FORGETTING IS NOT AN OPTION
Leon Goh in conversation with Stephen Gilchrist
In this post-apology landscape, are there cultural, social and artistic spaces where reconciliation can occur? OCTOPUS 9: I FORGET TO FORGET is the latest in the annual Octopus exhibitions at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne. Curated by Stephen Gilchrist, the Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), it examined responses to, and reflections on, Aboriginality that are both historical and of this time. Featuring the artists Tony Albert, Daniel Boyd, Andrea Fisher, Helen Johnson, Jonathon Jones, and Reko Rennie, the exhibition sought to actualise feelings of loss and trauma, while providing a conceptual space for the forging of new Aboriginal identities. Exploring past and present experiences of what it means to be an Aboriginal person, this exhibition became a conduit for the artists to remember and re-document as a form of cathartic healing. It also provided a space that allowed the artists to subvert established representations of the ‘other’, imbuing the exhibition with a critical edge. I recently sat down with Stephen to discuss this exhibition.
Leon Goh: Hi Stephen, you recently curated OCTOPUS 9: I FORGET TO FORGET, which explored contemporary responses to Aboriginality and the ongoing cultural and racial problems that we face in Australia. Can you tell me a little bit more about the exhibition?
Stephen Gilchrist: The exhibition explores, in an activist key, what we choose to remember and what we are forced to forget as a nation. I chose to look at it very much from an Indigenous Australian perspective–though not from this kind of mythological contact between Europeans and Aboriginal people–but from the perspective of the trans-generational trauma that’s passed onto younger people. Four of the six artists that I chose were thirty and under, so I was really looking at it from a youthful contemporary viewpoint.
LG: There were definitely some key themes that flowed through the show, for example the reclamation of identity and the subversion of historical representations of indigeneity. Both jumped out at me as I walked through the space. As curator, did you seek to achieve a thematic consistency or an overall conceptual approach?
SG: The main idea for the show at the beginning was really to look at the theme of recovery. So this was looking at linguistic, historical, iconographic and even psychological recovery. When I was invited to curate the show, Prime Minister Rudd had just given the national apology and consequently there was lots of talk about reconciliation, post-apology Australia and healing. So obviously these are very important emotions and states of being, but I was also interested in the flipside. For example, exploring psychological loss and trans-generational trauma. And I think that while they are oppositional emotions, they are also quite interconnected.
Also, one of the conceptual approaches that I took was to choose artists that were working through things in a process-driven way. Therefore, there is a lot of repetition in the exhibition which is obviously deliberate in a ‘if we all say the same thing at the same time, something might happen or something might change’ kind of way. I guess you could almost view it as the pathological idea of repetition; of working through and toward certain outcomes.
LG: With regards to this idea of repetition, I also felt that it was about generating discourse around certain issues as a form of catharsis, perhaps in an attempt to find new ways of being …
SG: That’s good, as that was what I really wanted. For example, when you have a space that has that kind of critical edge, you want to say something meaningful and something useful. You can use it as a platform to address certain issues that really affect everyone–Indigenous issues don’t just affect Indigenous people–so I think that’s why the inclusion of Helen Johnson was so vital. As the token non-Indigenous artist she was very willing to go there, which is important I think. She was complicit in her own representation and in the beginning I guess it could have been viewed as a curatorial contrivance to have this non-Indigenous artist in the show. But the more I thought about the exhibition, the more I thought about the state of contemporary art in Australia. For example, Australian Idol is multicultural without even trying–that’s just the state of Australia–and that’s my experience and that’s my circle of friends. So while Johnson’s inclusion can be viewed as being political, I didn’t want it to become politicised.
LG: I am interested to see why you placed Jonathan Jones’s work untitled (heads or tails) (2009) with Tony Albert’s work exotic OTHER (2009). Jones’s work washed the entire front space of Gertrude with a wall of light, foregrounding Albert’s subversion of kitsch representations of Aboriginality and providing an interesting juxtaposition in terms of mediums and artistic practices …
SG: I really wanted to use the beautiful shop front windows of Gertrude to give that kind of museological edge to the space. First of all, I felt that Tony’s work–with its images of kitsch Aboriginalia–explored representations that really should be relegated to museums. Consequently it displayed a strong synergy with Jonathan’s work, which was about this really important grove of scar trees that were de-stumped and housed in museum collections. I felt that Jonathan’s glowing fluro-tubed stumps of light were about metaphorically shining light on episodes of history that we would rather not remember. I really wanted people to experience that from both the inside and the outside of the space. And when you are in that space, for example, you are literally made the spectacle. So those two works, I feel, are about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture being made a spectacle for colonial and post-colonial consumption.
LG: I felt that this was also the case with Reko Rennie’s work that mobilised a contemporary visual language, yet referenced Aboriginal motifs. Lined up against the wall, Rennie’s repetitive stencil of spray cans sat directly opposite Helen Johnson’s work El Grande,(2007) which could be viewed as a lament for the fauna lost as a result of Western occupation. Can you talk a little more about this juxtaposition?
