You are here
One of the most disconcerting aspects of contemporary Australian political life is the reinstatement of the idea of a totalising national ethos. Forged by the colonial pioneers, tempered in Gallipoli and the Somme and pumped up by the Institute of Sport, this reconditioned Australian embodiment could not be further from the apologetic, self-deprecating incarnation to which so many Australians once felt such a dear attachment. Instead we now behold a concerted campaign of sublimation - the wholesale conversion of a self-effacing national narrative into epic terms which celebrate the Olympian, the shareholder and the Range Rover. In such a climate, embarrassment and a longing for the quieter days when Australia was just 'the arse end of the world ' have become the unofficial postures of an increasingly demoralised urban population.
In his latest photographic project, Brisbane-based photographer Peter Milne provides us with a ritual experience in which the ghosts of this latent identity can be evoked once more and the sublime pretenses of Howard's Australia can be interrogated. 'Cautionary Tales' is Milne's audio-visual project, held at the Pensioners and Superannuates League Hall in Brisbane's West End. A work in progress, this project is part of a broader body of work entitled 'When Nature Forgets'. The focus of Milne's work for the past five years or so has been the figurative dioramas scattered throughout Australia 's regional centres courtesy of local historical societies. The resulting images, now numbering in their hundreds, reveal a bizarre yet strangely familiar world in which discarded boutique dummies stand in for historical figures. 'Cautionary Tales' takes the form of a slide show in which each of the images appears in quick succession to a soundtrack of jovial Dutch trucking songs. Milne himself conducted the pulsating images and organ strains from behind the projector, assuming the dual role of MC to the night's proceedings and eccentric slide-wielding Uncle to the crowd of punters who attended this inaugural showing. Meanwhile, the entire proceedings were watched over by Milne 's Doll Grid, a wall of enlarged close -ups of grotesquely huge dolls' faces which, immaculate and portentous, formed an immense tiled mural.
While the documentary aspect of the photographs is crucial - that is, the actual existence of the surreal exhibits Milne photographs essential to his work's meaning – he deliberately confuses the entire terms of documentary. The viewer remains at all times palpably aware of the unreliability of both Milne's and his subject's representations. The process of selection and composition in these photographs ensures we are never entirely aware of the broader scene that is being depicted nor whether the artist's hand has interfered - an ambiguity that destabilises the integrity of the 'document'. If the natural effect of the documentary photograph is one of sublimation - that is the conversion of untidy reality into the lofty realm of aesthetic consideration (think of Sieve McCurry's now-famous images of the glaring Afghan girl or the collapse of the second World Trade Centre tower) - 'Cautionary Tales' seems to operate in the reverse direction, through the format of the slide-show, transforming the static, ponderous image into a serialised televisual stream. This process of de-sublimation also exerts itself on his subject matter. The battered, and mismatched mannequins that populate the reconstructions in Milne's photographs have a frankness that seems a direct challenge to the Olympian physique now supposedly emblematic of our national ambition. Far from a transcendent representation of national identity, these dioramas offer a vision that is damaged, ill-fitting and decidedly camp.
Canonical formulations of the sublime make a feature of the transcendence of reason in the face of physically annihilating natural phenomena. As Edmund Burke theorised in the eighteenth century, the bracketing off of 'the abyss', making it an object of contemplation, is essential to this effect. More recently, Paul Crowther has suggested that the decentering, fragmented conditions of postmodern culture have displaced the role of nature to create a new model of the sublime. Here the abyss is the chaos of signifers, a gulf that the contemplation of art alone might bridge. 'Cautionary Tales' performs an inversion of such formulations. By documenting our most innocent and well-meaning attempts at self-representation Milne gestures not to the transcendence of human reason but to a human intellect stunted and profoundly insensitive. Awkwardness supplants glory in the reconstruction of a national history. With their confronting primitivism, his grid of staring dolls' heads seems to suggest that, for all our technology and economic theory, ours is a world in which medieval idolatry continues to interfere with the echoes of the Enlightenment.
In a recent interview Sieve McCurry observed how the collapse of the WTC towers had revivified a public appetite for documentary photography in a world saturated by the disposable offerings of TV. Milne 's work for me achieves a similar effect. Using the 'native' function of photography, he illuminates the less glamorous features of our collective imagination. If we laugh at Milne's mannequins, it is a laughter that they are happy to return. For in all their absurdity they point out the immense chasm that stands between our collective idea of ourselves and its representation. In this way, despite itself, Milne's work reinstates the sublime, but one doused with a bathos the Romantics could never have envisaged.
When Nature Forgets will travel to Stills Gallery, Sydney and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne in 2003.