Monday, 16 July 2012

We Bury our Own, an exhibition of work by Christian Thompson

Christian Thompson, an indigenous Australian artist currently studying for a DPhil at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, has a small exhibition at the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum. It comprises eight large C-type prints plus a 2-minute video installation, artworks made as a result of his intensive study of the museum’s Australian photographic collection. Despite their formal simplicity, the artist’s ethnicity prompts a variety of responses by the white European to his responses, constituting a thought-provoking loop.

The photographs consist of self-portraits, and in each the inscrutable face is obscured to a greater or lesser extent. It is an oblique comment on the Australian Aboriginal experience, as he has eschewed traditional graphic styles and dress. Given these notable absences, the images achieve their depth only with knowledge of the artist’s background. He is shown in formal western clothing, indicating that while he holds on to his tribal heritage (which must be the “We” of the exhibition’s title) in some manner, he has been ready to adopt at least the outward trappings of his new, if temporary, home. Yet the parodic Oxford student formality, crisp white shirt and white bow tie, is a dry comment on the fustiness of hidebound western civilisation compared to the spiritual freedom of nomadic life.

Covering the eyes is a nod to the idea that they are the window to the soul, and by occluding them, the viewer is denied the opportunity to see into Thompson’s, while he simultaneously refuses to gaze at the representatives of his people’s oppressors. His hidden features symbolise the apparent invisibility of Aborigines historically, yet at the same time, while superficially offering himself up as an ethnographic subject, in taking charge of his presentation he is denying the ability to objectify him. Byrecovering ownership, he has transformed anthropometric scrutiny into art.

There is also a sense of the belief that a photographer is able to steal the subject’s soul, as Aboriginal bodies were once stolen, and that opportunity is now denied. Coming back to European myth, flowers on the eyes evoke coins placed on those of corpses, and the still features suggest the post-mortem photographs that were once popular in Western culture, the effect enhanced by the funereally black jacket and white shirt. Thompson seems dressed for death, yet his optimistic project is to disinter values buried in the archives, and help them to live again, not to weep over them.

The photographs circle round these issues, challenging the viewer to examine his or her attitude to imperialism and the effect it has on those imperialised. The bluntest expression, both in title and content, is Invaded Dreams, in which a model of the Mary Rose, a Union Jack anachronistically flying from the mainmast, conveys, none too subtly, both a sense of colonisation and the fragility of conquest. Similarly, in Down Under World, the most direct reference to Australia of all the titles, and emphasising the European frame of reference (it’s only Down Under if you are here), Thompson is formally dressed but with crystals on his head and over his eyes, ambiguously conveying a sense of healing, but also alluding to disputes over land and mineral rights. He looks rather like a barrister wearing a crystalline wig, throwing up legalistic interpretations of human and property rights.

Gender issues are raised, but always interweaved with wider issues of exploitation and identity. In Forgiveness of Land he is wearing a headscarf, the one glimpse of traditional Aboriginal art, and the viewer half expects to see curlers peeping out. The title poses the questions – whose land, whose forgiveness, and forgiveness for what? If the land is feminine, is Thompson drawing a parallel between the ill-treatment of the soil by whites, and the ill-treatment of Aborigine women by men of all colours? In Lamenting the Flowers the artist has butterflies over his eyes, the print black and white apart from the colour popping of bright blood-red flowers in his hair, his face lent an air of vulnerability by a net veil. The title again refers to the land, the butterflies signify fragility, the flowers and veil femininity, and the veil also mourning. Three Sisters shows him covered with flowers in even greater abundance, three red candles bright in the otherwise monochrome print. The title references a fabricated ‘Aboriginal’ myth, which highlights the issue of cultural authenticity. Desert Melon, the image on the front of the exhibition leaflet, combines black jacket and white bow tie with yellow coin-shaped flowers concealing his eyes, and a paper hat with a picture of a tree: natural and artificial, life and death, complementing each other.

The other photographs are more resistant to interpretation, at least perhaps outside traditional belief systems. Energy Matter shows Thompson standing with his hands over his eyes, backs facing out, black dots on both in a circular pattern, possibly representing unity and integration. Danger Will Come shows only a pair of hands holding a frame, with a flowery border, in which what look like stars, at least sparkly somethings (perhaps the crystals again) can be seen. The video installation, featuring a topless startled-looking and startlingly blue-eyed man singing a repetitive song about family and loss, while hypnotic and poignant, feels out of place alongside the hermetic purity of the photographs.

Unlike physical remains, which are unique, and for which the struggle over ownership is as much about a refusal to be ignored as about regaining relics of ancestors, photographs can exist in multiple copies, held by the creator, or curator, but available to be licensed to anyone. Many photographic collections are being ‘returned’ to indigenous populations in Australia, but the beauty of the photograph is that someone’s gain does not entail another’s loss. Even in the context of the Pitt Rivers Museum, though, the photographs are more than objects of dispassionate study. These beautifully produced images are dreamtime made manifest, and the rather stark corridor, where the loos are sited, becomes a place of meditation and peace. Rich in meaning, they transcend the sterility of grievance and guilt in their embracing of European technology to reflect on the Aboriginal experience. Thompson, with his joint Bidjara and English heritage, seems comfortable in both spheres, ready to move on from the injustices of the past to imagine a better future.

