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Queensland is a State where the divisions between city and country are particularly pronounced.
There are parts of Queensland that are no less remote than their equivalents in other states, however, regional Queensland is comparatively populous, has considerable power at the ballot box and thus it cannot be ignored. In Brisbane we are constantly reminded of the tyranny of distance and our responsibilities as advantaged city folk in respect of the 'disadvantaged' regions. What is often forgotten is that a significant number of artists currently working in Brisbane were raised in remote or regional parts of the state and are well aware of the difficulties.
Shaun Weston is one of these artists and his exhibition, Deadpole, might be seen as a self portrait that takes a humorous look at country life from the point of view of an urban( e) sophisticate. Interestingly this exhibition comes between two trips overseas where Weston has experienced at least two of the ultimate urban environments, London and Tokyo. This exhibition was perhaps an ideal time to reconcile and reflect upon a childhood in regional Queensland, his development as an artist who has received a degree from the Queensland University of Technology and his time abroad. Weston spent much of his 'between time' in a rural setting and this he describes as a period of hibernation although it is clear that a lot of work was generated during his hibernation.Thus in the centre of Brisbane and in a gallery operated by Queensland University of Technology, we are greeted by the pungent smell of hay and a series of installations that satirise the culture of country in a way that is witty, knowing and affectionate.
Notwithstanding the suggestion of a romp in the hay, growing up in an area that is sometimes described as the most conservative in Australia, is no bed of roses for a young gay man. Deadpole takes this on board as it attempts to shed light on the cultural divide between city and country, between 'high' and 'low' art, between gay and straight. Weston in fact leaves no stone unturned in a complex series of works, the sum of which is as thorough as it is amusing.
One of the works that can be considered central to Deadpole is the multi-faceted and multi-layered 13 Cane Todes. This work is dizzying in its scope with oblique references to sexuality, contemporary art and Queensland country life. Since cane toads were introduced to 'protect' the sugar industry and consequently spread like wild fire throughout the state, they have become objects of both fear and fascination. 11 is not surprising therefore that audiences were immediately drawn to 13 Cane Todes where we saw thirteen 'hand caught and killed' cane toads in preserving jars on a shelf. 'Tode' says Weston is German for 'to put to death' and even preserved in death the toads appear somehow triumphant, reminding us that there are a lot more where they came from. Much more than this, however, Weston also lampoons Damien Hirst's propensity for preserving various creatures while also paying an ambiguous homage to his local rugby league team for whom the cane toad is namesake.
For gay men the alluring traditions of mateship and sport are often a double-edged sword. In a sense the rugby player represents the unattainable man, often unattractive yet with. enormous physical appeal, leading to, in terms of sexual objectification, considerable confusion. While allusions to homosexuality occur throughout this exhibition, in the front room of the gallery there is an 'artists bedroom' that symbolically explores the process of growing up gay in the country. A split pink triangle forms a bed head representing the double life many gay men are compelled to lead while the bead spread is a tent recalling the frequently used term 'camp as a row of tents'. Then there are toy soldiers on the bed referencing a military fetish where the vagaries of battle are eschewed and soldiers become playthings.
Weston's reflections on the difficulties encountered by country gay men are tempered with humour and in many ways the obscurity of some of these references reflect a situation where the signs used can be read by only those who are in the know. Thus throughout the show we encounter innocent enough works that upon further inspection deal with some thorny issues of sexuality. As a result of the complexity of Weston's multi-layered references many people will find it difficult to know exactly where he is coming from without a specific knowledge of his 'cross cultural' sources and the way he plays one against the other. Like a bawdy song or poem, however, saturated with double entendre the works are loud enough and (often) crude enough to have a broad appeal.
Shaun Weston, installation view Deadpole, 2001.Palace Gallery, brisbane. Courtesy the artist.
Shaun Weston, 13 Cane Todes detail, 2001. Cane toad and mixed media. Courtesy the artist.