We started thinking about different forms by which art makes an address to politics after a visitor commented on a perceived lack of political content in Australian art. As a local said of such opinions: ‘It’s like they think we don’t have e-flux here.’ So we tried to identify different manifestations of politics in some practices that we know locally. What can artists do with or to politics? It is a question as elusive as ‘what is art?’ and one that, ultimately, we don’t really want answered. Circling around it, however, can enable us to think about some different modes with political implications. We are particularly interested in discreet or tangential forms of address, which we would situate in distinction to the practice of making work about a specific political circumstance, amounting to an ‘opinion piece’. The former can easily fly under the radar, or be misconstrued. The latter can be interesting and worthwhile at its best, though at its worst it can carry forth problems that originate in and repeat, in an Australian context at least, the conditions of colonisation: seeking to put one’s name on a circumstance, to take ownership of the political predicament of another by turning it into art. An understanding of any address made to politics by art demands at least a cognizance of how the work positions itself in its context. This is not an attempt to reframe a whole bunch of stuff as political, but to zoom in on some approaches that use form to uptake political themes, often in subtle and nuanced ways. What can be taken for an absence of politics may be an attempt to identify, illuminate or induce the ciphered or suppressed politics of political forms themselves: the form of an artwork can expose something about the ways in which people pursue what they call politics. We will suggest that such an address becomes a means of approaching the question of political responsibility in a non-parliamentary sense.
Critical reservations about a work are part of the work and not just of the critic’s reading, because they bear upon issues that the work has itself forced open. If a work’s message is too clear, consistent or able to be rephrased as an opinion about politics without any loss of form, then we could even say that that work is precisely not political, regardless of whether it posits itself as such. Our own methodological approach rather presumes the following:
1) the political address of a work of art must be irreducible to its content;
2) the form of the artwork must take the forms of politics as part of its own work;
3) this form is directed towards inducing an affect and a conceptual reflection that exceeds evaluations of a ‘boo–hooray’ type;
4) the politics of the work’s formal address must exceed any particular critical evaluations that are made of it.
In this essay we will examine works by four Melbourne-based artists—Brighid Fitzgerald, Rosie Isaac, Nicholas Mangan and Tom Nicholson—with the above directives in mind. In our interpretations, we will attempt to draw out the implications and consequences of their deployment of forms. Our choice of these artists in this context, to the extent our decisions can be consciously and explicitly elaborated, derives from a number of considerations. First, they are all local non-Indigenous Australian artists. Some are better known or established than others, but we want to show that the fact of their localness doesn’t reduce their political diversity at the level of form. They use very different materials, techniques and conceptual frameworks in their art. Out of this diversity, however, we will suggest certain shared themes in their work—which nevertheless can’t simply be read off from the fact that they share a real locale or, indeed, any other set of predicates, other than the fact that they are all artists. The fact that they are non-Indigenous does matter, precisely because the implications of biological, social and cultural heritage are integrally affected in the local artistic context by this real foundational political division.
Indefinite Substitution (2014) is part of Nicholson’s ongoing engagement with the question of whether, through rethinking memorialisation, new ways might be found to acknowledge the disavowed truths of colonialism and to alter their consequences. This project involved the transportation by sixty volunteers of two unfired clay heads, based on historical depictions of William Buckley and John Batman, between sites stretching from Sorrento to Geelong. Both Buckley and Batman played unique roles in the colonisation of Melbourne and its surrounds. On Nicholson’s own account, the entrepreneur Batman implicitly acknowledged Indigenous sovereignty insofar as he sought to make a treaty; the ex-convict Buckley lived with the Wathaurung people of the Bellarine Peninsula for over thirty years. Melbourne is not called Batmania, as was originally mooted; Buckley mostly survives in the idiom ‘you’ve got Buckley’s’, that is, you’ve got no chance. The attribution of the idiom to this particular Buckley is uncertain, but assigning failure to a man who flourished seems to befit Australia’s contradictory relation to its own colonial foundations.
As the wet clay heads were carried repeatedly back-and-forth between sites, their forms were marked by travel and handling, and their features became obscured; at the same time, traces of clay remained on the hands, arms and clothes of those who carried them. In this negotiation, the heads and their bearers started to merge. The progression through places known to have been frequented by Batman and Buckley—by way of Indented Head, no less—to the final destination of the gallery allegorises a movement from matter to media, from presentation to representation. Over the course of the project, the switching of the heads from one place to another accelerated, as their proximity to the gallery grew closer.
