented coded signal— warp and weft. Off and on. Zero and one. Depending on perspective one sees only the wave or the bit. Analogue or digital. The development from analogue to digital information technology when viewed from a certain perspective, also takes on the appearance of being woven—literally and metaphorically. Would it be too much of a stretch to apply Bohm’s theories to information? Let’s consider for a moment that analogue and digital are not two separate parts but rather totally entwined. Let’s keep following this thread...
Woven cloth was one of the first technologies to allow for the storage and retrieval of information. “Patterned cloth in particular is infinitely variable and, like a language, can encode arbitrarily any message whatever...it can also be used as a mnemonic device to record events and other data.” (Barber, 149) In 1725, Basile Bouchon designed a loom that could be programmed to weave intricate patterns by a loop of perforated paper. Where there was a hole the corresponding warp thread stayed down and where there was not the thread was lifted; the shuttle was passed through and then the paper would be advanced to the next line of holes. This innovation eventually led to the Jacquard loom and punch cards which were a direct influence on Charles Babbage—the so called ‘father of the computer’. It continues... Core rope memory was an early form of read-only memory, or ROM, which was used in the 1960s in the Apollo Guidance Computer to help navigate the Apollo Lunar Module to the moon. It was made up of wires and magnetic rings—or cores. If the wire went through a core it represented a one and if it bypassed a core it represented a zero. The software in core rope memory was literally woven by hand; earning the process the nickname of the L.O.L.—Little Old Lady—method.
So what’s the point of all of this? The point is that to consider analogue or digital as being separate and independent of one another is to obscure their true interrelated nature—it is to fetishise them. This fragmentation finds particular expression in the world of publishing. We are constantly bombarded with claims that “print is dead” while at the same time smallpress publishing flourishes. This a testament to the point that to ignore one in favour of the other is to the detriment of both. To look only at the warp or the weft is to miss the intricate and often beautiful pattern they form when combined. Warp and weft, wave and particle, analogue and digital—observe both.
references Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years—Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1995. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Sphere Books, 1967. Shannon, Claude. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. The Bell System Technical Journal 27.3 (1948): 379-423.
An Uncanny Symmetry: Técha Noble Eleanor Zeichner
In JG Ballard’s 1966 novel The Crystal World, a doctor attempting to reach a leprosy treatment facility in a remote jungle discovers that the jungle itself is afflicted with a terrible phenomenon that crystallises all living things. Dazzling and grotesque, the phenomenon results from the collision of ‘time’ and ‘anti-time’, petrifying the forest and the people and creatures within. It imagines a forsaken world in the wake of environmental catastrophe where time is held in a state of eternal, perversely beautiful, suspension.
AN UNCANNY SYMMETRY: TรCHA NOBLE
Techรก Noble Ocelot Oracle 2016 Installation at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin Image courtesy of the artist
Passage 2015 Performance still Commissioned for ‘Treatment’ (2015), Western Treatment Plant, Werribee, Victoria Image courtesy of the artist
AN UNCANNY SYMMETRY: TÉCHA NOBLE
Técha Noble cites Ballard’s dystopian novel as a touchstone for her multidisciplinary practice. Her solo work, as with her work made since 2000 in the collaborative The Kingpins, explores these boundaries and collisions: between real and metaphoric time and space, between the sacred and the profane, between the masculine and feminine, between the human and non-human body, between the horrific and the sublime. Her recent works both animate and explode these supposed dualities, creating new composite forms and figures that resist explicit categorisation, incorporating performance, installation, costume, printmaking, video and sculpture. As Noble states, “I am seeking out stories in my own work that collapse the boundaries of the body with what we define as nature.” A recent video, for example, That Self—made in collaboration with Jordan Graham and Casey Legler— demonstrates the permeability of gender boundaries. Legler is a female fashion model signed to a male modeling agency, and in this work delivers a series of gestures that shift from ‘masculine’ to ‘feminine’ over a sustained six minute close-up; a performance unbound from the external context of a fashion shoot. By contrast for ‘Treatment’, a live art event held at Melbourne Water Western Treatment Plant in 2015—a sewage plant in Werribee—Noble contributed Passage, an elaborately costumed performance that narrativised the sewage treatment process from shit to gold, as Noble describes. Her recent work with The Kingpins uses costume to a similarly spectacular effect. Spider Nanny, a 2013 video commission for Artbank, features a composite creature whose hot pink body rapidly expands and explodes, raining confetti down on the grinning faces of the women revealed to be inside. Appended by eight pantyhosed and high-heeled legs like a chorus line in the round, the creature is part money spider, part piggy bank, a canny reflection on Artbank’s role as a collecting, commissioning and leasing institution. Loosening the grip of reality from spectacle, Noble creates alternate visions far more radical than our dominant cultural narratives allow. In Noble’s work for ‘Day For Night’ (2015)—a Performance Space program conceived of by curators Jeff Khan and fellow Kingpin Emma Price as a celebration of queer performance practice in the context of party culture—the first in a recent series of composite creatures appeared. Party Body Rewind used contemporary dance choreography and finely detailed costuming to animate a creature known as a baku: a Japanese deity who devours nightmares and is said to be composed of the leftover parts of other animals. Three dancers in printed bodysuits adorned with blonde wigs formed the creature, two with an eye each on their backs while the third creating the snout of the beast, writhing and twerking to manipulate its facial expressions. It snarled “I...woke...up... like...this”, Beyoncé’s defiant line distorted to a slow-motion drawl, then disintegrated as the dancers rose to complete the performance; a hybrid animal unbound by the laws of nature. Likening this use of pre-recorded audio to the drag performances of The Kingpins, Noble explains, “techniques 49
from drag allow me to explore that idea of the unboundedness of being and play around with how consciousness animates the body. Gender from costume or voice is just the palette of possibility.” Ocelot Oracle, produced during Noble’s 2015–16 Kunstlerhaus Bethanien residency in Berlin, saw the creation of a new composite body creature. Extending the interplay of live and recorded performance, the work explores the temporal implications of performance, as well as the uncanny, disorienting or deceptive techniques performance can use to manipulate time. Noble combines the rich language of the theatrical tradition, including aspects of puppetry, drag and vaudeville, with the visual trickery of video editing to recalibrate the appearance of time, collapsing it into a cyclic loop. As a performance to camera, Ocelot Oracle relies on the ability of the dancers to view a live video playback of their performance, a technique first used in Party Body Rewind. Noble explains that this process creates a slippage for the performers themselves, stating, “video gave us as performers a perceptual shift where we were reliant on seeing our bodies in front of us and responding to the success of that image”. Each dancer must uphold their position in relation to the others, continually adjusting and recalibrating the image in a process of perpetual movement and creation. Extending this technique, Noble has reversed the captured footage to choreograph a mirror image version of the original. Recalling the notion of ‘collapsed present time’—that Rosalind Krauss used to describe the works of Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci—Noble creates a mirroring effect in which the playback and the live performance are in torsion: the video apparatus itself as an active agent in the performance. Viewed simultaneously, the dancers fall in and out of sync, each frame reflecting the other. Like the growth of a crystal, it forms an uncanny, yet imperfect, symmetry. Noble’s 2015 video installation, The Line from Daytona Beach, Florida to the Lyrebird Dell, Leura, presents an alternative vision to the heroic landscape tradition as another distortion of duality. Composed of dozens of individual close ups of the landscape: the surface of the water, a fern frond, a waterfall—each is captured and framed within a glitter window. Noble creates a decorative intervention in the landscape, an artificial lens that both activates and obstructs its subject, forming a kaleidoscopic pattern. Disorienting, claustrophobic and dazzling, it evokes both Ballard’s crystal jungle and the sinister duplications of phenomena in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel (1940), in which a scientist on a deserted island invents a machine that simultaneously reproduces and annihilates reality. Noble points to the popular mythology of the Australian landscape as beset by a terrifying supernaturalism or brutality: “There is a malevolence to our stories of nature, which is maintained through cultural export, that I believe comes from misunderstanding or a lack of deep-rooted spiritual, ritualised integration to place.” By presenting this highly
artificial rendering Noble implicitly critiques other equally subjective but culturally dominant Anglo-Saxon impressions of the landscape, favouring multiplicity over homogeneity. “For me, good art is within the realm of the ineffable and has a strange slippage to things which are hard to define,” Noble says. Her hybrid creatures, costumes, videos and performances reveal the absurdity of fixed dualities. She blurs their boundaries, creating an alternative at once seductive, menacing and uncanny. As a fellow passenger on the riverboat travelling into the crystallised jungle says to Ballard’s intrepid doctor, “Day and night—do they mean much any longer?”
references All quotes from Técha Noble are from conversations with the author, June 2016. opposite The Kingpins Spider Nanny 2013 (stills) Digital video, 2:05 mins Artbank collection, commissioned 2013
AN UNCANNY SYMMETRY: TÃ‰CHA NOBLE
Needlepoint of no return... Miriam Kelly
Textiles terminology is deeply embedded within our metaphoric vocabulary: history is woven; ideas are threads of a narrative and can be entwined; to incriminate is to stitch up and critique is couched; the brow is knitted and the eyes have the wool pulled over them; complex ideas are unpicked or unravelled; composite demographics make up a social fabric and everything is part of the rich tapestry of life. For Kristeva, Barthes and Derrida, among others, text is woven. Perhaps Madonna’s ‘material world’ was really a reference to the fundamental yet subliminally symbolic role cloth plays in our everyday. In 1984, in her now well quoted publication The Subversive Stitch, Rosika Parker cited the needle as the new ‘pen’; “a weapon of resistance” in the production of alternate discourses of power.(ix)
Leah Emery Tent 2014 Cotton on vintage Aida cloth 36 x 37 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2014 following Troy‑Anthony Baylis (pink) Poles 2006–10 (detail) Knitted synthetic yarn 240 x 300 x 100 cm (overall) Artbank collection, purchased 2010
NEEDLEPOINT OF NO RETURN...
Over the past decade, textiles and their symbolism have had a revival in the visual arts. While Parker’s reference was specifically situated within the discourse of feminism and textile practice of the 1970s and early 1980s, it is a sentiment that still holds true for much of this contemporary textile based work. Many artists working with cloth in an Australian context are worthy of discussion, and indeed have prompted a number of fibre focused shows, including most recently ‘Fabrik’ (2016) curated by Jane O’Neill across three Melbourne venues. As O’Neill acknowledges, for some textiles is a new frontier—one medium among many, driven by concept or concern—while for others fabric is an enduring key expression of their visual language.(18) In both cases, these artists recognise the agency the material possesses in relation to power, among an array of pertinent social and political concerns. Leah Emery and Carla Adams for example have engaged with the tactility and domestic associations with textiles to address the nature of personal relations and the consumption of the body in the ‘digital age’. Dale Harding, Troy-Anthony Baylis and Paul Yore draw on cultural and gendered associations with the labour and processes of creating cloth to honour the strength of alternate voices. Will French, Archie Moore and Raquel Ormella unpack and disrupt the symbolism of flags, specific to issues of Australian nation-hood and colonisation.
fabricated narratives “u shaved?” demands one of Carla Adams’s crudely woven portraits. “You want me baby xx” asserts another. Perth based Adams is interested in the “contested space of online dating.”(Adams, 2014) Over a number of years she has gleaned content, language and imagery from an engagement with forums such as OKCupid, Chatroulette and Craigslist, and developed responses in painting, ceramics, installation, video and textiles. u shaved (2015) is a blocky, almost pixelated and defiantly two-dimensional portrait of a potential suitor, comprised of wool rope, parachute cord, cotton sashes and electroluminescent wires—and a tuft of furry fabric chest hair. Adams is interested in materials that “reference the physicality and materiality of the body and the desire to touch,”(2014) yet contextualises this with titles drawn from the often brutal reality of the online vernacular expression of said desire; How many fucks u had? Inspired by an experience of being aggressively pursued online by a user named ‘Maverick’, Adams’s woven sketches of suitors were accompanied in an exhibition of the same name by a digital self portrait as an OKCupid questionnaire, as well as a wall of woven fleshy pink abstracted unsolicited ‘dick pics’, You like it? (2015). Beneath Adams’s playfulness in such works is an astute consideration of the complexity of online anonymity: the fabrication of identity; the mediation of the body via the screen; power and the potential for 55
harassment in a space in which people feel free to act in a manner that might be socially unacceptable and sexist, even illegal in their everyday reality.. Leah Emery turned to cross stitch as a way of processing a bombardment of unsolicited pornographic material via loose spam filter in a former workplace. “I’d never cross stitched before…so my first cross stitch was a hard core pornographic image.”(Emery, 2014) Brisbane based Emery found this medium— often prefixed with words like ‘gentle’ and ‘craft’—offered the perfect “cringe inducing conflict.” The depiction of carnal desire and urgency is at odds with the hours of labour involved in production. Initially a way of processing her response to the explicitness of the spam, the works also became a way of considering contemporary attitudes towards sex and de-sensitisation more broadly; Emery notes she no longer sees explicit images in the same way. Seeking out aesthetic parallels, sometimes referring to compositions of bodies as “landscapes”, Emery has increasingly used older content as her starting point. Vintage pornography has much more “interesting and intriguing appeal,” she notes, as “wrinkle and blemish free direction aren’t the primary priority. The positioning of the limbs mid-coitus is depicted in a more humanly authentic way.”(McBurnie, 2014) Emery’s scenes are often abstracted by the pixelated nature of the stitch, and she delights in the ambiguity and delayed recognition. Like Adams, Emery offers a whimsical request to slow down, to consider the distance that is able to forged from the titillation—or brutality—intended by such content when presented out of context. “It’s not the intention to shock,” Emery notes, “I just like the idea of contributing to a healthy sexual debate, which I don’t think we have a lot of in the media these days.”(2014)
colour by number: stitch new spaces Dale Harding, a Brisbane based artist of Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal heritage, also sees the potential in recontextualising the domestic, cultural and gendered associations with cross stitch, demonstrated in his 2012 series ‘Colour by Number’. On the one hand, this title makes reference to the means by which twentieth century Australian authorities graded Aboriginality by the tone of a child’s skin; a process associated with the act of forced removal. (Perkins, 2008) On the other, Harding is playing on the association with the popularity of DIY cross stitch packs, and borrowing from the historical aesthetic of the European ‘sampler’. Originally a benign means for recording or trialling patterns for later use in larger embroideries, by the late eighteenth century the sampler had become an essential part of a girl’s education, either in the home or by the church. (Schoesser, 108; Sebba, 113–121) The sampler’s popularity into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with its saccharine affirmations of domestic bliss, also became imbued with connotations of both privilege and repression.
Harding’s appropriation of the sampler seeks to subvert its compositional shackles, and claim this as a site of strength. “Bless our home with Brown Love,” chirrups the stitching on the pristine white Aida cloth of And all who enter (2012). Adorning the space surrounding Harding’s political, punloaded texts are an array of brightly coloured, recognisable symbols: love hearts, Vegemite jars, pink-tipped grass trees, among other flora and fauna. Harding draws us in to these works with wry humour, perky colours, playful stitching and the familiarity of these references, yet quickly unsettles their symbolism. Presenting an alternate coat of arms, for example—comprising a cockatoo, kangaroo and double male signs—invites reflection on what curator Léuli Eshraghi describes as “complex sexual, romantic and spiritual relationships between people and between people and country,” and shows “that things are not as simple as they seem.”(4) Troy-Anthony Baylis similarly seeks to address historical gaps and honor those whose narratives have been suppressed by recontextualising the domestic ‘baggage’ of textiles ranging from glomesh to knitting. A descendant of the Jawoyn of the Kimberley region, Baylis endeavours to “reignit[e], reinvigorat[e] and reimagin[e] QueerAboriginal knowledge against the conventional ways in which colonisation has denied, repressed, and muted non-heterosexual ways of being, knowing and doing Aboriginality.”(2012, 98) Hand knitted in variegated shades, his 2006 to 2010 sereis ‘(pink) Poles’ comprises ten elongated tubes that Baylis noted refer to the form of burial poles still made in many Aboriginal communities. The process of hand knitting these poles calls to mind the familial production of garments designed to warm the bodies of loved ones. In this work, Baylis’s bodies are those of the “Queer-Aboriginal” population of the past and present. Like many textile processes, knitting is intensive and durational. Made over a four year period, in what he describes as a grief-governed “performance of making,” these knits are offered as “monument to death and survival.” (2016) Paul Yore too is interested in the labour both involved in, and implied by textile based practices. Yore enjoys needlepoint, weaving and appliqué for their “therapeutic and reflexive” qualities, and has variously described them as domestic, tactile and approachable.(Newton, 2013; Yore, 2015) He finds pleasure in the odds of his practice with the pace of contemporary life, particularly expectations around immediate gratification.(2015) Yet, his work thrives on the subversion of these associations, and mirroring back of the world Yore escapes in ever more cacophonous form. “I want my work to reflect the ways in which one experiences the world,” he explains, “as a distorted, fragmented, fluctuating set of systems, signs and codes.” (Newton, 2013) Like Baylis and Harding, Yore has also chosen to work with textiles to disrupt constructions of gender and sexuality, alongside references to a range of other social and political concerns, including nationalism. A work like The Glorious Dawn (2013), for example, is laden with references—both
public and private, literal and allegorical—as Yore positions rainbows, serpents, cockatoos, skulls, fire, gold and bloodlike rain alongside the phrase from the national anthem that positions Australians beneath the Southern Cross. The presence of this constellation in the form of the Eureka Stockade flag here speaks to the mutability of such symbols in contemporary Australia and is pertinent to the developments of race-driven nationalism, bigotry and fear since the 2005 Cronulla riots.
australia rising: the flag The Australian flag is an increasingly contested object within, and always fluttering at the helm of critical discussions about nationalism (made ever more surreal by the ubiquity of hypermarketed kitsch, from jocks to stubby holders). A number of Australian artists have cited, critiqued and re-contextualised the use and abuse of this symbolism in an attempt to unpack and destabilise its power. For Sydney and Canberra based Raquel Ormella, who has worked with this material for almost a decade, the flag has become and articulate shorthand for political critique. The large scale work Australia Rising #1 (2008)—which sits somewhere between protest sign and celebratory party banner—features a background patchwork of a partial Australian flag, almost completely frayed into non-existence. Trimmed with bedraggled ribbons and appliquéd with letters in green shimmering gold—registered as ‘official’ national colours since 1984— the part-Olympic tracksuit, part-flag reads ‘mutual obligation’. Ormella borrowed this phrase from the rhetoric around welfare reform that first emerged internationally in the 1990s, and came to a head in Australian around this time. Here, Ormella gives visual form to what Sarah Scott describes as “the gap between government generated nationalist sentiment and the reality of the [Australian] government’s social policy.”(Scott, 2008) Like Ormella, Will French has employed the flag as a ‘readymade’ to both manipulate and query “the surety of its symbolism”.(2008) Black Jack (2008) simply comprises a large scale antique woollen Union Jack that has been dyed black. Close inspection reveals that the flag bears the scars of time, with rips and nicks across its woven surface, and the dye is not a solid black, allowing red and blue tones to surface subtly, giving the cloth a faded even more aged appearance. However, from a distance the flag to almost completely disappears. Intentionally framed behind highly reflective acrylic, we as viewers are implicated within the object and at the same time removed from the tactility of the cloth. The flag feels like a museological relic, its purpose curtailed, its symbolism a thing of the past. Combined with the pun of his title—the objective of black jack as a gambling game is to beat the dealer—French’s Black Jack pays homage to the darkness in Australia’s colonial past and its legacy in the present.
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Paul Yore The Glorious Dawn 2013 Synthetic and metallic thread on wool and cotton, 107.5 x 147 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2013
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Archie Moore’s 14 Queensland Nations (Nations imagined by RH Matthews) (2015) similarly engages with colonial authority in the telling of Australia’s histories. Comprising fourteen flags, this work by the Brisbane based Kamilaroi artist references the research of colonial anthropologist RH Matthews who in 1900—with questionable data and a good dose of privilege—mapped the boundaries of Aboriginal nations, including fourteen in Queensland. Moore’s flags are designed as a homage to these problematic fictionalised nations, and are composites of symbols gleaned from an array of existing nations’ flags, selected with reference to Matthews’s systematic descriptions of each nation’s characteristics. Accordingly, the fourteen flags “don’t create, allocate or represent identities of peoples in the areas.”(Moore, 2014) Instead they expose the role of imagination in ideas of nationhood more broadly. In their first iteration, Moore presented the flags poles in the grounds of University of Queensland, and described them as “[a]rtworks masquerading as flags”. They are banners of great political agency hiding in plain sight. “These false flags do not hide their own dualities,” Moore noted at the associated symposium, “and are intended to be ambiguous and contradictory, to raise questions of authenticity.”(2014) Authenticity carried a complex aura that is also associated with words like tradition. Such terms speak to the idea of explicit binaries of truth and fabrication. They are words that allude to the value that we believe is inherent in material culture, yet is left so tenuous by the importance of language and context. The engagement with textiles, with a very specific type of material culture in the works of these eight artists sees a subversion and disruption of the ‘authenticity’ and ‘traditions’ associated with this medium. Textiles are so familiar, so deeply embedded within our language and everyday that they draws us. These artists use that power to to deliver a blow of bold and pertinent critique and present Parker’s “alternate discourses”.
Raquel Ormella Australia Rising #1 2007 Cotton, felt, metallic thread and ribbon applique, 82.5 x 436 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2009 following Will French Black Jack 2008 Dyed antique wool Union Jack, Tasmanian oak frame, 180 x 347 cm Artbank collection, gift of Les Fallick 2014 Donated under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
references Adams, Carla. “MAVERICK”. Artist statement, 2015. carlaadams.net/maverick/ (accessed 16 April, 2016).
Eshraghi, Léuli. Ua numi le fau. Melbourne: Gertrude Contemporary and Next Wave, 2016.
Baylis, Troy-Anthony. “Queerly Speaking: Troy-Anthony Baylis”. Artlink. 32.2, 2012.
French, Will. “Black Jack”. Artist statement 2008. willfrench.com.au/jack.html (accessed 3 March 2014).
Baylis, Troy-Anthony, email conversation with the author, 12 July 2016.
McBurnie, Jonathan. “Explicit Materials: The art of Leah Emery”. Sneaky Mag. 2014. sneakymag.com/art/explicit-materials-the-art-of-leah-emery/ (accessed October 2014)
Cheng, Peter. “Carla Adams”. Perth Artists: Documentary Series. 01.04, 22 June 2014. perthartists.com/s01e04-carla-adams/ (accessed 16 April, 2016). Emery, Leah. “Cross Stitch Porn”. The Feed. 15 April 2014. sbs.com.au/ondemand/ video/227196995556/cross-stitch-porn-the-feed (accessed 19 June 2016).
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Moore, Archie. “14 Queensland Nations: (Nations imagined by RH Matthews)”. Unpublished paper presented at the University of Queensland Symposium, Courting Blackness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University. 5–6 September 2014. Newton, Geoff. Like Mike. Melbourne: Linen Centre for Contemporary Arts. 2013.
Scott, Sarah. “Territorial”. Artlink. 27:4, 2007. artlink.com.au/articles/3052/ territorial/ (accessed 24 June 2016) Sebba, Anne, Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
O’Neill, Jane. Fabrik: conceptual, minimalist and performative approached to textiles. Melbourne: Emblem Books, 2016.
Wyld, Frances. “Archie Moore 14 Queensland Nations: (Nations imagined by RH Matthews)”. Artlink. 35.2, 2015. artlink.com.au/articles/4343/archie-mooreE28093-14-queensland-nations-28nations-imag/ (accessed 20 March 2016).
Parker, Rozsika The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: LB Tauris, 2010 (second edition).
Yore, Paul and Mr X. “Embroidery – Paul Yore”. Mr X Stitch. 8 March 2015. mrxstitch.com/embroidery-paul-yore/ (Accessed 30 June 2016).
How Many Times Can You Keep Painting the Mona Lisa? Kate Britton
Recently I spent a sweaty, euphoric night on the dance floor of a queer party called Pink Bubble, run by the artist Justin Shoulder. The next morning Australia woke to news from Orlando; 49 dead and 53 injured in an attack on a gay club, the victims largely Latino and QTPOC; a shocking and incommensurable act of violence against the queer community. Our politicians were slow to acknowledge the pointed target of the attack, a silence that piles upon a long history of silences, burying a queer past within which this event will take its place. Orlando served to crystallise for many in the queer community a number of struggles: visibility; solidarity; our right to safe spaces and to the telling and hearing of our histories, particularly QTPOC and non-cisgendered bodies.
Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra Deep Alamat 2014 (stills) High definition digital video, 4:09 mins Artbank collection, commissioned 2014
HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU KEEP PAINTING THE MONA LISA?
It was in service of this last imperative that I recently spent an evening with the artist Christine Dean. I was there to hear her story, one amongst many that make up the fabric of Sydney’s queer history. There are innumerable threads running through Dean’s life, distinct yet wound together like rope. To understand her art is to understand her life— sexuality, gender, art history, gay and trans politics, particular eras and places all come into vibrant relation. For Dean, as for most practicing artists, art is life and life is art. Listening to her story, one piece of a history I count as my own, I was struck with a sense of lineage; the continuity of queer lives and chosen families. For Dean, this lineage is both personal and epochal. “One of the exciting things about being transgender now is that it’s like being gay thirty years ago,” she tells me. “Being gay in 1983 when I came out, it was a culture in formation. And the transgender scene is a culture in formation. It’s this sort of seminal moment—this germane moment in the history of a culture and it’s a nice place to be, particularly if you’re some sort of cultural theorist.” And cultural theorist Dean is; her art is both a patchwork history of queer culture in Australia and an exercise in formalism. “The problem with queer and gay art is that it’s almost too subjective,” she muses. “Gay men just want to paint penises all the time. I used to go around and count how many penises they could fit in a painting, it was wild. It becomes like a fetish more than art.” In an effort to move beyond what she saw as a siloing of queer art practice, Dean turned to art history and formalism to provide a framework.
In the 1990s, she was involved in a Sydney artist run space on Erskine Street called CBD Gallery and got into conceptual abstraction and monochromatic painting. “1990 was an interesting time in Australian art. All that bad 1980s painting, which was market driven, fell by the wayside... The pink monochrome became my sort of emblem,” she reflects. “I’d boiled down an entire art practice and an entire sort of artistic sensibility into a singular entity, and that’s what I wanted to do as an artist. The pink monochrome said it all for me.” In 2010 Dean completed her doctorate on the history of pink monochrome. Looking back on this time, she mostly remembers her mounting struggle to come to terms with her identity. “That period was just this feeling of aching gender dysphoria. The funny thing is with gender dysphoria is it follows you like a shadow. I thought I could escape it or outrun it or side-step it in some way through critical thinking but as I got older it got stronger and stronger. As Barbara Kruger said ‘YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND’—well, my monochromes were a battleground. I was trying to reconcile the masculine and the feminine energies.” In some works, Dean seeks this reconciliation in quotes drawn from her expansive collection of pulp fiction set in Kings Cross. One painting, for example, includes the quote: “96 Kings Cross lifts the roof on the sex cauldron of lesbianism, drugs, wife swapping and every conceivable vice in a notoriously shocking apartment block.” In other works, the masculinity of the monochrome played against the femininity of the painting’s surface, often ephemera from her life: doilies from
HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU KEEP PAINTING THE MONA LISA?
her late grandmother; chenille bedspreads; male clothing from her father, which she wore for many years before transitioning. “There was always the threat of violence; I’ve got friends with dents in their skulls from knuckle dusters, getting beat up around Taylor Square. I thought I’ve got to protect myself and the only way I could think of to do that was to mimic my father because, you know, he’s a tough guy, he’s really macho. He has a moustache and his name is Barry and he’s of that certain generation; he’s from a family of sportsmen and all that. So I did a bit of a Barry and I spent much of my adult life wearing his hand-me-downs. In the end, what I did was all of that clothing, it ended up in an exhibition called ‘Fabrik’ (2016) [at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne]. I kept all my male clothing because I knew I would turn it into art. It was quite moving, like dismembering a body.” Reaching the point where she could make and exhibit work using these clothes was hard-won for Dean. She credits moving to Kings Cross more than a decade ago as the turning point. “I embarked on a series of paintings looking at the history of Kings Cross, the queer history predominantly. For me it was this clashing of all these different colourful forms.” As she worked, Dean became increasingly occupied with the area’s transgender history. “It was like something was trying to come out. I’ve always tried to exorcise my demons through art, but now the art was almost talking back to me, and it was too much.” Once again, Dean turned to 65
painting for solace, but found herself stalled while painting a quote by Ayesha, a performer at Les Girls. The quote read: “I don’t miss being a full time show girl because how many times can you keep painting the Mona Lisa?” The painting triggered something in Dean. “I looked at it and I said to myself ‘I’m not making any more paintings about other people’s transgendered experience’. I was trapped. It was a real conundrum.” Unable to resolve the work, she stopped making art for the first time in her life. “Oscar Wilde famously said, you’ve either got to be a work of art or make a work of art—and I thought, well, maybe it’s my chance to be a work of art rather than try to work myself out through art.” Eventually, Dean resolved to begin her transition and returned to painting. She finished the work, titled it Show Girl, exhibited it in ‘Sydney Painting Now’, a group show at Galerie Pompom in Sydney shortly afterwards. Dean hasn’t looked back. “I suppose in life we all keep evolving to become more ourselves in the course of time. It’s something to aim for. Throwing caution to the wind.” Christopher Dean Blue 1997 Doilies, enamel, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 56 x 56 cm Yellow 1997 Doilies, enamel, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 46 x 46 cm Pink 1997 Doilies, enamel, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 38 x 38 cm Artbank collection, purchased 1997
For Dean, as for so many queer artists, art has been the constant in a tumultuous life. “All these difficult situations— I’ve tried to convert all of that into some sort of productive outlet through art,” she smiles. “Art’s always been the way to—it’s been a sort of safety valve.” And like all good queer utopians, Dean is looking to future. “Where I’m going from here, I’m not really sure. I’d like to do something collaborative and I want to work with Michelle Collocott. She’s a very interesting artist and she ticks all the boxes: she works with Colour Field and abstract painting; she works with text. I’ve said to her, [the chance of] us meeting was one in a million. Less probably, one in ten million.” “We all have a responsibility to speak out,” said the late artist David McDiarmid, “[t]o bang the tribal drums of the jungle telegraph—‘I’m here, girlfriend; what’s new?’” We’ve always created these languages as we’ve shaped our identities.” (70) As one am ticked over at Pink Bubble the dance floor paused to watch Justin Shoulder perform a new work, an example par excellence of new languages of queerness. The creation of languages often falls to artists, and the queer community is no exception. It’s something Dean has done for over thirty years, first as a gay man and now as a trans woman, carving out space for herself in a hostile society. Shoulder and his peers are a new generation of queer artists, joining a local lineage that includes artists like Dean, McDiarmid, Deborah Kelly, The Kingpins and countless others past and future. Shoulder’s performance saw him become a jerky robotic character with red pin-prick eyes, a visitor from another world staring out at us in this beautiful still moment of cyborg humanity amid a Dionysian party. Queer art breeds and manifests community; something worked and fought for across generations. The creation, experience and deciphering of these languages, the sharing of histories ever more replete with colour, the occupation of space and the re-ordering of time; these are the fruits of our queer labour, especially that of artists. From Pink Bubble to pink monochromes, Justin Shoulder to Christine Dean, queer spaces to queer texts; this myriad of queer practices moves ever towards what José Esteban Muñoz calls “the not-yet-conscious, a utopian feeling, anticipatory illumination of a queer world.” (2009)
references All quotes from Christine Dean are from a conversation with the author, June 2016. Dean, Christine. Notes & Quotes 1996–2015. Sydney: onestar press Book Machine, 2015. McDiarmid, David. “A Short History of Facial Hair”. David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2014. Muñoz, José. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.
HOW MANY TIMES CAN YOU KEEP PAINTING THE MONA LISA?
Christine Dean Show Girl (Ayesha) 2016 Oil on canvas, 57 x 57 cm Private collection Photograph Doqument, courtesy of Galerie Pompom, Sydney
following spread David McDiarmid Disco Kwilt c1980 (detail) Self‑adhesive holographic film on composition board, 134 x 196 cm Artbank collection, gift of Bernard Fitzgerald 2013 Donated under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
In Ancient Egypt Ibises were considered gods, emblazoned on the walls of tombs. The modern Australian Ibis, although loved by tourists, is widely vilified and mocked by locals with cruel names like ‘Bin Chicken’, ‘Flying Rat’ or ‘Tip Turkey’. Scientists claim that during the 1980s urbanisation drove the once noble Australian White Ibis away from its natural habitat of interior wetlands to coastal and city areas where it adapted and thrived on what we throw away.
Frank Hodgkinson Strawnecked Ibis 1986 Ink on paper, 79 x 98 cm Artbank collection, purchased 1988
CONSIDER THE IBIS
Hello, my name is Ken. I am one of Australia’s best and most famous artists. My lawyers and wife have urged me not to disclose my full name as what I am about to tell you is so shocking that it’s borderline libellous. They have further urged me to say that my name is not actually Ken and that this is a work of fiction and parody. If you approach me in person to discuss this I will strongly deny it. But my name is Ken. And this story is the whole truth. I have so much truth roiling up inside of me and you better grab an umbrella because it’s about to burst out of the truth reservoir of my mind like a rushing river of truth juice and soak you all in a mighty torrent of its trueness. Please forgive my writing, dear reader, I was never much of a word man. My main stock in trade has always been beautiful images. I create gorgeous vibrant paintings of Australian things like koalas, Sydney Harbour or the sun but he’s smiling and wearing a cool pair of sunnies. I also produce prints, tea towels, calendars, T-shirts, pillowcases and all sorts of other official merchandise that can be bought at my combination studio slash gift shop in Sydney, for competitive prices. Every morning I sit at my easel and look across the harbour to see the love of my life looking back at me like a gorgeous jagged pearl and then I begin to paint her. The first time we met was 1973 at her grand unveiling. I was thirty three years old at the time, still working in advertising. I never realised how incomplete I was until that moment. Before that day I had never thought to put paint to canvas. I had barely even doodled on a napkin. The first time I saw the Sydney Opera House an electric charge coursed through my whole body ricocheting to the tips of my extremities. I felt turgid with blood and wide awake for the first time in my life. Two years later I was a full time artist. Many people claim to love the Sydney Opera House but they mean that they love her in the same way they love a sunset or brand of cigarettes. My love is different. The technical term for my desire is Objectum Sexuality. It’s as real and complex as any love. I yearn to be intimate with the Opera House. And she yearns for me too. We love each other. For years I compensated for my longing with paintings. Wild combinations flowed out of me as if the brush was an extension of my very heart and mind. A lemon yellow Opera House on an electric blue harbour. An electric blue Opera House with a lemon yellow sun wearing electric blue RayBans smiling down from above. I even once painted a white Opera House emanating electric blue and lemon yellow wavy lines. The inspiration flowed out of me like hot crazy jazz, often directly from the tube on to the canvas. But it was never enough. We desired to be joined. To consume each other completely. The first time I made love to the Opera House was in 1982. Google Maps will tell you that it takes fifteen minutes to get from my studio slash gift shop to the Opera House forecourt but here’s a ‘life hack’ that should cut your travel time down to about two minutes. 71
1. Pick a quiet winter night when Circular Quay is deserted. 2. Go down to the edge of the water in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art. 3. Now, strip naked and dive into the cold black water. Let it envelope you. 4. Use your strong arms and legs as a pulsing lust motor to drive you forward. (The style of swimming you choose is unimportant, I myself prefer Breaststroke). 5. You’ll begin to notice expectation in your nether regions. Don’t be scared. You’re now a lust powered love boat and steadied by your personal rudder. 6. Close your eyes and allow your heart’s compass to point ‘true north’ as you cut a line right across the Harbour and into the arms of your lover with the speed of a JetCat. I began slowly and tentatively. I gently rubbed and caressed every single one of the fifteen thousand seven hundred Swedish tiles on her hard outer shell with my generous moustache before softly opening a door and going to town. A lot of people know that the Sydney Opera House is home to the world’s largest mechanical action organ with over ten thousand pipes. But what they definitely wouldn’t know, how could they, is that I have satisfied every single one. They may also know that her interior halls are also clad in glorious Australian brush box. But something they couldn’t tell you is that it tastes like honey when you run your tongue across it. That night with the Opera House we felt our flesh, bone, concrete and steel disintegrate and merge together as one. I could see the world through her eyes. A 360º panorama sixty five metres above sea level encapsulating the city, the Harbour, the Blue Mountains and Manly all at once. Truly a million dollar view. I felt the cool night air rush against my enamel skin and the waves lapping at my shoreline. As dawn broke I could feel our foundations shift as we climaxed as one. Juddering violently like a Chihuahua passing cherry seeds. The spines along our seven sails rippled and shook and I imagined hundreds of hard round spores being released into the air. The fruits of our love, danced in the air for a moment like dandelion seeds before floating down to settle in the harbour. I zipped my pants and crept back home. That afternoon there I saw a news report that Sydney Harbour was suddenly awash with Ibises, eating discarded chips and using their long beaks to salvage food from bins. The dandelions were eggs and the eggs had hatched. Hordes of Ibises have roamed the Sydney CBD since that day. Birthed from the divine union of an architectural marvel built on a midden of discarded oysters and a modern-day Mattise who understands the true demands of a competitive art market. Loved by tourists and reviled by locals. Bold, resourceful and misunderstood. Behold, the Ibis.
Getting to know you, putting it my way, but nicely Mark Shorter Renny Kodgers Tino La Bamba in conversation
Tino La Bamba Tino La Bamba: A Spaniardâ€™s Journey to Lismore 2009 Performance still Photography James Brown
GETTING TO KNOW YOU, PUTTING IT MY WAY, BUT NICELY
We live in a world of mutable identity play; from the numerous online avatars we might create and inhabit through to the roles we adopt and conceal as we navigate the spaces between our public and private lives. Within this distended identity-scape a desire for the authentic experience of self is often attempted. In The Artist is Present (2012), Marina Abramović sat across from her audience, unguarded and exposed for 736 hours, and in 2015 Caitlin Jenner revealed the intimate details of her personal journey in a ‘tell all’ article with Vanity Fair. But in this environment of hyper-honesty is an authentic expression of self truly possible? Or are such expositions merely adding to the number of mutable identities we desire to occupy? Mark Shorter’s practice addresses such concerns through the multiple identities he has inhabited over his career. From the lewd country lounge singer Renny Kodgers—who speaks in a broad Southern drawl and drips with a dirty fake tan—to the itinerant quixotic journeyman Tino La Bamba, a madman who takes on impossible and mythic challenges such as digging through the centre of the earth. And let’s not forget Schleimgurgeln, the guttural, non-verbal landscape painting critic who traverses two thousand years of imagined antipodean space and time. These characters reflect an approach to art making where the identity of the artist is slippery, unfixed and malleable, like a bad Andy Warhol interview it can’t be pinned down. But if we call out the alter-egos as theatres of the self, identities not to be trusted it makes you wonder: What if Shorter’s most effective fictional creation was himself as the artist behind these inauthentic beings? In a rare three-way interview, Melbourne based artist Mark Shorter goes toe-to-toe with Renny Kodgers and Tino La Bamba in an attempt to flesh out the true authority on his practice. One question remains: which of his many selves can truly be trusted?
Renny Kodgers and The Twilight Girls Fifty Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers 2014 (still) A Twilight Kodgers Film Photography Paul Borderi
GETTING TO KNOW YOU, PUTTING IT MY WAY, BUT NICELY
mark shorter: It is strange. I don’t think the three of us have been in the same place at the same time together. Of course, the two of you are with me all the time, you are in my thoughts, you are strategies or implements that I use to make art. If I have an idea I often consider you guys with respect to it. For instance, I often think: “What would Renny do?” renny kodgers: When I received this invitation to meet with the Great Tino La Bamba and his creator, Your Royal Highness Mark Shorter I thought to myself, are they trying to get me on the down-low? Is this some kind of perverse three-way-hand-tuggin tight conga-line-touchyfeely lubricated exchange? So I brought some duck fat. tino la bamba: I do not agree with this assertion, the notion that this Mark Shorter is some kind of creator-at-large. It makes this a hierarchy, an uneven platform of exchange. It puts us all on different niveles. You come before me and I after you. This idea makes no sense to me. If only it was nonsense then it may be something I might subscribe to. The way I see it, why must K come before L? Why can’t L come before K? And if L does come before K, what might that make you! ms: I suppose it means I am not your creator? rk: Amen tlb: Exactemente. In fact, if one were to subscribe to a hierarchy, which I do not, but if one were to then hablando francamente a more accurate description would be to say that it is us who created you. Think about it. You were nothing before us. You were just some kind of average painter, a contemporary Brett Whiteley but without the drug habit to make you intriguing to the general public. ms: Let’s take this conversation in another direction then. Let’s not get caught up in hierarchies, can we talk about the kind of art that each of us make? I think our approaches to making art and understanding art are very different. For instance Renny, you are very intuitive in the way you produce your performances. Things are done on the fly and you seem to let the meaning develop with what you make. rk: I think you mean moaning, not meaning. I am very interested in how moaning develops in a work of art. ms: I feel I am more critically engaged. I draw on art history, popular culture and also my past experiences as an artist to tease out the ideas conveyed in my work. I recently produced a sculpture for Artbank titled 77
Big Pinky (2016)—a return to the medium after working primarily with performance and installation for over a decade. Big Pinky became an important work for me, in that I have sought to reconcile my experimental performance based practice with my early formalist training at Sydney’s National Art School. Big Pinky was also inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23). You can see a nod to it through the turning black funnel, but also in the anthropomorphic qualities of the work: Big Pinky is a mechanical portrait of a kind of flawed male. It elegantly rises with its tall legs but its kinetic properties are clumsy and dysfunctional.
