Strangely Australian

Kerrie-Dee Johns

Bec Dean, Rebecca 2005 (detail)

Bec Dean, Rebecca 2005 (detail)

Like a visit to a foreign land, You Must Have Been in Strange Places requires adaptation to new concepts in a perilous theoretical topography, an ecology where contrasting narratives co-exist like different species in a re-envisioned Australia.

Andrew Best’s Knox Elements I-III (2005) crowds the space like lantana with a large thick vine curling around the centre pole of the gallery. Hallucinatory objects are reflected in a mirror on which lines of cocaine have been cut, a looking glass wonderland portraying an interior world of the imagination where reason is emptied of any currency. Curator Jeff Khan has cleverly placed this challenge to notions of time and narrative to create the introduction to an exhibition that needs navigation.

Kate McMillan’s Lapses in Judgement (2005) presents disparate sites of turbulent history as the tourist attractions they have become. The images conceal history with an unsettling stillness. Sunlight filters through trees in a video of a peaceful Rottnest Island, the site (the catalogue explains) for a mass Indigenous grave. The concrete bear pits of Switzerland are pictured in a typical snapshot. A tree with sawn-off branches impotently reaches for the sky, whilst the bear remains impassive in its surroundings. Understatement generates emotion without crossing into activism.

Helen Johnson’s mural, Super Natural (2005) diagrammatically deconstructs the history of Australian settlement to reveal how European culture has reconfigured the environment. At its beginning, a girl stands viewing a landscape through the lens of painterly abstraction. At the other end, the landscape is romantically depicted as undeveloped wilderness. Drawn into the mountain peaks are the faces of explorers who made claim to the landscape through hardship and sacrifice but whose utopian yearnings have seen negative consequences.

Bec Dean adds a Freudian dimension to the exhibition. Rebecca (2005), the work and the artist’s namesake, is also the tile of a novel by Daphne DuMaurier, written in 1938, and made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. In this work the artist explores how the fabrication and the myth of Rebecca contribute to her own identity. The work is like an echo, evoking more than one narrative.

In the film, an ominous memory of Rebecca haunts the house of Manderley — like a horror film without a ghost. The memory of this legend torments the second wife of Maxim de Winter like a taboo. Instead it remains repressed as an elemental force represented in the treacherous coastline of Manderley and the roaring ocean heard from the house. It is only when secrets are told, that their power disperses.

In the enigmatic work by Dean, a woman (which of the Rebeccas, we do not know) appears in every frame of a series of cinematic light boxes, each a liminal sphere conflating myth and reality, landscape and memory. Surrounded by swampland, in Victorian period dress, she appears like the ghost of our heritage. Preserved photographically, her aura remains to remind us of a secret she keeps. The series of light boxes offers us a kind of 3-dimensionality, so that we may circle her but never get too close.

Her secret is one bound in national identity, underplayed, but emphasized by her presence in the Australian landscape, but far from cliché of the outback. Rather, like those traumas and turbulent histories featured in McMillan’s work, it shows what remains hidden in our national identity. In its gothic character, it refers to mysteries that cannot be solved, nor neatly packaged in museum format, such as The Picnic at Hanging Rock and the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. It is also in this unresolved nature that it allows the audience to stake claim to historic narratives, as if they were puzzles to be completed by each of our own answers. Cleverly illustrated and tightly curated, this is the way the exhibition suggests we take claim of our heritage: to map it for ourselves, and alllow alternative narratives to converge with the past.

You Must Have Been in Strange Places, curator Jeff Khan, Getrude Contemporary Arts Spaces, Feb 2-26

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg.

© Kerrie-Dee Johns; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005