There are many possible interpretations of these exchanges. Giving a new and unstable material form to the vestiges of these historical figures becomes a means of re-engaging our colonial past, whilst acknowledging the messy, nebulous processes that underlie historical formations. The work embodies its own representational risks insofar as the trajectory of the degradation sustained by the heads runs counter to the teleological finality of the gallery as a space of arrested display. Yet another polarity occurs between the decreasing distances over which the heads are switched—which describes a loss of momentum like that of a bouncing ball—and the increasing exertion of the persons carrying them as the frequency of switching increases. Nicholson’s is perhaps the most self-critical of the works discussed here, since the process of producing a counter-monument simultaneously acknowledges and effaces what it seeks to memorialise.
Mangan’s video work Nauru – Notes From A Cretaceous World (2010) presents a sequence of meditations upon the consequences of the island’s now-dead phosphate-mining industry: desolate beaches strewn with ruins, desiccating machinery and fossilised reefs, the remnants of an island that has literally been hollowed out by market forces. These scenes are juxtaposed with documentation of Nauru House in Melbourne, which at its completion in 1977 was the tallest building in the city. Mangan does not dismantle the lived distance between Australia and Nauru, the tiny island’s phosphate having nourished the island continent’s agricultural industry. The footage is accompanied by a dry, furtive narration of Nauru’s economic rise and fall. The voiceover has the intonation of fiction, which is how Mangan himself describes the work. The fictional aspect is not a result of staging, but of framing: he has selected indices of extremity, which Nauru’s turbulent history has left a wasteland. Nauru is a fiction of subtraction rather than of invention. It lays bare the selectiveness by which any history takes its official form, though we are more accustomed to this process delivering a state-sponsored idea of a happy ending than a dystopian vision of ruination. Mangan presents the aftermath of an outpost being sucked dry by a colony that continues to find ways to drain Nauru’s resources, such as through detention centres. Whereas Nicholson’s work is concerned with the coalescence of a community as a conflictual progression, the nihilistic edge of Mangan’s Nauru leaves us stranded in a desolation that, culturally speaking, is of our own making.
Fitzgerald produced a work in 2014 that approached the idea of Elizabeth Street in Melbourne having been a tributary of the Birrarung (the Yarra River), until the colonists finally paved it over. One of Fitzgerald’s starting points was a short clip showing the street in flash flood. A tram is half-immersed at a low point in the rapidly flowing water. A taxi pulls up at an intersection, perhaps Lonsdale Street. It pauses—we imagine the driver thinking ‘fuck it’ as it rounds the corner—then ploughs brazenly through the deep and fast-flowing water. Other elements were present at the beginning of the project: a crack in the floor, that ran in the same orientation as the river/street, was filled with blue wax; twenty cent coins, with the platypus on one side and Queen Elizabeth on the flip, were played with, videoed being kicked up and down Elizabeth Street, photocopied; the stylised, blade-like ripples were enlarged and cut from aluminium sheet. The fanciest water bottles were purchased from the outdoor stores that line Little Bourke Street just off Elizabeth. Texts were brought in, then taken away again: ‘155 water fountains in Melbourne’s CBD’, ‘of mist & shadows’, ‘how smoothly flowing water turns into eddies and whorls’. The video of the flood was likewise excluded, then brought back. The cut aluminium was taken away. The water bottles, half-filled, were held in a clear plastic bag hung on a nail, and allowed to leak. Together they dripped incontinently, leaving a tepid pool. On the concrete floor of the installation room where the work was first developed, one noticed a single coin, then another and another, as one notices mushrooms in a forest. The platypus was always the top. The coins were later found to fit perfectly into some circular holes in the wooden floor by Fitzgerald’s studio upstairs, where a few of them took up residence. Flush with the grotty, paint-flecked floor, they tended further towards invisibility.
Fitzgerald’s paring back led to a work so discreet that others would come into the room and ask if they could use it to document their work, since it was empty: her work, in its subtlety, demanded a shift in perception in order to be seen at all. It is the same shift required to understand that Elizabeth Street was, and remains, a body of water; even when it surged up at the taxi driver, he still couldn’t say yes to it being a river. This work literally dredges up all sorts of traces of a very particular place, in order to present, in a post-formal way, recovered elements of that place’s materials, its events, their organisation and their persistence-in-their-forgetting. In this archaeology, the work’s mode of address is directed towards unknowing as a dominant mode of relation concerning the establishment of place. So part of the politics of this work’s address is in its presupposition regarding the benefits of a kind of call-to-attentiveness. This work does not deliver a didactic revelation, but asks us to approach a tentative process of discovery that the artist herself has undertaken. Fitzgerald has spoken of this work as a search for porosity.
Fitzgerald’s and Mangan’s practices show both similarities and differences at this point. Mangan, taking up the challenge of a self-asserting presence within a place (Nauru House in Melbourne), locates and documents the Other Place of this place (the island of Nauru itself) and what was done there (environmental destruction for colonial economic gain): the division between an urban architecture of glory and the occluded exploitative conditions of its establishment is sequentially unveiled as the model of place-making itself. Fitzgerald, conversely, excavates the unnoticed accidental traces of the past of a place within that place. In recomposing them into new, almost-indiscernible organisations, Fitzgerald’s work suggests the possibility of a new relation to the history and future of that place.
Isaac’s A Dialogue for Agents is a performance work in which two actors, both women, playing the parts of Leisure and Security, read from a script made available to them in the form of cue-cards. Each actor holds the cards up for the other, as the diners in heaven feed one another in the Parable of the Long Spoons. At one point, Leisure unfolds, then reclines upon, a blue banana lounge—cheap, slippery and unstable, but somehow a resilient form—and Security leans over her, looking down. The actors face one another in close proximity to continue their dialogue. At one point Security asks, ‘Has gravity pulled us in line with universal truth, I mean, law?’ to which Leisure replies ‘If so, so be it. We can rest easy in line.’ Security: ‘You can rest easy—reclining in the manner of kings. I’m all bent and buckling under the weight. How can I keep an eye out?’ Security’s body, in this moment, operates in various modes simultaneously: as the immediate physical body of the actor, bent over and growing uncomfortable; as the body of a subject, buckled and ill at ease; as the instrument of security that is wielded in the interests of political gain; and as the metaphorical body of a governed people addressed by their leader. ‘Rest easy,’ entreats Leisure patronisingly, before denying her dominance: ‘I smell a misinformed rat—kings only ever recline on their left sides. I recline in the manner of holiday-makers.’
The script of Speaking in the Abstract is less direct in its political references, a Beckettian wordplay between three characters: an upward cone, a downward cone and a squiggly line. The spatiality of the work is diagrammatic, performing the negotiation that is itself performed through speech: though we are presented with a discursive conversation, the script occupies the space between the actors and the audience. It is printed on a series of large cards hinged together into an origami-like form that is continually reconfigured by the Squiggly Line, in order that each actor can read off her or his lines. At one point, the actors disappear behind the sloped wall that hitherto supported them, re-emerging with their arms protruding through speech-bubble-shaped holes cut into large boards, faintly reminiscent of riot shields. The actors extend their arms and begin pushing towards the audience, coughing aggressively with each advancing step, until audience members are forced to awkwardly re-situate themselves. Here the work moves beyond questions of interpretation to reactions of dis-integration: each audience member is forced to accept the usurpation of their right to a place in the gallery; the presumed neutral consistency of the audience is targeted, shattered, and then recomposed in this strangely humiliating assault.
Of the works discussed here, Isaac’s are the most emphatic in their situation of political meaning in pure form. Though A Dialogue for Agents and Speaking in the Abstract are both grounded in power relations, they are not anchored in specific content, which raises a significant issue: even if, as we have been showing here, art’s address to the political cannot simply be a proposition about a nominally political issue, it must nonetheless allow something of the political problem it’s addressing to appear. Otherwise its own putative commitments become invisible, perhaps to the point where they are no longer accessible except through supplementary assertion; or the work becomes esoteric in a way that conflicts with its ambitions. Although Speaking in the Abstract walks this line, it does not succumb to the threat it opens up for itself. The moment when the audience is co-opted into the power matrix supersedes the question of interpretation with a question of action. The relation between participant and observer, rather than being anchored in content, operates more like a universal form that could be applied to the thinking of any given situation. The work manifests a mechanism rather than a statement.
Just as we suggested above that Mangan and Fitzgerald are engaged in a political archaeology of place in which human actors are minimised in order to free the spectator for inquiry, Isaac and Nicholson have in common a focus on the forces that underlie human relationships (and non‑relationships). While Nicholson, however, maintains as close a relation to a place as possible, Isaac isolates the operations of those forces. If Nicholson produces scripts in which a group can form around a memorialising ritual which hovers between reparation and repetition of a colonial crime of place, Isaac presents an allegory of power as a deracinated abstract machine which turns groups into dominated and dominating persons.
In each of these practices we are presented with an opening towards our own responsibility pertaining to the organisation of action and place. This responsibility can be triggered in the form of a very quiet invitation to reflection upon the past’s traces in the present, or an aggressive incision into implicit social behaviours. It can be as heavy as a mineralogical excavation of another place’s relation to our own or so unwieldy a materialisation that several persons are required to bear the load. Mangan leaves us in a state of desolation of our own cultural making; Nicholson initiates conflicting movements of material and meaning; Fitzgerald induces us to shift our relation to place and matter, registering traces that are often missed; and Isaac robs us of the ease with which we assume unmarked positions of authority. None of these practices offer solutions. Instead, they offer different forms as a chance to rethink our own responsibility.
Helen Johnson is an artist and a writer. Justin Clemens teaches at the University of Melbourne.