There’s an air of mystery and wonder about the work of Christian Thompson. What is it that makes this protean artist and his obsession with self-portraiture such an enduring fascination? We are told that he is exploring the construction of a sense of self, and the play of race, gender, nationality, sexuality and the rest. But what does this really mean? After all, there is no subject that is more conventional than exploring the concept of identity. It is the ‘nature morte’ of the 21st century. What is it that distinguishes Thompson’s work?

Now we have a new survey exhibition curated by Charlotte Day and Hetti Perkins at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), an opportunity to trace Thompson’s shifting approach to questions of ipseity and alterity across more than 15 years of work, and to admire the parade of fantastical caricatures and Indigenous dreams and queer heroes.

It’s a timely exhibition — broad though not comprehensive — as Thompson was recently named as the inaugural recipient of ACMI’s Mordant Family VR commission, worth $80,000. This current survey includes photographic, video, sculptural and audio works; so it is interesting to think that he will soon be working in the hybrid medium of virtual reality technologies. Is there some submerged connection between Thompson’s interest in the movement between identity categories and spaces and the use of multiple art forms?

The exhibition is called Ritual Intimacies, a title which suggests — rather seductively — that Thompson’s real medium is and has always been performance. It’s an invitation to read individual works as a kind of documentation or material trace of some more ephemeral ceremony of self-becoming. This appeal to the performative is obviously part of a broader trend in international contemporary practice, but it does give a neat effect of formal cohesion and focus to this show; and through this optic Thompson’s approach seems somehow less eclectic or quixotic than it might otherwise.

Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2017, photo Andrew Curtis

Of course, there are works which already have a documentary aesthetic. For instance, the earliest piece in this exhibition, Kangaroo and boomerang jumper, a machine-knit jumper with extremely long sleeves from the Blaks Palace (2002) series, is presented here in a museum vitrine and with an untitled picture of Marcia Langton wearing the jumper on the opposite wall.

The survey includes the Australian Graffiti (2007) series, the last body of work that Thompson completed before leaving Australia. This work still stands out as a unique aesthetic achievement; but here it resonates in new and interesting ways. Ritual Intimacies includes seven of the “untitled” pictures from that sequence. Each is a head-and-shoulders portrait of Thompson dressed in clothes recalling the New Romantic phase of flamboyant clothing. Around his head, and always partially covering his eyes, he wears a garland of native flora.

When they were first exhibited, these images suggested a sort of distortion or a natural ‘graffito’ of the face, an interruption transforming the body into landscape. In the present context, however, the images seem also to participate in a rite of personal mythmaking. The floral ornaments start to look like sacred headdresses or the paraphernalia of a private cult; the fierce eyes staring out from the shadows, behind the bright flowers, are like those of a zealous new initiate.

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017, photo: Andrew Curtis

Another standout piece is Heat, a short three-channel video work from 2010. It features three young women, each on a separate screen and looking down the camera while from below, like heat rising off the ground, a gentle breeze slowly wafts their hair. Like so many of the videos and photographs in this exhibition the framing is head-and-shoulders and the women are bare-shouldered. It’s an outwardly simple work, with its plain orangey background, but compositionally compelling with a strong savour of the sensual, and the memory of sun on skin.

Thompson’s handling of the tension between simplicity of form and complexity of surface and texture is typically effortless. My favourite pieces in this exhibition are Trinity I-III from the Polari (2014) series. Again these are head-and-shoulders portraits of Thompson in character. Here he is made-up in uncanny drag, hunched, hulking and dominating the pictorial space. A thick column of marijuana smoke unspools from his open mouth, mingling with the tousled strands of a long ashy-blonde wig. These are pictures full of rhythmic and textural interest: between the reddened lips and the reddened eyelids; between the white face paint and the white pyramidal pile of flowers sitting on top of the wig; and between the smoky background and the rubbed white body paint, with Thompson’s darker skin showing through.

Thompson has said that he tends to construct his photographs in the way that he would make a sculpture, emphasising the materiality of the figure and surface. This strong sense of three-dimensional presence is something that the Polari series shares with the well-known Billy King (2010) series, of which seven pictures are included in this exhibition: those luridly patterned hoodies with beaded necklaces cascading out of the hoods. Looking at the two groups together it’s impossible not to feel an echo between those massed beads and the massed flowers.


Down Under World from the series We bury our own, 2012, courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin

Pitt Rivers Museum

In 2010, Thompson was one of two students to accept the inaugural Charlie Perkins Trust Scholarship to attend Oxford University. As part of the creative component of his doctorate, Thompson staged an artistic intervention in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Pitt Rivers is one of colonialism’s more visible archives, an ethnographic collection second in size only to the British Museum. And, of course, it features a large amount of Aboriginal Australian material.

The result of this intervention is We bury our own (2012). It’s a strange series, which has been widely exhibited (in the dining room at Trinity College, Oxford, among other venues) and is the problematic centre of the current survey. For me, this series recalls something Hal Foster once suggested about the figure of the artist-as-archivist: the way that they are often less interested in critiques of cultural representation and institutional integrity, and more interested in perpetuating or legislating existing archival practices. And I can’t help wondering if Thompson’s collaboration with Pitt Rivers archives might be a missed opportunity for a more substantial interrogation of the efforts of museums with major collections in ethnography and anthropology to sidestep demands for immediate decolonisation.

Thompson describes the process he developed for creating this series as “spiritual repatriation,” proposing a psychical departure from the archive into contemporary creative practice. His methodology is to meditate on the photographs and artefacts in the collection in order to release their spirit in his imagination; and in this way, something intangible but real in these objects is returned to the world.

Christian Thompson: Ritual intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017, photo: Andrew Curtis

Certainly, this can be read positively in the broader context of attempts by marginalised communities to rewrite cultural histories distorted by colonial intervention. Christopher Morton, the curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at Pitt Rivers, suggests that Thompson’s engagement with the collection will help change the archive in terms of its foundational colonial assumptions, but it would be interesting to know precisely how that might happen.

In short: is this really a meaningful contribution to the cultural restitution debate? In an enthusiastic and provocative catalogue essay, British novelist Marina Warner writes:

“Could such acts of spiritual repatriation become a way of letting regimes and institutions, such as colleges and museums, off the hook? […] The question remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, as the success of an artist’s claim to spiritually repatriate an object or image must remain subjective.”

Well, partly subjective, but never entirely. There are always shared perspectives and one can advocate for the effectiveness of the art object in itself, something that Warner does not do.

For me, Thompson’s Pitt Rivers pictures — black-and-white self-portraits digitally overlaid with brightly coloured bits and pieces such as crystals and candles and butterflies — are an unexpected visual weak point in this survey. There’s little of that absolute sureness of figure-composition that one can usually rely on with Thompson; the faces are blocked by the awkward placement of the votary objects and his body always seems pasted to the background. They are closed-up and incommunicative, images without breath or movement, and a rare failure of Christian Thompson’s instinct for enchantment.

The Museum of Others (2016) is a follow-up series to We bury our own, and a re-evaluation of Thompson’s engagement with the Pitt Rivers collection. This sequence of doubled portraits features the artist holding placards with likenesses of famous (or infamous) Englishmen such as James Cook, John Ruskin and Augustus Pitt Rivers in front of his own face. Their eyes have been cut out and through the holes we see Thompson’s own eyes peering out, deep in shadow.

Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2017, photo Andrew Curtis

Thompson himself explains these pictures in terms of “othering” the Western gaze, but it’s also possible to read them as the acknowledgement of a certain form of capture, as though Christian Thompson, by engaging with the Pitt Rivers Museum were somehow masked or effaced by these personalities, the ideologies they represent and the history of cultural, political and economic entanglements linking colonialism, liberalism and globalisation. As bold as these pictures are, they look rather malevolent, as if the old lords were suddenly reanimated.

But the masks do come off. This is one of the consistently surprising things about Thompson’s practice: that shudder of excitement when he steps out from behind the exotic persona. The newest work featured in this exhibition is Berceuse (2017), a lullaby sung by Thompson in Bidjara and recorded as a three-channel video. It’s a kind of companion to Refuge (2014), also included in the exhibition, another video piece in which Thompson sings in language. In both of these works he presents himself to camera without any costume frippery or flirtiness, without apparent irony or paradox. It is in these moments that the mystery of Thompson’s attraction seems most explicable, pointing to the fundamental honesty which grounds his practice; such a simple thing, and yet the rarest quality in contemporary art.

Finally, speaking of words, it’s worth noting that one of the most rewarding features of Ritual Intimacies is the chance to observe the way Bidjara language has steadily moved toward the centre of Christian Thompson’s practice over the years.

See co-curator Hetti Perkins interview Christian Thompson below:

Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy, curators Charlotte Day, Hetti Perkins, MUMA, Monash University, Melbourne, 27 April-8 July

Top image credit: Desert melon from the series We bury our own, 2012, Monash University Collection, purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015