Curated with an eye for slogans and messaging, the new Artspace exhibition Just Not Australian interrogates the mythic language of nationalism that continues to permeate the art world.By Lauren Carroll Harris.
Just Not Australian
A non-exhaustive tally of objects and activities slandered as unAustralian – protesting, ball tampering in cricket, the artwork of Soda_Jerk, striking unionists, the exclusion of lamb from one’s diet. Communists, migrants from non-British backgrounds, opposition to the war on terror. Hummus, according to one Cronulla rioter. David Hicks. Flag burning. Hijabs.
Beyond this is murkier terrain, the implicitly unAustralian conditions. Brown skin with a beard, not owning a house (or spare houses). Poverty, dissent, disability, homelessness. Aboriginality, requesting asylum as per your human rights, and any other “outsider” status, maybe even art itself.
Beyond petrol consumption, barbecues and blue eyes, what constitutes Australianism? The new exhibition at Artspace in Woolloomooloo, Just Not Australian, responds broadly to these questions, and its obvious answer is one word – whiteness. It also asks how to make sense of a nation born of trauma. To have a narrative of nationhood you need a history. And much of Australian history and Australian art history is a fiction. If the United States was a project in nation-building, Australia was an untitled document, constantly retitled and erased and overwritten. And yet Just Not Australian engages less with history, even where it is relevant to the show’s theme of unAustralianism, than with the present wave of identity politics surging within the art world and the broader cultural conversation.
Presented by Artspace and Sydney Festival, Just Not Australian has been assembled with an eye for slogans and messaging, with works that lean heavily on text and borrow from this country’s increasingly delusional political lexicon. Abdul Abdullah reworks the phrase, “Fuck off, we’re full”, while Jon Campbell erects a wall of loaded, familiar phrases – “I’m not racist, but…”, “Made in China”. Tony Schwensen emblazons “No way, get fucked, fuck off” over physical symbols of territorialism – roadblocks and crowd-control barriers sitting in buckets of water and wrapped in floaties. Soda_Jerk are present with their tarred unAustralian anthem Terror Nullius, as are other local luminaries Fiona Foley and Hoda Afshar.
Just Not Australian tells us that Australia is legion – belonging to those cultural identities excluded from the male, Anglo vision of the nation. Yes. And yet what is missing is a context for all this multiplicity – a longer continuum to ground the contemporary moment in history and art history.
Art historian Robert Hughes, in his still-brilliant 1970s TV series Landscape with Figures, contended that Australia began not as a nation but as a colony for purposes of economics, not penal punishment. Sydney was to be the halfway supply port for the major trading arteries to China and north-west America. Captain Cook found great groves of flax (for navy sails) and pine (for masts and spars) on Norfolk Island, with which to maintain the colonial navy in India. Convicts would supply the labour.
The plan was a calamity.
Early Terra Australis became what Hughes called “the id of Georgian England”. The original vision of “a happy combination of servitude and raw material” decayed into a sprawl of barely self-sufficient colonies perennially on the brink of collapse and ruled by demented sadists.
At that point, the art of Australia – if it could be called that at all – was defined by function. It marked the contours of the coasts, the interior landscape and the botany, often following mediaeval Europe’s myths of a wild antipodean zoo. Convicts, botanists and free settlers refashioned varied Australian environments as hilly British pastorals. Apart from their titles, these early colonial paintings and drawings are very often impossible to distinguish as Australian. They also rarely show the continent and its surrounding islands as a slave-based society or the most feared, misunderstood place in the Georgian world. In that part of the colonial imagination, the greater prison, beyond the actual prisons, was the land itself – it looked different, smelt different, sounded different from anything else represented in Western art history. Already, in Australia’s early visual culture, this place was a fiction, as was the validity of official history.