The photographs and video installation are on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Long Gallery, on the ground floor, from 26 June 2012 until 3 January 2013. The exhibition is open 10–4.30 Tuesday to Sunday; 12–4.30 Monday. Admission is free.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Warning: this review contains spoilers

In Lorene Scafaria’s directorial debut, Steve Carell is Dodge, the archetypal dull ordinary schmuck living in New York, an insurance salesman no less. Keira Knightley is Penny, a much younger English neighbour who has relationship issues. They might never have got to know each other if it hadn’t been for an asteroid called Matilda heading Earthwards and promising the destruction of human life (though doubtless not for the cockroaches) in a mere twenty-one days.

To begin with the bigger picture and then move on to the relationship at the heart of this black comedy/satire/road movie/romcom hybrid, does it convince as a faithful depiction of the end times? It is surprising that the electricity stays on for so long, but without it we wouldn’t get the rolling news updates, and Dodge poignantly wouldn’t be able to play Penny’s much-loved vinyl LPs after he thinks he’s lost her. There are riots, though they seem to die down quickly. Perhaps it's all just so pointless. Most individuals are well behaved, if occasionally a little tetchier than usual. They cope with impending disaster in a spectrum of ways: there are hedonistic ones naturally, finding release in drug taking and sex. Others embrace religion, or picnic on the beach. Some kill themselves in despair to put an end to the awful anticipation, or get others to do it to them.

A few act as if nothing is wrong, such as Dodge’s Hispanic cleaner who insists on coming in once a week to vacuum his flat. People have yard sales, or mow the lawn. Some go to work, though in diminishing numbers; even Dodge for a while – ridiculously discussing the purchase of Armageddon cover with a potential customer – until a jumper lands on his windscreen in the car park. Pretending that things are normal retains control in the face of hopelessness, and keep a lid on the bubbling hysteria, though nobody is keen to take on the new vacancy of Chief Finance Officer offered by the unfeasibly optimistic supervisor, even if it does mean more money. Survivalists in their titanium-reinforced bunker, refreshingly depicted as tough black soldiers rather than the stereotypical white rednecks, are happy because they think they are going to inherit the earth as long as they have enough guns and crisps squared away, though they may have forgotten about having to share it with the cockroaches.

These all seem plausible responses, and make you wonder how you would behave in such a situation, knowing that nothing mattered anymore, while social pressures to conform were negligible. The major problem with the film, apart from a weak script with a heavily-contrived narrative that sets up its situations crudely, is the relationship between the two leads. Dodge is stupefyingly dull, albeit partly from the shock of his wife literally running off to be with someone she actually cares about. The most exciting thing about him is his name, though he does loosen up enough to take to drinking cough syrup for a kick, probably the only person over 16 ever to do so. Penny is the sort of kooky, feisty, flaky ‘free spirit’, but hiding a touching vulnerability, so beloved of Hollywood films but who would get up anyone’s nose in real life (she is probably in America after having worn out the patience of every late-twenties male in England). Yet they are thrown together when rioters come a-calling.

Thus the odd couple go on a trip away from burning New York (though fortunately when Dodge gets back his flat is tidy and his cleaner is, as always, just finishing the vacuuming with a cheery “see you next week”). Dodge wants to visit Olivia, an old girlfriend he has only just discovered cares about him, thanks to Penny having held on to his wrongly-delivered post. If only she had given him his letters a bit sooner, he could have contacted Olivia before things went completely tits-up (but really, how was Dodge ever the love of her life?). Meanwhile Penny, distraught at having put selfishness before family all these years, wants to make amends by choosing now, when there are no commercial flights, to go back to Surrey, England, to be with her relatives. Fortunately Dodge knows someone with a light aircraft capable of flying the Atlantic, so they can help each other out, and he can make peace with his estranged father as a bonus. You can see how Dodge and Penny’s relationship is going to end, if not any reason for such a depth of feeling between the pair. Ultimately, the key song missing from the soupy soundtrack is Stephen Stills’s Love the One You’re With.

While the focus is on these two ordinary characters trying to find meaning in absurdity, the film isn’t really about Dodge and Penny. It’s about what people do in extremis, though one that is surely sanitised – would we on the whole be this sane in an insane place? Its message is one not just for the end of the world, but for now: don’t have regrets over things not done, but do what you can in order to give your life meaning while you have time. Whether that is licence to take heroin is debatable, but it is not a bad principle. If the Mayans got it right, the world will come to an end in December 2012, and we will have similar decisions to make, so seize the day. I’m going to draw up a bucket list, immediately.