Exhibition Review of: ‘On This Site’ Upasana Papadopoulos
Artists: Karla Dickens; Ishmael Marika; Claudia Nicholson; Christopher Pease;
Joan Ross; Salote Tawale; Garry Trinh.
Curators: Kate Blackmore and Sian McIntyre
Verge Gallery, Sydney University
The timing of the Verge Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘On This Site’ is interesting, coinciding as it does with two significant events relating to Australia’s cultural heritage: ‘Reconciliation Week’ which begins on May 27th and the launch of the federal budget. On May 19th a $105 million cut to the Australia Council’s funding was announced. Australia’s Attorney General and Arts Minister George Brandis justified the redistribution of funding in terms of a renewed vision of artistic excellence: “If the humanities are to recover their prestige, one thing which they certainly need to do is to embrace the standards of objective, rigorous scholarship which were once amongst their glories; to accept that critical inquiry is not well served when it is – whether admittedly or implicitly – regarded instrumentally, in service of some ideology or social philosophy, rather than end in itself.” George Brandis, May 2015.
‘On This Site’ is a case in point. It is a curated exhibition, and on entering into the formidable, glass space of the Verge Gallery, there is an immediate sense that there is some kind of ideology or social philosophy at play. A sort of dialogue that Brandis may call “narrow or parochial” . It is an exhibition that looks inward, not outward to explore Australian identity: our lives as Australians, our history, the diverse sources of our memories and our reality. It is a confronting exhibition, but it is ultimately one of resolution and insight.
The exhibition is curated by two artist-curators: Kate Blackmore and Sian McIntyre who inspire questions about what it is to become reconciled with our shared identity. ‘On this site’ uses language that pertains to indigenous ideas of place and time and also to a notion of the universality of these themes. The curators quote a previous Governor General of Australia, Sir William Deane: “The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do”
The exhibition as a whole is strong, and due to the nature and themes of much of the work, it is one that provokes powerful and difficult emotions in the viewer. Salote Tawale’s sole piece in the exhibition is one of the many that assist in stabilising the experience; provoking as it does a sense of wonder rather than intellectual reaction. Her video installation ‘Sometimes you make me nervous and then I know we are supposed to sit together for a long time’ is set up in the central part of the floor space. The screen is set within a makeshift cardboard shrine of fruit, flowers, and folded plastic canvas, and the video itself brings us face to face with the artist, face painted white and eyes darkened, voraciously feeding herself whilst holding our gaze. It is deliberative iconic and its references tribal. Tawale herself was born in Suva and raised in Melbourne and brings to the exhibition questions about colonisation and what it may look like to de-colonise – our policies and our consciousness. The title of the piece is irresistible and an intrinsic part of the work, as it invites the viewer to look at an image and a structure that is undecipherable. Rather than to appropriate meaning or status, it invites us to sit with it, to laugh, or be threatened or cringe, but not to pull away. To be inquisitive but not to dismiss or destroy.
The offering of flowers to the idol continues in the next installation, with the affectionately rendered terracotta and earthenware offerings of Columbian born artist, Claudia Nicholson. As an artist of Latin heritage raised in Australia, Nicholson’s work is an exploration of a culture which she can only piece together from external reference and from the stories of her family of origin.
Garry Trinh’s images from the suburbs, ‘Welcome Home’ (2007) consists of ten photographs of almost identical house fronts. Each house is locked, bolted, screened in response to a constant media barrage of harm and terror. These photos, all taken in Sydney’s culturally rich Western suburbs are a vision of what happens when all is abandoned except the desire to ‘protect what is ours’.
There are two films by Ishmael Marika, who lives and works in the Yirrkala community in Eastern Arnham Land. Marika’s documentary ‘Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk’ gives voice to the concerns of the people living on the land of their ancestors, dealing with continuous presence of miners and developers and ever more powerful legal rhetoric about who owns and who has right to the land. The video player is placed in the corner of the gallery and headphones are provided. The choice of historical footage, edited to punctuate the interviews, create tension and discomfort. One scene in particular will be difficult to erase from memory. A white choir conductor, with back to the camera is on stage, conducting a group of young Aboriginal singers. The children, painted in traditional ochre and white, are directed to sing “This land is our land, this land is your land”. The irony of this choice of song; this handing over permission from young children to an unseen audience, is painful to sit with.
