Gordon Bennett

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 12:13 -- damien
A menace in Australian history

Gordon Bennett describes himself ironically as a 'history painter', but he works across visual media, performing the role of 'mimic man ' on Australia's would-be postcolonial stage.[1] In Homi Bhabha's terms this kind of mimicking, which uses the cultural codes of a particular society to challenge its authority, is a menace within.[2] Furthermore Bennett deconstructs identities of self and other in order to address the issue of his own subjectivity as an Australian of Aboriginal and Anglo-Celtic descent. The works are complex negotiations and explorations of identities which proceed from and out off an Anglo-Celtic heritage.[3]

Bennett's position on identity is informed by existentialism and psychoanalysis and fuelled by a homage to Frantz Fanon's critique of colonialism and Antonio Gramsci's concept of the organic intellectual.[4] His personal history is significant because he did not clearly recognise his Aboriginal ancestry until he was eleven years old. Thus Fanon's construct of 'black skin white mask' is pertinent for Bennett as he negotiates his personal identity. His Untitled (Nuance) of 1992 is a photographic self-portrait over eight frames with eight black and white acrylic boards which are set beneath the photographs, and which span the range of pure white to pure black. The photographs show Bennett's face covered in a white latex mask which he slowly peels off. Beneath the faces the word N.U.A.N.C.E. is neatly spelled out across the shaded canvas boards. Neither black nor white board is marked by language. In this way the artist inscribes himself in language, arguing perhaps that both black and white are meta-concepts, essential identities, which can never be achieved.

Bennett claims that to take up an active position in relation to place and identity it is necessary to intervene in the structures which have written history.[5] The ways in which Aboriginal Australia has been written, performed and pictured is a point of entry for the artist as he operates as a cultural image scavenger, taking his sources from history books, archives, family photographic albums, film and television. Bennett is a postmodern bricoleur in many respects; however, his work is culturally specific and rooted in ethics and politics rather than the mythologies of the past or the schizophrenia of the simulacra.

The exhibition Mirrorama (1993) at Tan Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, is a clear example of Bennett's psychoanalytic interpretation of identity seen within the context of Australian history. Incorporating two installations, Mirror Line and Psycho(d)rama, the exhibition presented both a public and a private experience of history for the viewer. In the first gallery, Mirror Line set up a binary opposition between black and white Australian culture by juxtaposing prize pictures from the university's Aboriginal and early colonial collections. Bennett positioned six plaster cast replicas of Michelangelo's David on white plinths in front of six bark paintings.

These were mirrored on the opposing wall by lithographs of the landscape by white settler artists. In front of the 'master works' six 'nigger' money boxes faced the classical Davids, mocking in kitsch, camivalesque-style the high seriousness of the master tradition, at the same time as their mute laughter penetrated the exhibition space and its enshrined notion of history. These tiny characters, also on exhibition plinths, punctuated the space physically and conceptually. Like side-show performers from trash culture they took their place in Bennett's theatre of history as ventriloquists and mimic men waging cultural war. A tiled 'mirror line' ran between the colonnade of cultural representations. It fractured and doubled the images against the walls and inserted the viewer into the picture, creating kaleidoscopic fragments of historical and personal reference.

In the second gallery, Bennett's personal history loomed large in opposing black and white photographs of his parents. In these images his mother leans against a tree wearing a housewife's apron and smiles into the camera: behind her the bushland has been cleared. The father is shown leaning on an axe with his faithful dog at heel, suggesting that the land has been cleared by his own hands, that he is master of his own destiny. Both parents are represented in a kind of modern day settler context as the urban sprawl extends into the bushland. Their bodies are framed by a land that is in the process of being domesticated; a land cast as commodity rather than the mythological 'land as mother' favoured by Aboriginal history. This scene of harnessing the landscape and making it productive over-shadows the mute subjectivity of Bennett's mother whose Aboriginal ancestry is barely recognisable in the photograph. Between the photographic monuments to his parents, he placed a black and white chess board upon which cultural icons marked historical time. Looking towards the father, the spectator encountered the 'noble savage' of nineteenth century myth represented by kitsch garden statues. The exotic nature of the 'savages' was underlined by their partially clothed bodies, their dark, 'primitive' sexualities inscribed by taut muscles and youthful breasts. Looking towards the mother's image, the spectator encountered a classical white bust on a museum pedestal proclaiming the logocentric place of patriarchal authority in high culture.

In Mirrorama Bennett deconstructed conventional histories of culture and identity, insisting on a kind of hybridity and the impossibilities encountered by the subject of history who was staged in a theatre of binary positions. Bennett attempted to re-write history by positioning the ideological screens and belief structures through which we see. Mirrorama was about lines of sight: the sight-lines of the viewer as s/he navigated the spaces of the two installations. Inscribed by the large floor pieces (mirror grid and chequer board) the spectator became part of history, but Bennett twisted the representational experience for the viewer so that it was not a matter of a 'them and us' situation. Binaries were scrambled but it was not the warm fuzzy consolation of multi-culturalism that Bennett projected in his conceptual space. It was a complex weaving; a pictorial and performative analysis of identity which reversed the gaze of authority and surveillance and made the notion of origin highly problematic.

Bennett rejects the search for roots, for an authentic Aboriginal identity. For him identity is a concept always in motion, but he does not embrace the free floating signifier blindly.[6] His critical position is firmly based on the Lacanian concept that 'I is an other'; that the subject is constituted through language and the gaze of the Other.[7] However, like Homi Bhabba, he wants to present to his audience a strategy for agency; in Bhabha's terms he is interested in this process by which the look of surveillance returns as the displacing gaze of the disciplined, where the observer becomes the observed and the 'partial' representation rearticulates the whole notion of identity and alienates it from essence.[8]

Bennett embraces the modes of postmodernism but he is critical of the sort of nihilism which celebrates the loss of meaning.[9] In a quintessential postcolonial debate, Bennett engaged with the Australian painter, Imants Tillers, who rose to fame as an appropriationist. Tillers's signature paintings were copies of the 'hot' European and North American painters of the 1980s and he had started to incorporate Aboriginal styles and designs into his work. He was also famous in Australia for his postmodern manifesto titled 'Locality Fails', a text which celebrated the loss of origin associated with post-structuralism and the Aboriginal 'inflection' in contemporary art.[10] Couched in the language of a new nomadology, Tillers's thesis under-played the grand exotic tradition of ' primitivism' which resonates throughout modernism, claiming that contemporary artists 'particularly in the ares of informal sculpture and performance can approximate more closely the "look" of traditional Aboriginal artefacts, rituals and environments'.[11] Writing in 1982, as part of a 'new wave' of  'second degree' artists, Tillers 's treatise on place cast the end of geography in terms of the loss of centre which gave credibility to Australian art in an international context.[12] However, his references to Aboriginal 'inflection ' in contemporary art also paid homage to the romantic white shamanism of the 1970s. In his postmodern manifesto Tillers quoted from Robert Lindsay's forward to his survey exhibition Relics and Rituals (1981) where the curator wrote:

It is the power and simplicity of communication which is inherent in totemic objects, archetypal images and tribal rituals, that the artist hopes will cut through the habit of contemporary sophisticated forms of communication. It is a return to fundamentals, the simple realities of life that through magic and mystification may evoke archetypal responses and emotions.[13]

Tillers's point in using Lindsay was to underline a kind of history of borrowing and appropriation across the visual arts in Australia. However, Lindsay was responding to what he called a 'new narrative realism' and a 'new expressive romanticism' in a bid, not unlike Tillers's, to position an Australian ‘avant-garde' on the international stage.[14] Although Tillers's argument in 'Locality Fails' is principally about the complexities of cultural meaning in a postmodem society in which origins cannot be traced, the homage to liberal humanism is incongruous and tends to lend authority to a transparent reading of ritual which does not acknowledge a residual modernist ‘primitivism', nor recognise the profound essentialism expressed so passionately by Lindsay when writing about these works.[15]

Paul Taylor's exhibition of 1982 Popism: the Art of White Aborigines also fuelled debates around appropriation in the visual arts. Harnessing the Aborigines and their Dream time to the story of postmodernism in Australia, Taylor argued that:

A search for a regional Australian culture, ultimately a worthless pastime, reveals a centrifugal impulse wherein our art , like the mythopoeic Dreamtime of the Aborigines, is the flak of an explosion not of our making. This art, born in mediation, has gestated within the camera where things are naturally upsidedown and is expressed in a camivalesque array of copies, inversions and negatives. It is aboriginal, soulless, antipodal reflection and a name is written on every stone.[16]

Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) (1990) was Gordon Bennett's critical retort to Taylor and Tillers. It takes a figure from one of Tillers's paintings Pataphysical Man (1984)–an image from a Latvian School Book, part of Tillers's own personal history–and places it within a violent scene of Aboriginal slaughter. On the surface it looks as though Bennett is saying that white appropriation of Aboriginal art is the same as the colonialist's appropriation of their land. A violent and bloody story. But he complicates the issue by using an image from a white history book where we see Aboriginal police seemingly 'used against their own people'.[17] But the issue as represented by Bennett is more complex than recent critics suggest. The painting actually focuses on the white overseer who is directing the Aboriginal police. In Bennett's scheme any power that the Aborigines had was conditional; they were tools used by the Colonial Government who can be seen, in this instance, practicing a deceptive psychological warfare.

Bennett used a similar conceptual framework in Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Apple Premiere Mix), 1995, where he appears on video as a white man inflicting a terrible violence on the mute body of Aboriginal history, represented as a black coffin-shaped box made to the dimensions of his own body. Throughout the performance the black box, which has been under-painted with random splotches of red paint, is whipped and verbally abused. In Bennett's opus the performance can be seen as a kind of action painting, a dramatisation of earlier 'welt paintings' which in this instance 'bleed' in response to the stock whip.[18] The artist plays the role of the white overseer. Striding up and down in a black tuxedo, he wears the black tie of white civilisation, his face is wrapped in white bandages. The persecutor submits a hidden other to a severe beating, whilst he is continuously threatened by his own dark shadow which haunts the stage. The scene is set amidst a history re-written by Bennett's own paintings which have been photographed and manipulated through a computer to create the backdrop of projections. As familiar images from the opus of paintings swirl behind him his signature alphabet recurs underlining the violence of the scene: A is for Aboriginal, B is for Boong, C is for Coon, D is for Darkie.

As in the earlier work, The Nine Ricochets, Bennett deliberately shifts and complicates the signatures of power. The appropriative strategies of postmodernism which question originality and authorship, dismantling the myth of the centred humanist subject, are re-played throughout Bennett's deconstruction of identity. All identity, whether it be that of the place, nation, individual or tribe, is, according to Bennett, an identity constructed through the eyes of the Other. A position that is never stable but always becoming.

Gordon Bennett seeks to actively intervene in the writing and picturing of Australia as a place: a land which has been over written by a colonial mythology and shot through with patriarchal desire. While he deconstructs conventional myths, there is no nostalgic returning to the past, no romantic enshrining of the incarcerated voice. In this way Bennett performs a kind of cultural treason by addressing his own place in history and the complexities and impossibilities of the historical subject's position. He is a renegade historian performing histories that interrogate myths of place and the power/knowledge structures that perpetuate humanist notions of subjecthood.[19]

notes: 

[1] Homi Bhabha, 'Of Mimicry and Man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse', The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 87.

[2] Ibid., p. 86.

[3] Bennett stressed this point in correspondence with the author.

[4] Ian McLean and Garden Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Roseville East: Craftsman House, 1999, p. 12 and 28-31.

[5] Ibid., p. 36-38.

[6] Ibid., p. 31.

[7] Jacques Lacan, 'Aggressivity in psychoanalysis' (1948), Ecrits: A Selection, trans. A. Sheridan, New York and London: Norton & Co., 1977, p. 23.

[8] Homi Bhabha, op. cit., p. 89.

[9] I am thinking particularly of Jean Baudrillard and his end game pronouncements: the end of history, feminism, philosophy etc. See especially Jean Baudrillard, 'The Procession of the Simulacra', Art & Text, no. 11, Spring, 1983, pp. 3-37.

[10] lmants Tillers, 'Locality Fails ', Art & Text, no. 6, Winter, 1982, p. 52.

[11] Ibid., p. 53.

[12] Paul Taylor, 'Australian "New Wave" and the "Second Degree"'. Art & Text, no. 1, Autumn, 1981, pp. 23-32.

[13] Robert Lindsay, 'Relics and Rituals' in Paul Taylor (ed), Anything Goes: Australian Art, 1970-1980, Melbourne: Art & Text, 1984, p. 108.

[14] Ibid.

[15] I discuss this in more detail in Anne Marsh, Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia, 1969-1992, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 96-140.

[16] Paul Taylor, 'Popism–The Art of White Aborigines', On the Beach, No. 1, Autumn, 1983, p. 30.

[17] Rex Butler, 'Two readings of Gordon Bennett's The Nine Ricochets', Eyeline, Winter/Spring, 1992, p. 20. The image of 'native police' seen in Bennett's painting is modelled on an illustration first printed in A.J. Vegan's book The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia, it is re-printed in Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788, Frenchs Forest: Child & Associates, 1988. Thanks to Leigh Astbury for pointing out the source.

[18] Ian McLean and Garden Bennett, op. cit., pp. 104-105.

[19] This short essay was originally part of a longer paper titled ‘Performing Histories and the Myth of Place ' written for the British journal Performance Research. However, the paper was not published by that journal and was subsequently published by a feminist journal with the Bennett section extracted. See Anne Marsh, 'Performing Histories and the Myth of Place: A Female Menace', n.paradoxa: international Feminist art journal, vol. 3, 1999, pp. 6-13

Anne Marsh is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts, Monash University, Melbourne