democracy to some of the most remote regions of the planet. Did I not, in a feat of unparalleled engineering tunnel from one side of the planet to the other bringing intercourse between the republics of Nueva Zealandia and Spain? But why make such statements. There is no need to compare me to you. You are a fraud. You claim to be “an artist”, but if I were to speak with honesty I would have to say that you are just a fortunate man. You are fortunate in that you have happened to be in the same place and time as The Great Tino La Bamba and Renny Kodgers. Because of this fact you have been able to claim our work as your own.
rk: You like the big words don’t you. I reckon that if someone asked you to describe a pineapple you wouldn’t be able to do in under five hundred pages. Fact, the best and fastest way to talk about something is to shove it up deep inside and listen to the timbre of the yelp. You talk about Big Pinky like it’s some kind of legacy to a man called Du-Chomp. Big Pinky is about two elements and two elements only: thrusting and timing. It ain’t no “Large Glass” and it ain’t no “reconciliation”. If it must be drawn into comparisons, it is like humping while eating a piece of toast. ms: So you turned it into a two-bit honky-tonk gambling machine. Big Pinky is best observed in the crisp clean setting of a gallery; where you can see its craftsmanship. You installed it in a night club and got everyone to bet on whether the eggs were empty or still had a yolk in them. If it was revealed that an egg had a yolk you’d shout out: “Preggie”. rk: I did indeed. But you act all high and mighty like I did you wrong. If you just think on it for one moment you’ll see I did you a solid. I did you a favour by turning the sculpture into a bingo machine. I got Big Pinky out there. I got its funnel turning. People got to clappin’. Folk got to pretend they were pregnant. That’s a win in my book. tlb: Señor Kodgers is right. You, Mister Mark are a pretentious and rude man. You have no class. You are petty and you are ungrateful. But perhaps your most ugly and defining quality is your ignorance. You underestimate The Great Tino La Bamba, Governor of Lismore and Lord of the Sixty-two Moons of Saturn. I have built space ships that have travelled all the way to Hobart and back. And if you dare to question my ability to build then you mock my dearest possession, Platanito. The mechanic steed that I built blind-folded with my bare hands: no tools, nothing but my palms to bend the metal into shape and my finger nails to screw her beautiful joints together. Just look at my accomplishments, have I not brought free will and
ms: I hate to burst your bubble Tino, but you didn’t build Platanito. And you didn’t tunnel to the other side of the world. In fact from all accounts you barely made it three metres. And you Renny, you’re a throw back to the 1950s, you’re a two-bit, one-liner entertainer with a penchant for jokes about arseholes and penises. You act like you’re everyone’s big daddy, but nobody likes you. Didn’t you get the message in 50 Ways to Kill Renny Kodgers? You get crushed, drowned, decapitated and suffocated and yet you still act like everyone wants to have you round for a Sunday dinner. And your radio show on FBi, it made the ears of listeners bleed. FBi couldn’t wait to can it. I could have killed you both off years ago but what would be the point. You’d continue to exist like zombies wandering around aim-lessly in the collective unconscious snacking on the vague vestiges of your own flotsam and jetsam.
above, opposite Mark Shorter Big Pinky 2016 Hardwood, steel, aluminium, eggshells, plaster, resin 180 x 150 x 90 cm Artbank collection, commissioned 2016
Outrageously Aesthetic: The Art of Andrew Nicholls Macushla Robinson
When Perth based artist Andrew Nicholls was growing up, a ceramic meat platter hung on the wall of his parents’ house. The platter depicted a picturesque Italian landscape with ruins by a river, in the famous blue-and-white pattern of British ceramics factory Spode. The platter was a wedding gift to his parents from his “aspirational” aunts who ran an antiques stall. Years later it would become central to Nicholls’s career as an artist. After completing his sculpture degree he spent long hours in his tiny Perth studio, his drawing pad his primary resource, and it was then that he began rehearsing Spode’s iconic Blue Italian design from his childhood, along with patterns by Wedgwood and Royal Doulton.
Andrew Nicholls Untitled (cobalt skull) 2016 Collaboration with Yu Xuan and Jingdezhen artisans Hand painted cobalt on porcelain, 30 x 35 x 35 cm Image courtesy of the artist Photography by Bewley Shaylor
Commercial British ceramics, with their bucolic faux-Rococo landscapes blending Italianate and Chinese styles, might seem innocuous and quaint. Yet as affect theorist Sianne Ngai suggests, marginal aesthetics such as ‘cuteness’ are “a way of aestheticizing powerlessness [that hinge] on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak.”(3/15). The sidelined status of British ceramics, which are categorised as ‘decorative arts’, reveals society’s aesthetic prejudices—the hierarchies that play out in taste. Such objects have emerged out of historically specific circumstances that embody both class and colonialism. For many British and Australian families such possessions reflected a bourgeois desire to show their class standing. A piece of fine crockery symbolised your position in society, your heritage and your ability to have and keep nice things. Such associations intrigue Nicholls, but his fascination goes further. His practice appropriates refined illustrative techniques and blue-and-white tones characteristic of British transfer-ware china. He applies his drawings to teacups and plates as decals—in a process akin to applying a temporary tattoo—or to paper, public walls and even the ceiling of the City of Perth Library using pens and Copic markers. The content of his drawings bend from tradition. In place of the mild-mannered landscapes and floral designs, Nicholls’s works depicts irreverent and fantastical homoerotic scenes. His drawings of men have the languid quality of long hot summers. Almost always naked, his subjects recall classical antiquity as imagined by Bernini, Michelangelo and Donatello: a merman with a fish’s head and human body reclines on a platter; naked fairy-boys crouch on unexpectedly phallic mushrooms or dance with skeletons; Adonis sits astride a horse; a centaur tilts his head back to devour some grapes. The drawings are exquisitely detailed and painstakingly precise—labours of love that the artist spends months completing—yet they explode with barely concealed carnality. Nicholls’s work seems only distantly related to the current wave of ceramic art within Australia and internationally. Much of this work, such as that of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Trevor Fry and Emily Hunt has a certain wildness to it, the wilful messiness of the hand-made. His work is, however, closely aligned with a group of artists who
subvert the blue-and-white and willow pattern and related designs—among them Danie Mellor, Robin Best, Gerry Wedd, Sarah Goffman and Vipoo Srivilasa. Nicholls’s work is intentionally classical; it is obsessive but not gestural or expressionist. Indeed the artist often describes his work as “deliberately cold”. His work is an uninhibited celebration of the male form, combined with an exuberant proliferation of imagery. Nicholls describes his aesthetic strategy as “camping” on the style of eighteenth and nineteenth century ceramics. British commercial ceramics could be called camp in and of themselves: they are highly collectible, yet because of their sentimental and decorative nature they have been relegated to the sidelines of art history. They are picturesque, sensuous and often excessively decorative. To borrow a term from Susan Sontag in her 1966 essay “Notes on Camp”, camp art is “outrageously aesthetic”. She elaborates on the idea of camp as a verb: “To camp is a mode of seduction—one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible to a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.”(280) Nicholls’s drawings and ceramics have this capacity for double meaning. They playfully subvert the ‘proper’ style of British ceramics with their mischievous and raunchy subject matter. This is deliberate: Nicholls engages this aesthetic tradition precisely because it is so often dismissed, as though he were daring us to ‘write it off ’. This is not to suggest that Nicholls’s work is impersonal. As he points out, his love for his aunt’s platter is something of a “guilty pleasure”. Indeed his concept of camp sits somewhere between love and critique. “You can’t camp on something without loving it, but it’s a kind of guilty love that is completely aware of the failure of the aesthetic”, Nicholls’s notes, crediting Travis Keller’s The Ontolog y of the Closet (2013) as his reference for this definition of ‘camp’. Much of Nicholls’s work is, at least in theory, functional. Commercial British ceramics are utilitarian—cups, plates and saucers that have an obvious function—yet they are rarefied and precious. So often the ‘good china’ is displayed in a cabinet or, as in Nicholls’s case, hung on the wall. The inbuilt prohibition against touch only heightens the sensual charge of these ceramics, which were designed for the hand, yet resist it. Nicholls plays on this hidden sensuality.
