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What about 'Sunspotting'? Inland from Noosa, there is a road called Murdering Creek Road. A local builder who lives off Murdering Creek Road told me, very matter-of-factly, that it was the site of the massacre of local indigenous people. Given this local history and the current concern with processes of reconciliation, it is not surprising that Chris Bell, artist-in-residence at the Noosa Regional Gallery, should propose his installation, About 'Sunspotting' as a 'Sorry' work. The question for me was whether About 'Sunspotting' could perform the burden that Bell asked of it. How much can you ask of a work of art?
I should say at the outset that initially I had no idea that the installation About 'Sunspotting' was concerned with issues of reconciliation . I entered into the work without noticing the wall text and proceeded to engage with it in fairly formal terms. On the floor in front of me was a conglomeration of small irregular 'house-like' structures, covered with translucent white tissue paper. To my left stood a structure of crudely fashioned vertical wooden poles topped by mirror shards. On the other side of the gallery, the windows had been partially covered by white tissue paper to allow 'spots' of light to stream in. Outside the gallery, strategically placed mirrors reflected light onto the mirror shards which, in turn, reflected this light in the gallery space. As the sun moved across the sky, the 'sunspots' traversed the space 'casting fleeting spots of sun onto and around the white houses'.1 I felt I needed to spend a full sunny day in the space to experience the progress of the sun across the room, but on this day it was cloudy and I only had an hour or so.
I read the work as being concerned with cycles, and I was predisposed to think of Stonehenge and other Celtic monuments erected to the study or worship of the sun. Buteven at this level there were aspects that worried me. The mirror shards were crude and violent. The structure for the 'white' houses was cumbersome and worked against the 'lightness' of the tissue that covered them. The mirror set up was not quite right and the 'sunspot' effects far too subtle for the space. At the level of material practice, this installation just did not quite work. Nice idea, but the project needed more time than a four week residency. It was then that I discovered the wall text.
In his wall text, Chris Bell stated categorically that '(t)his is a "Sorry" work. A memorial of sorts to the culture and people lost by the brutality of white settlement'.2 The one hundred and twenty mirror shards on wooden poles represented the population of the Ewen Mundi clan at Noosa Heads at the time of their contact with whites, around 1840; the 'white' house-like structures represented white settlement. My initial reading of the work undone in a sentence. So I returned to the work again. Did this work live up to its claim?
What did the intersection of light, mirror and white house signify in this work? What did it mean that the shards of mirrors (signifying members of Ewen Mundi clan) reflected white light onto the white houses? Did the 'mirrors' become passive reflectors of 'white' light, serving only to reflect back 'whiteness' or did the work offer the possibility of intervention into what Bell terms the 'brutality' of white settlement? Chris Bell 's work calls to mind Gordon Bennett's use of the narcissus myth, as an allegory of colonialism , in his Narcissus and Echo (1988) . For Bennett, the mirror is the traditional site where 'white' identity politics are played out.3 His intervention is to rework the myth by taking the mirror and turning it into a space of reconciliation. I do not think the same can be said of Chris Bell's mirrors. In Bennett's work, the 'black' echo reaches up and strokes Narcissus, opening up a dialogic space. In Bell 's work the shards were made through violence and merely reflect white light. In this re-presentation the mirrors 'echoed' back whiteness. They did not speak.
In attempting to present a memorial that highlights the brutality of white settlement, I would suggest Chris Bell actually perpetuated brutality. He left the indigenous Ewen Mundi people speechless. However, this said, I believe that On 'Sunspotting' raises a fundamental question tor Australian artists committed to the process of reconciliation. Is it possible to make work that performs 'Sorry', rather than brutalises, in its quest to re-present the brutality of white settlement?
1. Bell, C., On Sunspotting, wall text at Noosa Regional Gallery, 1998.
3. Mclean, I., White Aborigines: Identity politics in Australian art, 1998, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 135.