Finally, Joan Ross’s digital animation, ‘The Claiming of Things’ (2012) is a highly engaging work. Baffling because although its use of humour softens the impact of its layers of visual narrative, the message is no less relentless. It cleverly documents the cultural impact on the land. Layers of the incongruous: cup cakes, graffiti, bric-a-brac, purposeless fences and divides cover the land and are in time, devoured by it. The animation uses a cut and paste collage technique, not unlike the method used by Monty Python so many years ago, but somehow the effect here is elegant. Colonists appear, make their stylish mark, but are ultimately swallowed up by the river that swells continuously until the end of the video cycle. Then it begins again, the landscape returns to its John Glover-esque serenity. The humour means that any sticky academic reading of the piece just doesn’t stick. This piece puts in its place any idea that the colonisation of this place has been in the name of real improvement or progress, but it also steers the viewer away from the ubiquitous emotional responses of guilt or pity. In the end the land wins. Or as one of the interviewees in Ishmael Marika’s ‘Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk’ says, the land remains “Yolngu land. Foreigners will come here from other places. It is still Yolngu land no matter what.”
There is a gestalt within this exhibition that is highlighted brilliantly through the vision of the curators. I asked Garry Trinh if he had any prior knowledge of the context that his work would be placed in here. He didn’t, but he told me that it had brought out a meaning in his work that would not have been apparent, even to him, were it not for this exhibition.
This is an exhibition of mostly mid career and established artists, notable in their own right. But here, through the curatorial vision, a contemporaneous Australian identity emerges, one in which Aboriginal and first or second generation-Australian artists fit together in a new way. With the many references to early colonial artist, John Glover (in the works of Christopher Pease and Joan Ross), we recall a time in art history when what lay “on this site” was imperceptible to the colonising eye. Here, there is a shared eye, parallel and complimentary processes as the artists examine, challenge and reflect on life in contemporary Australia.
Creative Cowboy Films. “Ishmael Marika: Knowledge Flows.” Creative Cowboy Films Blog. Accessed May 26, 2015.http://www.creativecowboyfilms.com/blog_posts/ishmael-marika-knowledge-flows.
Hamilton, Jennifer. “How Brandis Plans to Insulate the Arts from the Artists.” The Conversation: Academic Rigour; Journalistic Flair. Last Modified May 25, 2015. http://theconversation.com/how-brandis-plans-to-insulate-the-arts-sector-from-the-artists-42305.
McKenzie-Murray, Martin. “Inside George Brandis’s Australia Council Arts Heist.” The Saturday Paper, May 23, 2015.https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2015/05/23/inside-george-brandiss-australia-council-arts-heist/14323032001913#.VWUZMmaTyUc.
Claudia Nicholson Website. Accessed May 25, 2015.http://claudianicholson.com/Home.
Michael Reid Website. “Christopher Pease.” Accessed May 26, 2015. http://www.michaelreid.com.au/artists-view?aid=86
Salote Tawale Website. Accessed May 25, 2015.http://www.salotetawale.com/Sometimes-you-make-me-nervous
Gary Trin Website. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.garrytrinh.com/index.html
Verge Gallery Website. “Current.” Accessed May 21, 2015. https://verge-gallery.net/
 Martin McKenzie-Murray , “Inside George Brandis’s Australia Council arts heist” The Saturday Paper, May 23, 2015,
 Jennifer Hamilton, “How Brandis Plans to Insulate the Arts from the Artists” The Conversation: Academic Rigour; Journalistic Flair http://theconversation.com/how-brandis-plans-to-insulate-the-arts-sector-from-the-artists-42305
 Verge Gallery Website, https://verge-gallery.net/
 Gary Trinh (photographer), interview by the author, May 27 2015