The same approach haunted colonial art practitioners’ renderings of Indigenous peoples, which meant that the destruction of Indigenous people now had a presence in (fake) art. The tradition of the noble savage gave way to that of the comic savage, and grotesque Modernist kitsch. This is what artist Tony Albert subverts in Just Not Australian, with his configuration of 20th-century paintings, ashtrays, implements and other domestic detritus, naively depicting Aboriginality through a white, cartoonish lens. The show hugely benefits from Albert’s dip into Australia’s art past.
The set of beliefs belying frontier and Modernist Australian art was always anachronistic, and it hasn’t yet passed into history; the language of nationalism continues to permeate the art world. In 2016, when the National Gallery of Australia staged a major exhibition of works by Tom Roberts – an English-born oil painter whose strain of Impressionism came to define nationalist Australian art – it described his most famous paintings as being “loved by all Australians”. Well, are they? Down they go, into the big black memory hole of Australian culture. When I look at Roberts’ images, these soft burnished sights of men shearing rams, of stagecoaches bailed up by bushrangers, of uniformly graded countrysides, they speak to me of something more sinister – an Australian eerie with another myth, the bush, serving as a crutch for the Australian imagination, to which we still cleave.
Myths proliferate. Now they’re myths of mateship, Anzac-ery, larrikinism – an approach and an aesthetic in which a great many of the works in Just Not Australian traffic – classlessness and aspiration. Just Not Australian is a reactive exhibition. In responding to the imagined community of this nation and, specifically, its mongrel lexicon, the show squarely exists in Australia, not unAustralia, and this limitation makes it hard to dig new tunnels into the old narrative. There are other ways of doing things. The question of how Australian artists should deal with the idea of the nation is being handled in a consistently outward-looking way, for instance, by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, with programming that positions this country globally in relation to Asia.
The true question boiling beneath this show’s headlines and slogans is: when will Australian art reckon with fake nationhood and colonialism? It’s a crossroads issue for all artists and people making creative work in Australia to grapple with. Until they do, the culture will continue to stretch itself over an abyss of denial and lacklustre intelligence.
A few of the artists in Just Not Australian reach for an approach more loaded with visual metaphor and abstraction than direct verbal messaging. Archie Moore has cut pages from the Hansard parliamentary records from the 1950s to 2000s marked with words uttered in pure fidelity to the concept of a White Australia – the words “swamped by”, Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech. Moore then gently folds the pages into fragile, lovely objects: a communist star, a jewel box, an origami crane. The final in the row is an incinerated pile of paper, verging on dust.
Liam Benson’s work is also made from the gritty inside of present-day visual culture, this time, a map of continental Australia. Participatory community embroidery You and Me was made over five years with members of the public, who hand-sewed beads and sequins onto sheer organza, marking the boundaries of traditional Indigenous language groups. Their shimmering, many-hued hanging work makes Benson a complicated sort of optimist, honouring Indigeneity with a work of collectivist participation and contemporary aesthetics.
But Just Not Australian really belongs to Joan Ross, whose new work I give you a mountain forms its centrepiece and destroys Australia. Ross has formed a visual language, indeed an entire alternative universe, that takes elements from the Australia we have come to accept and reorders them as strange and subversive. I have seen earlier sculptural works of Ross’s that totally rethink materials such as kangaroo fur, but rather than situating I give you a mountain in the conceptual zone of Australia, Ross now nods to the science-fiction tradition of a dystopian narrative in a no-place. We glide slowly through the archways of a white-walled manor house not unlike that in the final stretch of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is filled with the banal detritus of everyday Australian life – pools of chlorine water, bell jars trapping live fauna, morning television spruiking organic dog food, a kit of grey pigeons burbling tremulously. Through the final arch, we reach a set of peculiar paper-like mountains, constructed in blatant two-dimensionality. It is someone’s – a European’s – idea of an Australian mountain range; it is a stage. Poking over the blue cloudy sky is a CCTV camera that witnesses two white colonial figures shuffle into frame. The geology crumbles around them, rock by rock, peak by peak and, finally, the colonial duo crumbles to dust, too, on their shifty theatrical stage of Australianness, leaving everyone in darkness.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "The worn identity". Subscribe here.