BUS Gallery, Melbourne, April 2006
This exhibition and research project came about as a result of an opportunity through INFLIGHT Artist Run Initiative, which was for 3 artists to exhibit at BUS Gallery in Melbourne. I was selected as one of those artists and was given the main space to work with. The combined exhibition was called FOLIE Á TROIS and displayed the work of Sally Rees, Scot Cotterell and myself in the three diffferent rooms of BUS Gallery, in essence three discreet solo exhibitions. The physical work of my exhibition was completed over three days at the studio of HAHA in Melbourne, as well as in the gallery.
The AWB (Australian Wheat Board) kickbacks scandal was coming to light at the time these works were produced, so I was very interested in working with this material. The scandal, was that the AWB was paying kickbacks via trucking companies, to Saddam Hussein’s regime, effectively bypassing UN sanctions on Iraq. Being a government owned organisation, this activity was clearly at odds with Australia’s involvement in the War on Iraq; that is, actively supporting the regime that they were condemning and later waging a war against.
One thing that was very noticeable in the images that were being presented by the media at that time was that several of the AWB Board Members had had their photographs taken in Iraq whilst posing with guns; namely, Trevor Flugge (then director of AWB) and Michael Long (then Board Member). I had previously collected several images in my ‘media scrapbook’ of other notaries posing with guns, including: Robin Gray (ex-Tasmanian Premier, then Gunns Ltd. Board Member); David Hicks (then alleged Australian terrorist); Saddam Hussein (deposed, now deceased, President of Iraq); and John Howard (then Australian Prime Minister). All of these figures, I am sure, had different reasons for being photographed with a gun; nonetheless, their representation here makes no distinction between those motivations. Their images are each treated equally, with the same rendering, line, colour and attention to detail; placed, as it were, on a common ground.
Technically, the work is an installation of wall paintings, employing the method of stencilling – essentially transposing the ‘street’ into the gallery. What is different from previous wall works is that traces of the process have been included in the space; that is, the cardboard stencils themselves. They are arranged in a configuration that mirrors the painted works, and in turn mirror each image from negative to positive (the sprayed stencil being an inversion of the cut stencil). This was intended as being indicative of evidence, and also as counterpoint in a media sense; by this I mean an alternative view, medium, way of seeing (hence way of picturing) and an inversion of what is known.
These wall paintings were my first deliberate, and possibly blunt, attempt to enfold the formal elements of the work within the that of the content – in a kind of McLuhanian "the medium is the message" sense. The formal device (signifier) employed to indicate this is a degenerative line in the cutting, a line moving away from the typically clean and sharp stencil edge, into a worming, crawling line - a space of dots and dashes - seemingly in a process of breaking down.
This corruption of the line was intended to indicate the inherent corruption of the political figure, as well as the corruption of information by way of its retelling in the mass media. There is also the corruption of the physical source material, which is primarily derived from low quality internet images and grainy newsprint images, which has been embellished so that there is a sense of the work being about media rather than attempting to deny or gloss over it (as with a more polished or smoothly lined work). A drawing of attention to the material artefacts of print and video media.
In this body of work I have explored a spatial method of orchestration; which stands in contrast to previous work, where images were juxtaposed and orchestrated within the picture frame. Here, the images are arranged across the gallery space, so that the gallery becomes the frame itself. In part, the reasoning behind this was to achieve an alternative mode of engagement for the viewer, where instead of clearly being on the ‘outside’ of a painting ‘looking in’, the viewer is on the inside of the artworks ‘looking out’, as it were, on these figures. These are techniques synonymous with those employed by installation artists, where an artwork can become an environment.
This method of creating an environment marked my first investigation into the idea of the political landscape through the employment of groups of political figures. Martin Warnke, author of the book The Political Landscape, discusses the ‘landscape’ as a construct employed to indicate ownership and subjugation over nature. In an art sense, this relates to 'landscape' painting as a traditional method of representing the domain of 'landholders'. With the exception of David Hicks, we can place all of the figures of Common Ground into the category of ‘landholders’, whether it is by virtue of their political position or their business position in relation to companies that derive their main livelihood from property ownership or control (such as the forestry of Gunns Ltd. and the agricultural resource management of the AWB). In this sense, Hicks is the only non-landholder, therefore the only representation of the subjected or subservient other – and predictably the one who suffered the worst fate (that of being held in indefinite solitary detention for 4 years). In the context of this grouping of figures, Hicks is offered as ‘a way out’. This work highlights the tendency of a culture to forgive its own transgressions (such as with the AWB scandal) and a tendency to zealously punish the other (such as in the case of Hicks).
So what is the political landscape that is depicted here in Common Ground? There is an element of what could be described, in an art historical context, of the picturing of the ‘noble hunt’; that is, the posing of noble, heroic and authoritarian landholders as they prepare to maim, torture and kill animals – as they prepare to kill the other. Indeed the willingness pose, to be pictured, with a weapon is to acknowledge its potential to inflict harm and death - to acknowledge its power. It is the re-presentation of a Pathos Formula, as proposed by Eisenman, which is essentially a stereotypical type of image that has recurred throughout the history of Western pictorial tradition (from churches to the cinema) that has caused a moral short-sightedness and a tendency to remember and replicate with ease, images of torture, subordination, shame and degradation. Eisenman claims that these “bodily expressions of power and subordination are so well internalised that new pictorial articulations, such as the Abu Ghraib photographs, can be produced at will, [even by non-artists] without dependance on particular visual prototypes [we already know what these images look like]. But it is precisely the long Western history of the representation of torture that has helped inscribe an oppressive ideology of master and slave on our bodies and brains, enabling (especially at times of fear) a moral forgetfulness or even paralysis to set in – an ‘Abu Ghraib Effect’. For to inscribe or represent... is also to move and behave in the world." (Eisenman, 2007, p.101). These images of a Pathos Formula are often presented or viewed as being in good fun, a joke, or that the victims somehow deserved their treatment through virtue of their otherness.
In this case, it is the viewer who becomes the animal, the other, in Common Ground, locked into the sights of Trevor Flugge, Robin Gray and David Hicks alike. Johny fumbles with his gun. As Eisenman puts it, the viewer is placed in a situation of “…complete subordination of the body to doctrine, and the willing surrender of the autonomous, critical subject to the dictates of state authority and power.”
In the case of Common Ground, the viewer/victim is placed in a position of subordination and surrender to the technology of media itself.
Common Ground was part of an exchange show from INFLIGHT Gallery in Hobart to BUS Gallery in Melbourne, supported by Arts Tasmania and the Australia Council.
Wednesday 5th April till 22nd April, 2006 - BUS Gallery, 117 Lt. Lonsdale St. Melbourne.
Writing taken and edited from Dissent and Critical Opinion, published by the University of Tasmania, 2008.