OUTRAGEOUSLY AESTHETIC: THE ART OF ANDREW NICHOLLS
This aspect led Nicholls to research the plate’s origins, a project that has included residencies at the Spode factory in Britain and more recently, at a pottery workshop in Jingdezhen—China’s foremost ceramic producing city. British commercial ceramics, which might seem like charming totems of another generation’s sentimental attachments are, he found, intimately bound up with the aspirational politics of class, indeed they are born out of British colonialism. Spode appropriated methods from China and fused with aristocratic foibles to create a hybrid design. The famous Blue Italian design, for example, fringes its Italian landscape incongruously with a decorative design of Chinese origin. Nicholls’s research into Spode began with his love for the individual plate. However, the research undermines the purity of his love by revealing its political entanglements. The things that we loved as children get complicated as we get older and learn more about the historical conditions under which they came into being. Nicholls’s strategy is thus one of both love and betrayal: he holds onto the aesthetic of British commercial ceramics that is personally significant, while at the same time facing the political implications of their history; the twofold legacies of class and colonialism. Perhaps because of Spode’s popular use of Italianate scenes, Nicholls is also fascinated with the position that Italy occupied in the British imaginary of the time. Italy was the site of an early, aristocratic phase of tourism. Young English men would travel south to complete their arts studies. Commonly referred to as ‘The Grand Tour’, such trips were a privileged experience that fed into high British culture: as the artist notes, the neoclassical style has become associated with civic culture (for example the neoclassical colonnades that are the common frontage of public buildings) and yet the young men who went on tour were, to use Nicholls’s phrase, “awful spoilt brats”. The Blue Italian design is merely an echo of these tours, a souvenir collected by those who could not afford such a jaunt themselves. Nicholls’s new commission for Artbank draws on this history, and the sensuality of classical antiquity, as if to remind us of the homoeroticism that is latent within this supposedly proper English tradition of the grand tour. Echoing Michelangelo’s Il Giudizio Universale [The Last Judgement] 1536–41, the planned multi-panel drawing will feature Christ and the Virgin in the centre of the work 83
flanked by various saints and angels, as well as hell and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In a strategy reminiscent of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novels, the panels can be arranged in two alternative configurations: in the first configuration all of the souls ascend to heaven. Nicholls describes heaven as a gruesome place. “I’ll depict all my favourite gory Catholic saints, such as Saint Lawrence, who was burned on a gridiron, Saint Bartholomew, who was flayed alive, Saint Peter of Verona, who is always depicted with an axe in his head, and of course Saint Sebastian, who I’ve wanted to draw for years”. The composition can be rearranged to become a long horizontal rectangle with Christ in the top left corner, and various demons stretching across the rest of the work. In this version all of the souls descend to hell, and the four horsemen transform into various demons from the Ars Goetia—a seventeenth century grimoire or book of spells and invocations. The Artbank work, along with a series made in Jingdezhen in early 2016, using overt imagery of death, suggests a new direction for Nicholls. Recent works—including these porcelain skull and cross-bones exquisitely-painted with cobalt in a traditional Chinese design—shift emphasis from cheeky Eros to darker ruminations on human finitude, Catholicism and the afterlife. Of course, the Catholic tradition, in which Nicholls was raised, combines both. His work delves into this tension, holding open a space for both Eros and death.
references All quotes from the artist are from conversation with the author, 21 May 2016 Jasper, Adam and Sianne Ngai. “Our Aesthetic Categories: An Interview with Sianne Ngai”. Cabinet Magazine: Forensics. 43, Fall 2011. Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp”. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. above Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis 2014 (detail) Archival ink pen on watercolour paper, 76 x 1,340 cm Image courtesy of the artist
Self Portrait with Magickal and Medicinal Plants 2012â€“2014 Archival ink pen on watercolour paper, 76 x 171 cm (overall) Image courtesy of the artist
OUTRAGEOUSLY AESTHETIC: THE ART OF ANDREW NICHOLLS
Things that Quicken the Heart Gina Mobayed
The heart is burdened and blessed with a volume of adjectives used for our defining moments in life: beating, big, broken, heavy, bleeding, full. Sitting in the very centre of our physical being, encased within a cage of bone lies the vital organ, weighted with the responsibility of keeping us alive, and the fear of what may happen when it stops. We learn early that it is a symbol of love <3 In the binary of the brain, two hemispheres work to weigh logic and reason against desire, risk and consequence. Yet it is the heart that will break if the rush is too strong, or burst if the joy too great. It is our referent to all things exquisite and all things unbearable. The following works capture moments of human experience when the sensation felt was powerful enough to slip beyond the viscera protecting the heart, and interrupt its rhythm. They are strung together simply for their suggestion of intensity, and offer us reminders of what it is to find our way and connect to ourselves, or another.Â
Todd McMillan Flare 2012 (detail) Type C photograph 117 x 96 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2013
Heidi Yardley Twoism 2015 Charcoal on gesso primed paper, 133.2 x 165.7 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2015
THINGS THAT QUICKEN THE HEART
Mel Oâ€™Callaghan ENDGAME 2012 (still) High definition digital video, 2:54 mins Artbank collection, purchased 2014
Siri Hayes Kite 2008 Type C photograph, 125.5 x 155 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2011
THINGS THAT QUICKEN THE HEART
Clare Rae Untitled #1 2010 Archival pigment print, 53.5 x 63.5 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2012
Marie Hagerty Coupling II 2013 Synthetic polymer paint and oil on canvas, 160 x 140 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2014
THINGS THAT QUICKEN THE HEART
Katthy Cavaliere nest 2010 Type C photograph, 122 x 88 cm Artbank collection, gift of the artistâ€™s estate 2016
Todd Hunter Fade Into You 2015 Oil on composition board, 80 x 300cm (overall) Artbank collection, commissioned 2015
THINGS THAT QUICKEN THE HEART
Exploratory Surgery Rebecca Gallo
Ian W Abdulla Mother with fish (1960) 1996 Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 94 x 124.5 cm Artbank collection, purchased 1997 Photography Silversalt
Vincent Namatjira Captain Cook 2013 Synthetic polymer paint on canvas 104 x 79.5 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2014
Most patients who walk into Dr Richard Gallagher’s rooms at the St Vincent’s Clinic know that the news probably won’t be good. He is a head and neck specialist, and the country’s leading transoral robotic surgeon. Working at the cutting edge of his field, Richard introduced transoral robotic surgery to New South Wales, and has used an array of robotics to remove hundreds of cancers and benign tumours. When we meet, he has just come out of theatre where he removed part of a man’s jawbone along with tissue inside his mouth and underneath his tongue: “It sounds pretty gruesome, but there is a lot of finesse.” It is not difficult to imagine the apprehension with which patients first approach Richard’s tenth-floor consulting rooms. They probably know they may be seriously ill, but often “it’s never really been explained to them that they have a cancer, and what that really means for them. That they might ultimately die from that cancer.” Death is a difficult topic, and many doctors shy away from using the word when talking to terminally ill patients. Richard is not one of them. The Gallaghers’s first selection from Artbank included a taxidermy sculpture by Louise Weaver, Golden Oriole (2000), which provided “an entry into the topic of death...people would look at the bird and say ‘is that going to be me?’” Perhaps it is because we have been discussing art, but when I ask Richard about his work his response is surprisingly aesthetic. “One of the reasons that I love it is that the anatomy of the head and neck is beautiful. There’s nothing quite like it in the rest of the body. Every time that I expose tissues underneath the skin when we’re operating, it never ceases to give me a thrill just because it’s beautiful.” Richard and his wife Shona, who founded and manage the practice together, are deeply committed to fostering trusting and honest patient-doctor relationships. Shona’s doctorate research into constructions of knowledge, power and authority within professions feeds into the self-aware, patient-focused ethos of the practice. In many cases Richard will direct a patient’s care over a number of years, and as such he wants the consultation rooms to be a “safe haven” for them. This safe haven, however, is not a place to switch off or disengage. At reception, the document closest to hand is a room sheet with information about the artwork. Richard and Shona agree that they don’t expect—or even want— their patients to necessarily like the art. Although its clinical value is difficult to quantify, there is little doubt that the art in this space plays a role in both emotional and psychological realms: it directs focus, prompts reflection and absorbs feelings. For Richard, “it makes patients discuss some things that they wouldn’t otherwise discuss.” Shona finds that the artworks provide an outlet, as for patients, “there’s such a mix of emotions. The art gives them something to comment on, or to direct their focus…something else to react to.” It also provides “a place for nervous energy...for off-the-cuff responses.” The curated collections from Artbank are also an opportunity to demonstrate to their patients that “we think differently, we do differently.” It is a welcome change from the ubiquitous framed Degree and Fellowship certificates that proclaim legitimacy from the walls of most doctors’ surgeries. The regular changeover of artworks “freshens our thinking up. We need to keep challenging ourselves.” It also becomes a focal point for other clinics on their floor, as Shona explains, “when we change the works over, everybody comes in for a look, and everyone has an opinion...everyone has something to say, and it’s exciting.” Rather than functioning as décor or validation, the art in these consulting rooms is an invitation for engagement. Upon entering the rooms, patients are greeted with an expanse of rich warm yellow, dotted with the abstract suggestions of towels, tents and bathers. Hot Wednesday (2009) is unmistakably the work of Ken Done. It is cheerful and childlike without being saccharine; lazy afternoons on the sand, rendered loosely from feel and memory. This painting is a reminder of the world outside, a moment 99
of escapism. Although probably the most traditional and accessible of the works in the reception area, Practice Manager Tahnee Walshaw has heard the muttered refrain “my three-year-old could do that” more than once as a patient stands glaring at it. Turn to face the reception desk, and nestled above the photocopiers are two paintings by Noel McKenna, complete with rustic artist-made frames. In a deliciously ironic twist, the subject of these paintings is Ken Done’s art. House Husband Done Place and Done Place (1996) conjure an odd combination of humour and loneliness. The latter features a forlorn shed, decorated with a Done-style mural, and a deadpan developer’s sign that declares ‘No Interest’. The eponymous house-husband and family, complete with jaunty Done-style couture and brochure, are still waiting for the joy to take hold. Shona sees a parallel between the solitude of McKenna’s work and that of the surgeon. “It’s very isolating to be a surgeon. Your relationship with the patient...there’s really no one else in that relationship.” The most striking and uncanny work in this room are three photographs by Polly Borland from the ‘Smudge’ series. In each, a single figure in full-body costume is shot against a moody studio backdrop. A fluffy white bunny is more creepy than cute, with a flat black disc where its nose should be; a rainbow clown wig expands to obscure an entire face; an orange bill protrudes from the back of a plush spherical head. These characters sit somewhere between human, animal, fantasy and nightmare, and in the context of a head and neck surgery provide an absurd foil to the attendant fears of scarring and disfiguration: whatever you end up looking like, you’ll look a damn sight more human than this. Moving into the consultation room, the potentially imposing austerity of dentist-like chair and clinical equipment is tempered by two paintings from intergenerational Indigenous artists. The placement of Mother with fish (1960) (1996), a painting by the late Ian W Abdulla, is perhaps one of the most significant and considered. It hangs facing the examination chair, and it is what a patient will be left looking at if Richard has to take a call or leave the room. It is a memory of landscape, depicted in Abdulla’s disarmingly simple and poetic visual language. It is homely, melancholy and nostalgic, and its tilted perspective makes it feel as if you are looking down from above. Richard thinks Abdulla’s work resonates with his many patients who come in from remote areas. And they won’t know this, but for Richard it is linked to the Outreach Clinic he established at Pius X Aboriginal Corporation in Moree, and a constant visual reminder of his commitment to maintain that connection. Adjacent to the Abdulla painting is Captain Cook (2013) by Vincent Namatjira, a young descendent of Albert Namatjira. For most of Richard’s patients, this portrait of a ghostly, abstracted man against a night sky and ocean might be a curious inclusion: “one older lady kept saying ‘who’s that woman on the wall?’ But she did it every time she came, so I knew she was pulling my leg.” Supporting young artists is important to Richard and Shona, and is in keeping with Richard’s commitment to mentorship and training in his own field. At a personal level he has a love of great explorers, and perhaps it’s no coincidence: like those adventurers who sailed off the edge of the map, Richard is forging into the unknown with new technology that is changing the way cancer is treated in Australia. Grand gestures aside, running this practice can be exhausting, and as much as the art is there for the patients, it also benefits the staff. It creates an energising work environment, and Richard admits that when he is having a bad or difficult day, he will sit and look at the art. Quite simply, it makes him feel better. For Shona, “it’s about taking you out of yourself. It’s a perspective check.” An artwork can be a reminder that there are places other than this; times other than now. “Ultimately it’s about the fact that there is hope. Each one is a doorway into another realm, and we are reminded that the world keeps on turning.”
Ken Done Hot Wednesday 2009 Oil, synthetic polymer paint and oil crayon on canvas, 124.5 x 93.5 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2013 Polly Borland Untitled XXX 2010 ‘Smudge’ series Type C photograph, 80 x 69 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2013 Untitled XXVIII 2010 ‘Smudge’ series Type C photograph, 80 x 69 cm Artbank collection, purchased 2013 Untitled XXIX 2010 ‘Smudge’ series Type C photograph, 80 x 69 cm Artbank collection, gift of the artist 2013
I Won Some Money and Went Travelling
This is the start I won some money and then I went travelling The end
Jason Phu I won some money and went travelling 2016, ballpoint pen, ink and synthetic polymer paint on restaurant docket book, 9.5 x 17 cm (each). Images courtesy of the artist. Photography Document Photography
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
I rode seven horses across the mountains on the Isle of Skye set up my easel and pretended to paint the landscape I went to a nearby restaurant after and had some haggis it tasted like mums cooking 103
I went to an Ozzie pub in Amsterdam they didnâ€™t like that I was breaking the illusion so I sat there and had 10 Guinesses and pulled 9 rabbits out of my butt
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
In Prague there is a church that took 600 years to build there is a toy museum next door that is good I had pork knuckle after that was very good they should have spent 600 years doing something else 105
I went to the Hainan Islands where my Dadâ€™s father and his father and his father are from I sat on the beach and art grilled seafood nearby old men gawked at pale bloated beached mermaids, they also took photos I like the beaches in Australia better but not the people
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
In March I went to the circus in Hong Kong The animals were in cages But then even in the wild they are not safe Especially if they can paint well
The old Turkish baths have old wrinkly men with old wrinkly penises upstairs there are young men and young women their bodies are still taut I sat in a bath until I was a biscuit on the pavement in the May rains
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
I did not like Berlin They served schnitzel with just a lemon wedge I wanted some sauce, it was too dry I did not want to seem rude So I ordered another one The Berlin Wall Is a lot smaller than I thought It was 109
In Mumbai They have this thing, I forgot what itâ€™s called, it is some stuff wrapped in a leaf It is a digestive, I ate several, and then felt sick I gave some to a street dog And He turned into a caterpillar I felt horrible
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
I was staying with My uncles in Beijing We got drunk and ate ENORMOUS feasts of OILY FATTY FRIED animals Everynight They told me about All the dead people they know all over China GOD! THEY ARE WELL TRAVELLED 111
I visited some of the local gods in their mansionshrines in Chiangmai; God of death God of concrete and steel and The Demi-god of fabric They were hospitable and made me sit down and made me tea In Sydney they just tell you to fuck off
I WON SOME MONEY AND WENT TRAVELLING
At night I sat at the street bbq’s in Chongqing They brought me cases of beer to drink And then when I couldn’t continue drinking took away what was left and only charged me what I drank A MIGHTY fine system Stray street dogs passed me by and in the sky slender white dragons skimmed the clouds