SG: Reko’s work displayed these spray cans in-filled with a design sourced from Aboriginal shields, and they have this kind of ‘Warholian Campbell’s soup can’ visual reference to them as well. They are not hung on the wall but are placed against it and look like they are poised for action in this kind of defensive and offensive position. Originally these shields were used for defence and to dazzle young initiates in tribal ceremonies. So they have this really amazing visual effect, which I think is also the case with Helen Johnson’s work with all its different patchwork sections all stitched together. I felt that this provided both works with a beautiful formal relationship. When we were installing the show, Reko and I experimented with putting the canvases all together in a block and then separating them apart, but because we had the sheer volume of Helen’s work, the space felt almost too solid.
Also, originally Reko wanted to paint directly onto the wall itself but then we decided that repeating the motifs on canvases would have a more direct relationship to the shields, which I really liked. I also felt that the spray can motif can be read as a reference to substance abuse in young people in Aboriginal communities, so it’s quite a powerful work and is really about forging new ways of being an Aboriginal person in contemporary society. Reko’s practice I feel, really extends these ideas.
LG: I also felt that the sheer scale of Helen’s work was quite powerful in offsetting the more aesthetically subdued works in the gallery …
SG: I think that Helen’s work really pulled together the space. We had to unstitch entire sections of the work to stitch it around the column, as there was no other place that it could fit. You could also walk on the rug and you could sit on it, and from that vantage point you could look at almost every other work in the exhibition. I thought that this work was a great bridge in creating a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous issues. Such issues are far too polarised and we cannot continue to think in that way.
LG: Taking up this notion of separation, in your catalogue essay you talk about the ‘inelasticity of art institutions … to deal with challenges presented by artists who do not fit into neat categories’.[i] I guess Helen Johnson’s practice is a case in point. Her practice often explores the notion of the everyday within a social context and her work Sovereignty (50-70,000 years versus 221 years simply put) (2009) could be read as a visual representation of the history of black and white Australians. Do you think that this need to categorise will be an ongoing issue?
SG: You’d hope that it would be less and less important. I mean we can return to Tony’s work about the exotic other, where Aboriginal artists are always being rendered as ‘other’ and their inclusion in various exhibitions is purely tokenistic. Labels are as helpful as they are unhelpful and it depends on who is prescribing or putting these labels onto people. For example, I am the Curator of Indigenous Art at the NGV but I can talk about non-Indigenous art practice as well, and I think that artists can also straddle different positions. We just need space to allow for that to happen.
I also think that spaces are racially divided in Australia. For instance, I work with Indigenous people and my collection at the NGV is about Indigenous people, so this show was also really about extending my curatorial practice as well as being included in a wider dialogue of not-just Indigenous artists. I think that this is a way in which the different art histories can be brought closer together.
LG: The notion of representation and the appropriation of Aboriginal imagery can be a problematic one as evidenced by the debate surrounding Helen Johnson and Michelle Ussher’s work at the Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces’ Project Room at the 2006 Melbourne Art Fair. Do you think that these issues will continue to emerge? And if so, what can be learned from such a debate?
SG: It’s an issue that keeps coming up, and my belief is that we can’t keep running away from images of Aboriginal people. If we censor all bad images we then make those images disappear, and in this regard lots of Aboriginal people, for a long time, have been edited out of history. I think it’s very brave of non-Indigenous Australian artists to reproduce images of Aboriginal people but I also think that when done in the right way, and in consultation, it can be entirely a non-issue.
LG: Do you see a common thread that links these works together–maybe a sense of agency? Perhaps it’s about the artist’s sense of agency in their attempts to remember history?
SG: I think it’s really important to revisit history and pose questions about the past. These questions really help us to explain our present and think about how we can better address the future. I certainly don’t, and the artists don’t, have the keys to the kingdom. But at least they are giving the gates a good rattle and I think that’s really important. When you have an opportunity to say something, you need to use that opportunity really well and say something that is meaningful and that is your own truth.
LG: On a much broader note, in this post-apology social and cultural landscape, do you think that real reconciliation will ever occur?
SG: I guess the first thing is that you just want to will it to succeed and not fail, so you have to believe that it can happen. And I do believe that it happens on a micro-level everyday in Australia. The more that this happens, the more it breeds its own forms of reconciliation and therefore, guarantees its success. We are not all going to come down on the same side, but thinking about these issues and talking about them is how things are actually going to change.
I think that the national apology was a great statement as it brought long- stagnant issues to the surface and I’m all for that.
Copyright Leon Goh & Runway Magazine 2009
[i] Gilchrist, Stephen. OCTOPUS 9: I FORGET TO FORGET, catalogue, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces (2009) 15