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Voyages of exploration
Mark Elliot-Ranken's exhibition, produced as core to a Visual Arts/Craft Board Project Grant, was titled Voyages of Exploration in reference to the artist's experiences in Papua New Guinea and throughout Australia.
The work extends a personal quest for identity in landscape to the visual presentation of a perceptual dichotomy of incommensurable cultural paradigms. This has grown out of Elliot-Ranken's use of the environment and of location to contextualise personal identity. By distinguishing 'the self' from 'the environment/other' dichotomous formulae are adopted, which in turn characterise chosen terms and conditions of artistic exploration. The duality perceived at this primary level is transposed to the investigation of social and cultural origins.
Throughout the series, Alien Shore, figures appropriated from Edouard Manet's Dejeuner sur I'Herbe (1863) are super-imposed as 'logo's' over gesturally painted environments-the embodiment of transplanted 'civilisation'. For this Elliot-Ranken cut/condensed images from Manet's painting down to a logo of the nude model-the woman exposed in the foreground, gazing back at the viewer-and her complement, the artist's brother who is dressed and shielded from the foreground. it is notable that of the two female figures Manet included, Ranken cut and pasted only the one which has been interpreted as physical love and sensual experience, and excluded the woman signifying spiritual experience. Farr, Bradford and Braham, among others, have interpreted Manet's "intrusively male figures" as choosing between these [women] experiences. Given this and the fact that Manet himself appropriated elements of the painting from Giorgione and possibly Titian1, it is evident that a reading of the show should extend beyond an exploration of contemporary cultural paradigms.
Ranken's work stands out as a gesture to history, re-stating the ethical/ethnic displacements that a national program of multi-culturalism has endeavoured to eradicate. The figures as logos/icons are privileged with photo-reproductive detail and this serves to emphasise the breadth of gender, racial, class and conceptual positions held by transposed peoples rather than simply seeing them as dispossessed migrants in search of a haven.
While Elliot-Ranken is concerned to detail the voyages of civilisation to an Arcadia/fatal shore, clarity and cultural definition are not similarly accorded to the destination. This places parameters around expectations of exploration of new meaning and effectively echoes the historical notion of settlement. Particularly if, for instance, the site of settlement is Australia.
Humphrey McQueen writes that a primary issue in the colonisation of Australia was deciding whether the continent and contents were 'settled' or 'conquered'.
If it was a settled colony the law of the indigenes would apply until superseded by new colonial laws ... Needless to say,
Australia was considered a settled colony so that the Aborigines were not accorded even the rights of a conquered people.2
But history intervenes again if the geographical location of Australia is maintained. Why is Ranken implanting a French/ltalian 'snapshot' (Manet's Dejeuner) when the credit for replacement of indigenous rights is awarded to England.
While possibly acknowledging a multiplicity of ethnic origins, this depicts a uniformity in terms of total migratory effect on the landscape.
The artist's inquiry focuses upon voyages in, for example, Points of Departure, Voyage aux Antipodes and on establishment, Voyage and Settlement. The consequences of establishment are depicted as abrupt cavities of ripped canvas sites of disruption and discord from 'the others' perspective. The figures and the surrounding environment are rendered mutually exclusive, they do not integrate.
The Alien Shore series is excruciatingly perspectival and borders on an absurd simplification of history into binary positions of civilisation /wilderness , conqueror/vanquished, man/nature. What direction or purpose does exploration, a search for discovery, have but the attempt to belong or possess an -other site? Possession is emphasised to the extent that a complete antithesis of technique is employed by Elliot-Ranken to signify proprietary rights.
The explorative possibility abounds, however, and has not been broached, it appears, due to the maintenance of boundaries and parameters preventing action and change. A contemporary reading of Australian architecture by Deborah White reminds that the subscription to heritage in these terms is a matter of choice.3
The perspective of choice is also added when the twentieth century question 'Who am I?' is superseded by 'Who is this speaking?'. Alice Jardine's project is dedicated to breaking down the "dialectics of valorisation" arising out of patriarchal structures. "[A] way to break down the overdetermined metaphors which continue to organise our perceptions of reality" may be through refusing to accept the dichotomous prescription of heritage described in the Alien Shore series.4
The aura of legitimacy lingers through the works' historical references to myths marketed and cherished under 'Australia's pioneering spirit'.
1. Dennis Farr, William Bradford & Helen Braham, The Great Impressionists, catalogue to the Courtauld Collection shown at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1984, p. 93.
2. Humphrey McQueen, A New Brittania, Pelican, 1980, p. 56.
3. Deborah White, "Ripples from the Margin: Refractory Speculations on the Myths of Oz" in Artlink, Vol. 10 No. 4 1990. p 50.
4. Alice Jardine, "Prelude", The Future of Difference, H. Eisenstein & A. Jardine (eds.). Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick. 1985. p.xxvii.