On This Site
Verge Gallery, until 13th June

Artists: Karla Dickens, Ishmael Marika, Claudia Nicholson, Christopher Pease, Joan Ross, Salote Tawale, Garry Trinh
Curators: Kate Blackmore and Siân McIntyre

The title of the latest show at Sydney University’s Verge Gallery is both a call to remembrance of past injustices, deaths and suffering and an invitation, a summons to gather and begin a conversation. It also conjures the local and the general, the specificity of Sydney’s history and the larger national picture. Curators Siân McIntyre (Verge Gallery’s director) and Kate Blackmore state they want that conversation to occur at the site of this clash; of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, the ‘now’ and ‘then’ – at the frontier – and create “a space for self-questioning and unsettlement.”

The notion of the “other” in postcolonial theory was invoked to designate the relationship of the imperialist West towards its colonised peoples. This comes to mind when confronted with the visceral excess of Salote Tawale’s video and installation work, Sometimes you make me nervous and then I know we are supposed to sit together for a long time (2012). It is a work that exploits “otherness” for all it’s worth. The title confounded me at first and then I realised it was, of course, about a kind of coming together, but also about the difficulty – the anxiety – of that meeting across divides of culture and place. The work is poetic, beautiful and obscene, seductively drawing us in to Tawale’s grotesquery as she slowly reveals her point. A video monitor is placed low to the ground on a packing crate. Arranged before it are plastic fruits, flowers and leaves and attached to the monitor is an apex like cardboard scaffold. It is a shrine, composed of the tacky and gaudy, reminiscent of Thomas Hirschorn’s outdoor shrines or the sculptural installations of Wangechi Mutu. On the screen, we see Tawale, face painted with day-of-the-dead make-up, feasting on fruits and chicken. She barely finishes one piece before beginning to devour the next, literally gorging on the luxuriant exotic as a Western viewer might have ‘feasted’ their eyes on a nineteenth century Orientalist painting. Here, Tawale turns the colonial tables, shoving otherness in our face to question the nature of cultural encounter.

Joan Ross is represented by three works, all using her trademark neon of ‘High-Vis’ culture to highlight (excuse the pun) not only the incursions of the colonial past, but also the encroachment of dubious values in an over-bureaucratised and throw-away culture. The digital animation The claiming of things (2012) is a mash up of Thomas Gainsborough, John Glover and contemporary consumer culture, presented as one witty, and profoundly disturbing, piece of social critique. Appropriating Glover’s The bath of Diana, Van Dieman’s Land (1837) and figures from Gainsborough, Ross reimagines these romantic visions as cultural and economic threats, claiming, demarcating and polluting the Australian landscape. After being fenced in, controlled by surveillance and warned by a “PREPARE TO MERGE” traffic sign (a modern, unsettling re-phrasing of the past policy of assimilation?), all is overcome by a tide of trash. Finally, the land is purged by an actual flood, depressingly though, only so the cycle can begin again. In this work, layers of colonisation take place, the brutality of it only made more obvious by the uncomfortable humour, leaving you unsure whether to cry or laugh.

Ishmael Marika’s Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk (2013) is a single channel video work presented in a corner of the gallery. Marika is also represented by Galka (2014), which differs in style and intent as well as presentation, this work being projected as a large-scale video. Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk, requiring headphones to hear the audio, demands an intimate viewing, which is in keeping with the personal, testimonial style of the work. It follows an historical trajectory, from 1968 when illegal mining commenced in Yolngu country in North-Eastern Arnhem land to 2011, when a lease agreement was signed between the traditional owners and Rio Tinto Alcan. Punctuated by interviews with past and present traditional owners and members of the Yolngu nation, it interweaves archival and contemporary footage, presenting a compelling narrative of systemic injustice and the long struggle for recognition of land rights. Both Galka and Wanga Watangumirri Dharuk demonstrate the power of storytelling, whether of a more conventional narrative style or in a documentary mode. In showing both these works, Marika’s skill as collaborative filmmaker, researcher and artist are made evident. Both works show that a profusion of voices, whether in fiction, documentary, or a combination of both, are necessary for productive conversation.

All the works in this show tease out some idea of post-colonial discomfort, brought forth from the artist’s intellect and presented for debate. The photo series of Garry Trinh (Welcome Home, 2007), depicting shuttered suburban house facades, are a chilling reminder that there are plenty of Australians who do not want to engage in a conversation. A point that seems especially pertinent in light of so much fear and misunderstanding around asylum seekers. Christopher Pease, exploring his own cultural hybridity, critiques Western image production and its romanticised “native” through his appropriation of traditional oil painting. Claudia Nicholson’s ceramics explore similar territory, using the language of craft and folklore to generate tensions around culture, identity and narrative, as do the evocative wire masks of Karla Dickens.

A show seeking to begin a conversation does well to include a variety of voices, and this one does. On This Site gathers, interrogates and problematises the post post-colonial condition. A fruitful conversation can only be one that remains open-ended, always pushing at the frontier – drawing from the past and looking towards the future.

Meredith Birrell