A biographical question is embedded in Fiona MacDonald's exhibition sub-title, how much of him is I, and is contrasted with the nineteenth century aphorism Universally Respected. This is a good introduction to the artist's concern with the reversals inevitable in the meeting of the irreconcilable categories: the ethnographic and fine art. MacDonald is a home-girl to Rockhampton and, to an extent, her life has been shaped by the legend of the once powerful Rockhampton Club. The lives of the 'subjects' of her ghostly portraits were not influenced so elusively, being subject to the Club's near total economic, legal and social dominion: as master, servant or slave.
In the halcyon days of the 1880s Club members formed syndicates to raise venture capital for monopolies ranging from the mercantile 'commonplace' of foodstuffs and labour, to the Mount Morgan Syndicate, which owned the world's richest gold mine. This fin de siecle period ultimately became a crisis of Empire and of rule of property: the shearers' strike of 1891 came to an end in the Rockhampton Supreme Court. The Club's building is now decaying in the graceful tourist fashion of its British Raj antecedents. Here MacDonald's installation of sepia, and black and white interwove portraits sits eerily in the near empty spaces, strangely at rest.
The artist has reproduced private and commemorative photographs selected from the archives of the Rockhampton City Library, Rockhampton District Historical Society, Capricornia University and for folks less historically 'significant', from SI Vincent de Paul. To avoid pedagogic footnoting MacDonald's weavings grid out social relations -some factual, some fanciful – the warp being the Club member, the weft being the non-member. Weaving details are taken from innocently beautiful Lindagher photographs of pseudo-anthropological tableaux composed of artefacts stolen from the indigenous Darambal people and 'blackbirded' Pacific island slaves. These tableaux were constructed by a G.A. Craig for lectures given at the Rockhampton School of Arts. Mr Craig busied himself with the ethnocidal theory that all people with dark skin were the same. The exhibition coda asks, pungently: how much of him is I?
Universally Respected is the third part in the artist's suite of installations re-working colonial history. Cyclopaedia (1990) at Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney was developed around the natural history collection of Alexander Macleay who was New South Wales Colonial Secretary from 1825 to 1837. A fellow of the Linnaean and Royal societies, Macleay and his family assembled the country's earliest and possibly the nineteenth century's finest specimen collection. MacDonald's visually extravagant collages undertook a dismantling of such obsessive classification, parodying the empiricist equation between vision and knowledge as truth . The second installation, Honeymoon (1992-3), was shown in the Mitchell Library Foyer, State Library of New South Wales for the 9th Biennale of Sydney, and was selected from the Dangar family archive. Intimate photographs of a mid-nineteenth century squattocracy at leisure were transformed into visions of latterday Argonauts who had found the golden fleece. Privileged youths 'honeymooned' in boats across the Mitchell Library's mosaic floor, floating over a reproduced seventeenth century map which showed discoveries made by Abel Janszoon Tasman during voyages in 1642-1643 and 1644 to seek out new lands for the Dutch East India Company's trade.
These projects are distinguished by the interleaving of archival material and the artist's ambiguous objects, both placed with subtlety with in spaces deemed 'nationally sacred'. MacDonald's chronologies make a radical departure from the now standard gambits of site-specific installations with their tendency to foreground symbolic or metaphoric orders. Her animation of multi-temporal visual and factual fields, offers the viewer access to a working and research process. The viewer must collaborate with the artist to link explanation and interpretation. The dead eyes watching from these portraits meet the animating eyes of present viewers.
In Rockhampton MacDonald's portraits were hung alongside caricatured portraits of 'universally respected' Club members executed by the proprietor of The Cigar Divan (shades of Delacroix), an artist and editor, Louis Marcellin Martin . A Frenchman, Martin, (whose persona de cartoon was a frog), arrived in Rockhampton as a refugee of that countries' colonial army and published the satirical journals Rockhampton Laughing Jackass
(1881), Punch and Mosquito. In like temper to that of Martin's worldly humour, this exhibition title quotes directly from the popular nationalist poet of the 1890s, Brunton Stephens. Stephens' ballad "Universally Respected" narrates a 'sit-com' of the fraudulent life, and death by avenging alligator, of a local shyster who was:
(the) much-respected lessee of the
(who) taught us that decorum was the
essence of salvation,
And that cleanliness and godliness were
But that open-air ablution in the river was a
To the purer instincts, fit for dogs and aborigines
(It) is rapidly becoming a most complicated
How much of me is crocodile, how much of
him is I.
While it is standard critical cultural practice to reject the ideal subject and to acknowledge an historically contingent viewer, few artists have problematised the cultural workings of, not only gender, but also race and class within visual space. By her attention to these interleaved parameters Fiona MacDonald's projects can be productively sited alongside those of Juan Davila, Narelle Jubelin and Tracey Moffatt. Interestingly, these artists project themselves as commentators, and sometimes as subjects, onto their chosen fabric. In common also with these artists, MacDonald seeks the disjunctive force of humour and the macabre to make apparent the tenuous threads and fragments linking public and private histories, then and now. Wit, it is often noted, can be a talisman to the horror of fact and experience.
Given the deification of Australian history in museums and the current deployments by history's political instrumentality, nationalism, MacDonald's Universally Respected is a comic antidote to such pomposity. The significance of these discreet projects is the artist's use of a cultural history concerned with mechanisms of exclusion and repression. In this work the marginal becomes a positive energy that constantly departs from all classifications of adornment, commemoration or institution. The biographical proposition is answered by an installation which: "(forces) Western contemplation into a more active process of reflection, a process which invokes imagined re-unification" .1 These are ghosts not of meta-narrative but of the art of remembering.
1. Burn, 1. , "The Metropolis is only Half the Horizon ", 9th Biennale of Sydney Exhibition Catalogue, AGNSW 1992