Visual Art

Heide’s simultaneous exhibitions of Sidney Nolan and Dean Cross put Modernism and Indigenous aesthetics into conversation. By Tristen Harwood.

Dean Cross: Sometimes I Miss the Applause

An installation view of Dean Cross: Sometimes I Miss the Applause.
An installation view of Dean Cross: Sometimes I Miss the Applause.
Credit: Christian Capurro

I arrived early at Heide Museum of Modern Art to see the two concurrent exhibitions Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise and Dean Cross: Sometimes I Miss the Applause. In the few minutes I had to wait before the gallery opened, I took a seat in the museum’s underwhelming sculpture park. As I waited, a family of magpies walked up and screeched at me, asking for food. This encounter was strange: I’m more accustomed to being swooped by magpies or, on better days, listening to them carolling from treetops.

Another unusual magpie is painted into Sidney Nolan’s Policeman in Wombat Hole (1946). Perched atop a rifle barrel, the bird presides over a police constable who has buried his head in a wombat hole. Where you might expect to see a bird of funerary symbolism such as a crow or other carrion species, the magpie is an absurd insertion, mocking the police.

The constable’s arms extend like deranged flowers and his fingers clasp an anachronistic handwritten note. It reads: “Ned Kelly and others stuck us up today when we were disarmed. Lonigan and Scanlon shot. I’m hiding in a wombat hole til dark. The Lord have mercy on me. Scanlon tried to get his gun out.” The insertion of language seems like a joke that comes directly from the present the painting depicts, rupturing the linear continuum of time that situates history in the past. Here, history is reconstructed and sustained in the contemporary moment.

In its concern with historicity and myth, Policeman in Wombat Hole recalls other buried frontier narratives. It reminds me of two figurative sculptural assemblages by Wagilak artist Wally Wilfred. Both set in the Northern Territory, one depicts Ayaiga, who in 1911 saved a police constable from drowning, and the other the story of Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, who in self-defence – and to assert his sovereignty – speared a constable in 1933.

The stories, anecdotes and mythologies of modernity become interwoven with Indigenous cultures through practices such as Wilfred’s and others who mediate Indigenous knowledge to broad audiences through art, while grappling with the impositions of Modernism on culture. This differs from settler artists such as Nolan, for whom Modernist painting is a legitimising tool that he uses to outrun provincialism.

Another painting on display in Search for Paradise, is Ned Kelly: “Nobody knows anything about my case but myself” (1945), where the artist has used a black square helmet – a reference to Malevich’s Black Square – to depict the outlaw bushranger. A slit reveals a pair of skewed, argent eyes, dotted over with thinly painted red, blue and yellow stippling. The eyes are angled in a way that suggests foreshadowing, bringing the fragmentation of the inner and outer self into relief. Beyond the individualised “self” this look seems to resonate with the turmoil of the settler-Australian artist trying to grasp the incongruity of European representational systems with his local context.

Kelly serves as a symbolic device of the new self-imaging “Australian” who – aware that they dwell in a landscape to which they can never properly belong – must make sense of themselves as being at odds with the very colonial authority they rely on for their legitimacy. In part, it was Nolan’s dedication to the antiheroic mythology of Kelly that led him to become an icon of Modernism and one of Australian art’s national heroes.

Dean Cross’s Sometimes I Miss the Applause is a dual channel video installation that responds to Nolan’s iconic 1942 Self portrait (1943). The video shows two identical characters, who we assume are played by Cross, each on separate screens. They are dressed identically in black Adidas tracksuits and sneakers, a form of vernacular – sometimes stigmatised – streetwear. Both figures wear a series of masks made from paper shopping bags that parody the bushranger helmet, painted with a replica of Nolan’s face as it appears in Self portrait.

The mask draws the biographies of Cross, Nolan and Kelly into a relation that cuts across time and place. When Cross, an Indigenous man, wears the bushranger helmet, he collides the romanticism around Kelly with the policing of Indigenous bodies, carceralism, deaths in custody and the spit hood that was tied over 17-year-old Dylan Voller’s head in prison.

The performer’s hands, along with the whole gallery, are painted in the same red that fills the background of Nolan’s Self portrait. Like Wilfred, Cross draws Modernism into contact with an Indigenous aesthetic. Here, the concern of Modernist self-portraiture with the inner psyche becomes a social concern for a “self” that can only be sustained collectively. The figure’s red hands recall recent activism, echoing the red handprints that Indigenous activists printed over the walls of Yuendumu Police Station to protest against the collective threat policing poses to Indigenous life after Kumanjayi Walker was shot dead by constable Zachary Rolfe.

The two figures appear to be rehearsing for a performance or a dance. They hover, step, shuffle, step and clap in an empty old community hall with shiplap walls. The sharp, jarring sounds of an orchestra tuning up can be heard in the background. Cross sets the performance, which references Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet The Rite of Spring, within a vernacular, community setting – the space of everyday performance.

Cross’s repetition of the same elements across the two screens tells us the action takes place in a permeable timescape. It’s not simply that Kelly imprints Nolan who imprints Cross: in the repetition, the rehearsal, influence is an open, bilateral process. These three figures intersect with, sustain and alter one another.

An artist of Worimi descent, Cross delves into the predicament of assembling an Indigenous aesthetic within the framework of modern and contemporary art without getting locked into either a strictly reactionary or culturally essentialist reclamation, while also negotiating the politics of representation. Simultaneously playing himself, the figure of Nolan as self-portrait and Kelly as mythological hero, Cross stages self-imagining as a transhistorical and transcultural process that relies in part on performance and rehearsal.

It’s encouraging to see Heide subtly interrogating its own Modernist heroes. It’s a truism that Nolan is a significant figure in this country’s art history. The issue is that Cross’s work – although deeply complex and sophisticated in its own right – is only permitted to footnote Nolan’s, which is afforded heaps more gallery space and a nice 204-page hardcover catalogue.

The concurrent exhibitions Search for Paradise and Sometimes I Miss the Applause sit within a wider push for galleries to re-evaluate their colonial histories and criteria. But rather than going for the “woke” rebrand some other institutions have opted for, Heide seems more willing to stay with the problem, to complicate it and learn from the trouble. 

Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise is on until June 13 and Dean Cross: Sometimes I Miss the Applause is on until May 29 at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Masks of colonialism".

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Tristen Harwood is a writer, cultural critic and researcher, and a descendant of Numbulwar.

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