Opinion

Tristen Harwood
Dark Mofo and Union Flag

I felt elation and deflation in equal parts when a friend messaged me that the Dark Mofo festival in Tasmania had cancelled the controversial performance Union Flag by artist Santiago Sierra. Like so many other First Nations peoples exposed to Dark Mofo’s promotional material, I’d been vexed, stressed and upset by the advertisement announcing: “WE WANT YOUR BLOOD.” With Union Flag, the Spanish artist had proposed to drench the British flag in the blood of First Nations peoples from territories colonised by the British Empire. As is typical with Sierra’s work, the advert was devised to elicit unease, discomfort and outrage.

When news of the cancellation broke, I had been doing the intense kind of work that’s both emotionally and intellectually tiring – writing an article critiquing Sierra, Union Flag and the curatorial decision to show the work made by Dark Mofo creative director Leigh Carmichael and curator Olivier Varenne, as well as the festival’s First Nations consultation processes, or lack thereof.

But then came Carmichael’s announcement – the “we are sorry” that falls so flatly, attempting to place the violation in the past. An apology that admits a fault without intention to prevent similar events recurring in the future. It’s still unclear whether the thousands of comments of outrage on social media, internal organisational pressure or a bit of both was what led to the decision to pull the work.

David Walsh, the founder of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) that runs the festival, followed with his own apology which, although more considered than Carmichael’s, similarly failed to commit to structural change within the institution.

As Léuli Eshrāghi, a Sāmoan, Persian and Cantonese curator and artist working in Australia, has pointed out, “a much better use of this money would be commissioning First Peoples artists who have already delved critically and aesthetically in exceptional ways into the deeply white supremacist practices of anthropometry and theft of Ancestors’ remains”. 

Dark Mofo’s apology is hollow without a commitment that follows along these lines. A real response would mean placing First Nations peoples in positions of power – as creative directors, curators, board members – not only to keep their white colleagues in check but also to foster the further creation of radical First Nations art practice.

In response to the cancellation of Union Flag, First Nations creatives and non-Indigenous allies have formed the collective BLAK LIST MONA. The group also cites previous problematic MONA commissions such as the Aboriginal DNA test project, and damages caused to Aboriginal heritage sites during the construction of the gallery, suggesting Union Flag is not an isolated incident.

BLAK LIST MONA is refusing to work with the gallery and its associated events until MONA meets a list of demands, devised to ensure the organisation can operate in a way that’s respectful to First Nations peoples, specifically local pakana peoples who are most directly impacted by the gallery.

While Dark Mofo’s apology acknowledges the hurt caused by the work, it is framed as a consequence of thoughtlessness. It is important to note then that it was intentional Sierra, who traffics in trauma, sought to reproduce colonial terror with Union Flag.

Sierra’s work is often formed by identifying, exploiting and repackaging the suffering of those people who have already suffered the most. In 2006, he travelled to Pulheim, Germany and made 245 Cubic Meters, a work that consisted of converting a former Jewish synagogue into a gas chamber. Understandably, his stunt provoked despair and outrage among Jewish communities in Germany. Carmichael and Varenne knew this when they decided to include Sierra in the festival as its headline act.

Similarly, the “WE WANT YOUR BLOOD” advertisement, which ostensibly addresses First Nations peoples, was really intended to antagonise Sierra’s imagined erudite, white audience. This can be seen in the tactical placement of the ad in publications such as this one, where it appeared on March 13. (Editor’s note: Schwartz Media was not aware of the advertisement’s content when it was placed.) The ad was conceived to create tension by making his white audience hyperaware of their complicity in the exploitative structure he’s replicating. But in this, Sierra aestheticised Indigenous suffering in order to evoke discomfort.

Carmichael’s decision to cancel Union Flag failed to address the processes and internal culture at Dark Mofo that allowed the work to commence. And Sierra’s performance began the moment the festival made its public call for our blood. Even before the first drop was donated, Sierra had made Indigenous peoples’ suffering, the suffering of our ancestors, the massacres, the wounding, the theft of remains, the pseudoscientific management of our lives, the police brutality, deaths in custody, inadequate healthcare, the vicious seriality and ongoing trauma into the raw material of his artwork.

Union Flag is the kind of work that essentialises and flattens the atrocities of colonialism, rather than enumerating them. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson has so thoroughly and thoughtfully outlined in her work, “the British imperial project was predicated on taking possession of other peoples’ lands and resources for the benefit of Empire”; Sierra propels this possessive logic. He takes hold of and creates value from the agony of colonialism for the benefit of his artistic career and the gallery, or in this case the festival that hosts his work. Also, by using the signification of the Union Jack, rather than the Australian flag, the artist distances himself and a settler-Australian audience from local colonial bloodshed, instead deflecting accountability back on to the British.

Sierra operates from the recapitulation of a colonial methodology. He stages or situates colonial violence as performance, so the spilling of First Nations blood in the name of the colonial project is both replicated and represented. This kind of manoeuvre, art critic Claire Bishop wrote in her 2004 article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, challenges contemporary art’s self-perception as a sphere that embraces other social and political structures. She writes that this is in part because of Sierra’s “introduction of collaborators from diverse economic backgrounds” into the rubric of the gallery space.

Here, the decision to commission Sierra becomes all the more insidious. Not only has Dark Mofo shown a complete disregard for Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing by taking part in the production and promotion of Union Flag, the festival also sought to use the blood of First Nations peoples as the material for Sierra’s restaging of colonial violence. Unspecified, but racially marked, and importantly “marginal” participants are the material Sierra’s work requires, and Dark Mofo was ready to offer them up in the form of Indigenous peoples.

The artist’s letter did call for “collaboration of First Nations peoples” to donate blood for Union Flag, insisting participants would be selected at random and unnamed. Anonymity is a necessary component in Sierra’s work involving human participants – who are treated as under- or unpaid subcontractors rather than “collaborators”– not for their protection but for Sierra’s, who situates himself as the sole creative provocateur.

There has been much discussion of the conversations Dark Mofo did or did not have with First Nations people before announcing this work. Nala Mansell, of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, said she “was not aware of any consultation having taken place with Aboriginal people in lutruwita before the idea was put forward”.

But in the creation of Union Flag, any substantive collaboration or co-authoring from First Nations peoples, artists or curators is categorically impossible. Collaboration would unravel the entire premise of his artwork and detract cultural and economic capital from Sierra’s position as sole creative entrepreneur. How could the abject victims of British imperialism have a voice in Sierra’s work? Put simply, we don’t. Instead his work responds to Gayatri Spivak’s question “can the subaltern speak?” with an imperious no.

This is a no that’s echoed by Carmichael and Varenne in their decision to curate Sierra into Dark Mofo. It is resounded in Carmichael’s tepid apology, which came only after he had staunchly defended Sierra, Union Flag and so the entwined system of colonialism and white supremacy that make such art even conceivable. Met with resistance from within his own team and from staff at MONA – the director of the MONA FOMA festival, Brian Ritchie, called Carmichael’s programming decision a “gimmick and publicity stunt disguised as mediocre artwork” – Carmichael insisted that the work “could be seen as difficult from the left and the right so we find ourselves in the middle”.

“May the middle man know the meaning of bayarra,” the poet John Muk Muk Burke repeats throughout his 2004 “A Poem for the APEC Ministers”. The word bayarra is Yolŋu Matha, translating to equitable compensation for something already transacted. It can also mean payback. Bayarra, it’s in the blood now and someone still has to answer for all the grief, the strife, the energy lost searching for remedy to Dark Mofo’s faults.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Flagging contempt".

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Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar.