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I used to live in Douglas Mawson's house. Would this give me any privileged insights into Bonita Ely's show, I wondered? And insights are privileged in this dense, complicated, complex exhibition in which narratives, meaning and memories are interwoven like the fabric Ely so carefully photographs.
At first the works seem impenetrable, a confusingly disparate collection of ink-painted Taoist characters, photographs of crockery, cutlery and cloth, and handwritten excerpts detailing various first-person narratives, including those taken from the Antarctic diaries of Sir Douglas Mawson. But within the elaborate configuration of Ely's sophisticated and clever visual essay, these varied elements act as signifiers, which, with coaxing, reveal the multitude of the artist's thematic concerns. Mawson's expedition is not the sole focus of the exhibition as the title suggests, but rather a jumping-off point for an examination of the practices of exploration, colonisation, appropriation and possession, as well as a rigorous interrogation of our notions of culture and civilisation.
That the European colonisation of Australia brought about the devastation of the indigenous inhabitants is-or should be-an established fact and is one that has been explored again and again in the work of both indigenous and non-indigenous artists. The heroic exploits of Douglas Mawson, too, have been circulated and celebrated to the extent that they are part of the nation's mythology and so its consciousness. By combining quotes from Mawson's diaries with those from the 'Bringing Them Home' report, Ely draws comparisons between Mawson, as coloniser, and the Aboriginal people, the colonised, suggesting parallels between the courage and tenacity of both in the face of horrifying circumstances. The juxtaposition of the quotes align Mawson, alone in his sleeping bag 'no bigger than a coffin', with mothers whose children were taken from them and the children who had to survive in an alien and often dangerous world. Another, perhaps unintended, parallel arises: how can Mawson's explorations of one continent be so blithely celebrated in the face of the tragedies that occurred upon the colonisation of our own?
Arranged alongside the quotes are photographs in which a proud arrangement of cups, saucers and cutlery appear repeatedly. These photographs, commercially processed and stuck on the wall with neither frame nor mount, reference the 'ordinary' photo and speak not only of memory but also of the camera's function as recorder. The viewer is reminded that documentation is the coloniser's way of exploring, mapping and inventorying, proving not only 'I was here' but also 'I owned this'. The visual inventory of the complete dinner setting is reminiscent of old black-and-white photographs of wedding present booty. But a proud bride doesn't often store latex gloves amongst her crockery, nor are amputated teddy bear arms given as wedding presents, and the inclusion of objects such as these gently subverts the superficial meaning of the images. That these out-of-place objects are so noticeably non sequiturs highlights our immediate application of strict regimes of classification. And while such instincts are aroused in the decidedly benign context of a work such as Does Snow Absorb Light?-sorting only the cups from the spoons and the bar of soap from both-in a neighbouring work they take on more ominous overtones. Survivafs child waits for her destination-and fate-to be decided, the most important classifying factor being: 'there's not much aboriginal blood in her, is there? '. A work such as Homage If, by its reference to scientific practices, also speaks of classification. In this work a ruler is included in photographs of a dress, laid carefully alongside the dress as if to provide a scale. The measurement-taking process could be for as practical a purpose as making clothing, but in this context suggests a more ominous link to practices of physiognomy: replace the ruler with callipers and prove that certain human beings are less human that others ...
Though titled, numbered and catalogued separately, the works are obviously conceived of as a group; the exhibition functions more as an installation than as a series of discrete pieces. Utilising various arrangements of photographs side-by-side, combined with rice paper and the finely-pencilled excerpts, the works are further united by the prevailing browns, creams and yellows of the rice paper, photographs and tea-dyed cloth. All but one of the works, too, include ink-painted Taoist characters, either singly on sheets of paper or overlaying the pencilled quotes, each character a permutation of the sign for 'longevity'. The artist herself admits that the distinctly Asian characters may be seen as 'cultural non sequiturs', but uses them for what she describes as their 'life-affirming' qualities. Yet while Ely states that she used them to assert the voice of the individual, it seems that in some cases they work also to obliterate these voices. This occurs, literally, in the work Architrave, in which the stories, once written on paper, are forced into a particular physical configuration-the arch shape-which makes them particularly difficult to read. This difficulty is exacerbated by the overlaid characters, by the black ink that obliterates the words: an alien stamp of a foreign culture.
This constant and consistent overlaying of the 'longevity' symbol along with the often seamless segue from one narrative to another and the suggestion that one day our treasured possessions will be only artifacts-the novel tools of yet another past civilization gives rise to another suggestion: will these stories eventually merge into one? We celebrate the newly-liberated narratives of the Other, but will the relentless flow of history serve only to re-weave these individual voices? For while the many connections between the stories and the elements Ely uses are not readily apparent, on examination associations proliferate and the visual density yields a complex of interrelationships. Such a consideration, however, may be a concern of centuries to come, while a question of more contemporary relevance remains: if Antarctica had been populated, would we now have on our consciences two Stolen Generations?