Querying the Commomwealth

Darren Tofts on media art at ACMI

Bernie Searle, About to Forget

Bernie Searle, About to Forget

2006/Contemporary Commonwealth/ is the second collaborative venture by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the National Gallery of Victoria. Coinciding with the Commonwealth Games, 2006 is part of the broader cultural component of the Games and adopts the latter’s catch phrase, “United by the Moment”, as a loose, if somewhat ambiguous curatorial concept. It seems to imply social cohesion and collective identity and cautiously engenders sympathy for the idea of the Commonwealth as an “optimistic global association of nations.” But it also partakes of ongoing debates in Australia about questions of national identity, of Australian-ness, broadening its critique to question the relevance of the very idea of the ‘commonweal.’ In this it arouses suspicion of the Commonwealth as prolonging the “hegemonies of Empire.” Is the Commonwealth sustainable as a unified perception of belonging in the face of “migration and displacement”? If the contemporary Commonwealth has become “a network of changing cultural forces”, of unification in the face of mobility, how has this been interpreted by an institution devoted to movement?

The ACMI component of 2006 brings together 14 artists from Commonwealth countries. In his catalogue essay Mike Stubbs suggests that the work of these artists explores “complex aspects of cultural identity, migration and environment…of history, landscape, country and the relationships that divide and unite.” The works assembled in the ACMI Screen Gallery are predominantly moving-image based. Many involve multi-channel projection, which allows for the interplay of juxtaposed narratives of conflicting identity, as in British artist Isaac Julien’s Paradise Omeros (2002), which explores the implications of migration on the psycho-geography of belonging. In this work the central character is physically and mentally dislocated between his home of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean and his adopted home of England. The viewer’s experience is less of watching a narrative of this experience than of navigating a hypertextual assemblage of displacement. A similar collage-like work is Indian artist Shilpa Gupta’s Untitled (2004), which allows the visitor to interact with multiple projections of the artist dressed in various forms of life-style oriented attire. As each mannequin is addressed, they perform in stereotyped ways befitting their mode of dress to the tune of consumer-driven marketing slogans that scroll across the screen, dramatically enacting Gupta’s sense of the transformation of the individual from citizen to homogenised global consumer.

Other works explore the intimacies of relations between place, identity and memory, such as Gamilaraay artist rea’s lyrical and evocative gins_leap/dub_speak (2003-2005). Immersed within 4 enveloping screens, the visitor hears the voices of 4 women recalling their memories of childhood with vivid immediacy. The changing character and rhythms of the local landscape of the Coonabarabran region of New South Wales reinforces the crucial symbiosis of indigenous peoples and their lands, as well as the importance of storytelling as the vehicle of this relation. The importance of local history and cultural memory is also captured, literally, in John Hughes’ The Archive Project (2006), an extraordinary sample of films made by the Melbourne Realists collective of activist filmmakers (see Carmela Baranowska’s report on page 17). These works, made between 1946 and 1952, were determinedly parochial and “refused the hegemony of US and British film, seeking instead to deliver Australian images and stories…to Australian audiences.”

The idea of the Commonwealth as the exportation of a tradition to an unfamiliar and even hostile elsewhere is captured in John Gillies’ Divide (2004). In this single channel work the colonisation of Australia is interpreted as a hybrid of Biblical nation building and English pastoral, in which the wild colonial boy wanders desultorily as a shepherd of both man and beast. Gillies’ portrayal of the establishment of the Australian nation is ambiguous at best.

The work that is perhaps the most overtly critical of notions of Empire and ideologies of the commonweal is Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Seeker (2006). Seeker portrays a world in which the progressive forces of globalisation elicit narratives of exploitation, corruption and displacement. The user is invited to construct their own map of personal history and identity by tracing their genealogy on a map of the world. In the process a web-like network of relations develops and is interpreted by flanking screens, which depict alternative stories associated with these vectors, such as the relations between a country’s wealth and its acceptance of refugees, or the death toll in a country riven by civil war. The mobility of personal history converges here with larger diasporas associated with asylum seekers and refugees. The contemporary world emerges as a nomadic state in which people are forever displaced, seeking origins and destinations. This perception of diffusion is echoed in South African artist Berni Searle’s elegiac three-channel work About to Forget (2005), which depicts a stark, ink drawn silhouette of an anonymous group of people in an equally vague landscape. Their relations to each other are unclear and as time passes each silhouette fades into even more profound obscurity, as the ink bleeds and dissolves as if exposed to water.

It is interesting to speculate on how this show would be read without the context of the Commonwealth Games as a backdrop. Themes of post-colonialism, the importance of home and locality are not unique to discussions of the Commonwealth. The critique of what Terry Eagleton famously called “English ideology” has been a staple of contemporary thought since the earliest days of cultural studies, in particular the work of Stuart Hall. What perhaps does emerge as the real focus of 2006/Contemporary Commonwealth/ is an ambivalence towards prescribed notions of community, especially in the face of the discretionary nature of identity and new social formations made possible by our increasing embrace of technologies of mobility. Under such ephemeral conditions, remote individuals may very well be united by the moment.

2006/Contemporary Commonwealth/; Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Feb 24-May 21

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 25

© Tofts Darren; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006