Steven Rhall’s exhibition Defunctionalised Autonomous Objects addresses the way colonial societies have exhibited Indigenous art and culture, and makes its audience face their previous comfort with it. By Andy Butler.
Steven Rhall’s objects
In the days leading up to the opening of Steven Rhall’s Defunctionalised Autonomous Objects, I see a lot of talk on Instagram about a protest at the American Museum of Natural History calling for a decolonisation of its holdings – for a truthful discussion about the provenance of these items – in order to overcome the shallow and two-dimensional representation of non-European people in the museum’s exhibitions.
Questioning the “flashpoints of the European art canon and First Nations art” is central to Rhall’s installation practice. In Defunctionalised Autonomous Objects, his first major solo exhibition, he has created a sprawling exhibition made up of a series of conceptually driven works, which puts the audience and their expectations on display.
The work critically examines how we encounter First Nations art in a museum context and how Rhall himself is asked to perform his identity as a Taungurung man. At times the work is purposefully camouflaged, vague, receding into the background – opening up a space for the viewer to consider what they expect and want from Aboriginal art and the legacy of museums as an imperial project.
“We’re all Aboriginal,” Rhall says in his opening remarks to the crowd gathered at The Substation in Newport, in Melbourne’s south-west. He is dressed in white coveralls, as are his four assistants. They are conspicuous. “We’ll be here for the entire opening,” they say. “Enjoy the exhibition.”
Lots of people take photos of Rhall during the opening – he is very obliging. He poses with his mum. They lean on an object that sits right in front of the entrance to the exhibition, a gymnastics vault covered with a white waxy material. It has the look, height and dimensions of an hors d’oeuvres table. There is a visible wine stain, as if someone has used it as a place to rest their drink.
“It’s covered in possum skin,” Rhall tells me later. There is no title or materials list on the wall beside the vault. It’s easy to walk straight past it, but as Rhall poses on the work a crowd gathers, pulling out their phones.
Throughout, the exhibition has few of the expected accoutrements. It isn’t an accumulated collection of art objects hung on the walls with labels clearly designating them as artworks. Instead, Rhall’s practice – consisting of performance, photography, video, text, everyday objects and audience participation – casts the gallery space as an imperial machine. He speaks back to the history of 19th-century museums, where non-European bodies and pillaged objects are put on display.
Little jabs at the fraught legacy of cultural institutions abound. One work features a leather bench that I recognise from my time working behind the information desk at the National Gallery of Victoria. Usually, it lives behind the water wall in the foyer of the St Kilda Road building. Here, it is lit from above, presented as a piece of art.
Defunctionalised Autonomous Objects takes its title from a well-known essay by art critic Boris Groys, in which he describes the process of items being stolen from non-European cultures and put on display. In turn, stories about those cultures were formed and told by the white gatekeepers of the museums.
Rhall’s work considers how this Eurocentric framework of exhibiting continues today, and what the dynamics of power are between audience, gallery, artist and object when it comes to First Nations art and its display in a museum founded on colonisation. He subverts the ways he is expected to perform his identity for an art-going audience.
His practice is often purposefully evasive, refusing to give viewers what they want. At points in the exhibition he removes completely the act of showing work to a public. In a video, placed in one of the first rooms, he is sleeping on the floor of an empty gallery space under a blanket. On the middle of the wall behind him is written “NO ART”. He is on strike.
This work and others play into a politics of refusal – of not wanting to take part within the context of an art history and gallery system that has always been for white audiences anyway.
Another work asks the audience to look through a mail-slot-shaped peephole into a darkened room where an upside-down sculpture with neon text across it spins. It is obscured by a pillar, but through a mirror you can see a reversed image of what it says, though you have to strain. As I try to make it out, I’m distracted by a face at the opposite end of the room – another person is looking in as well. Our eyes lock, uncomfortably. It feels like one of those moments when you briefly make eye contact with a stranger on public transport, though social interactions at exhibition openings are rarely without awkwardness.
On the upside-down rotating sculpture is written in bright purple neon “I SAW A SCAR TREE BUT DID NOT TAKE A PHOTO OF IT”. Whatever we were looking for or expecting is not here.
Elsewhere, a live feed from cameras trained on people’s faces as they try to make out the text on the sculpture plays on screens. At times, people look confused, at other times annoyed. Everyone is being watched and put on display. Strangers look at you looking, as your face strains to find meaning from a work that’s purposely obscured.
In another space a black air-dancer – the kind you might see outside a used-car lot – sits deflated on the floor in a pitch-black room. Activated by a motion sensor as you walk in, its engine whirrs loudly as it fills up with air. While it’s dancing and waving for you, the dancer is spotlit. It has a cartoon sad face on it, eyes the yellow of the Aboriginal flag, hair like a golliwog. It epitomises the racialised depictions in cartoons published in Murdoch newspapers. The sound and the blinding light are imposing and obnoxious, as if to say, “Is this the spectacle you came here for?” It’s so big it nearly touches the roof.
Only one piece in the whole exhibition has an artwork label, and it’s tattooed across the back of both of Rhall’s legs, really high up, just beneath his bottom. I know this because there’s an image of it on a wall. In a photograph taken from above, Rhall’s body is laid out, on display – obviously on the NGV bench that he’s put in the exhibition. The tattoo reads “Aboriginal Art Tattoos” and then offers a materials list: “Electronic input device, paint, a public, timber rail, drawing implement/s, sequential display of drawings, floor drawing, dimensions variable”. This formal element of an exhibition display is permanently inked on his body, as though the artist is as much of an object as the furniture.
In another gallery space, Rhall’s four assistants, dressed in coveralls, are sitting on a rug around a low table. Their coveralls give the scene the feeling of a factory workshop. They are a well-oiled operation, making styluses out of sticks for an installation one floor above called “Aboriginal Art Tattoos”, which takes the wit and dry humour that runs through the exhibition and twists it into a feeling of tension that sits in the pit of the stomach. “DRAW YOUR OWN ABORIGINAL ART TATTOO IF YOU WANT” is scratched on one wall, next to an iPad with styluses hanging on strings. There are placeholder placards dotted throughout the room, where people’s designs will be displayed as the exhibition goes on.
Kids are going wild for it, using the styluses to draw their own tattoos. It feels like it could be part of the NGV Kids’ activity room. Parents and audience members look on, palpably uncomfortable. We are all nice progressive people here who understand cultural appropriation.
Defunctionalised Autonomous Objects offers no easy resolution to the tensions it raises. Instead, it asks the audience to hold them, walk away with them, sit on them. Even if you feel as though you’re in on the wit and humour in many of Rhall’s works, you still feel implicated in the dynamics of museum display, especially as your face – straining for meaning – is projected onto a screen.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 27, 2018 as "Public display of disaffection".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription