Who can paint the face of terror?

Future Tense: Security and human rights
Dell Gallery, Brisbane
26 August – 11 September 2005

Increasingly, geo-political movements against terrorism, the protection of national security and defense of ‘universal’ human rights are defining this post-9/11 era. The spotlight of the international media is shining brightly on instances of the protection, or more often the abuse, of basic rights and freedoms for peoples around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, with a plan ‘to secure a better future for all the peoples of the world’.1 However all is not going according to plan. As Christine Chinkin notes, ‘The universality of human rights standards is challenged as abuses are committed in the name of religion, custom and tradition…in the post 11 September 2001 environment…’.2

The current media-glare often results in darkness-to-light narratives of abuse and punishment, the characters in the story represent victims and villains, justice and injustice, compassion and cruelty. The binary axis of human rights reportage, upon which the world’s media seems to turn, is suspiciously familiar, pointing to colonial ancestry. It is remarkable how the world’s media is creating a ‘them and us’ scenario around terrorism and human rights, so like that of colonial rhetoric. Then, the colonised were ‘them’; the colonisers were ‘us’. In an unfortunate linear progression, coloniser and colonised are now pronounced as terrorisor and terrorised in the world’s media where the recognisable terrorist advances in a monolithic vanguard across international human relations.

In the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Future Tense: Security and Human Rights’, Caroline Turner points out that rarely in human relations can we see a simple case of right and wrong.3 What Turner, and co-curators of Future Tense Simon Wright and Pat Hoffie, identify as at stake in representations of human rights, is the complex scenario where, ‘One person’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter’.4

Guan Wei realises this scenario in two paintings from his series ‘Looking for the Enemy’. In the paintings, a map of Australia is splattered with military tanks, possibly invading or rescuing the country, the angle is not clear. The attack, or deliverance, is staged alongside resounding contradictions, for instance the ‘hunted’ Ned Kelly who is also one of our nation’s cultural heroes. Self-important settlers sit uncomfortably alongside textbook Aborigines and the spectator is left to wonder, who is terrorising whom?

John Pule questions the location of terrorism in a series of works, collectively titled ‘The American Series’. As the title suggests, these works weave American media (possibly the twentieth century’s strongest imperial force)5 into an account of Pacific colonial history. Pule is bemused, if not offended and provoked, by American media where, ‘a plethora of images (featuring the) bombardment of the invasion of Iraq (were running next to advertisements for) American crime investigation dramas (such as) “CSI” and “Criminal Intent”’.6 This stimulus translates to the etching on paper, Operation Kiwicracker. In this work, graphically dismembered people, conspicuously Christian (a barb at missionary history), become a case for the ‘USA: Special Victims Unit’. In Operation Kiwicracker Pule relocates the terrorist attack, through a screen of American crime TV, to the bloody history of Pacific colonisation and the invasion of Christendom.

However, to relate the curatorial effort in ‘Future Tense’ simply to a post-colonial address of human rights would be to sell it short. This exhibition engages with those post-colonial aspects of imbalances in power relations, the anxiety of an ambiguous enemy, as well as the plurality of stories of injustice to be told. But what is most admirable, and what constitutes a more original contribution to our thinking about security and human rights, is the curatorial argument that often within human relations, those under threat can come frighteningly close to resembling those who are seen as constituting the threat. The terrifying Other, as Turner argues, lies within.7

In the context of the ‘War on Terror’, Gordon Bennett creates an interface for the colonisation, both physical and psychological, of the Australian indigenous community by white settlers. More than that, however, Bennett engages with an idea of the divided self, a notion which informs the ‘Camouflage’ series. His portrait of Saddam Hussein in Camouflage #5 emerges as a clichéd Pop image, which challenges the spectator to identify the face of terror. In this portrait, perspective flickers between the subject, Saddam, in three-quarter view, and an empty, ghostly relief. The eye cannot settle on either shape. The portrait is expressed, to borrow a phrase from Homi Bhabha, as ‘a resemblance and a menace’.8 The spectator can recognise, quite quickly thanks to over one hundred years of kitsch, the flat backdrop of a ‘decoratif’ pattern; it looks something like the garish wallpaper of a middle-class suburban home. We know the resort-style and colour of Saddam’s synthetic suit. His loose collar reveals a tuft of chest hair, the signature of every twentieth century male pop icon. What is disquieting in this portrait is what is left unsaid. Within the empty relief of the subject lies the portraits’ menace, the threat. The spectator fills this empty space with what is unfamiliar, what lies beyond our ‘normality’. Herein, the spectator can imagine the horror of abuse and injustice, the almost unimaginable cruelty of which this figure is capable. And yet we cannot divorce this menace from the familiar, from what we recognise in our everyday ‘normality’. Our view of Saddam’s relief cannot exist independently of our view of Saddam in familiar garb, surrounded by the trappings of everyday culture. As the eye will settle neither on form nor relief, extraordinary injury will not separate from ordinary existence. The ambivalence of the scenario has in its origins the divided self.

Often in contemporary exhibitions of Asian-Pacific art the violence and dispossession of colonisation can be treated in a poignant and piquant, but generalised way. What emerges in ‘Future Tense’ is a multi-faceted look at human rights abuse, and infringements on national security, in all of its guises. Tran Luong questions the liberating nature of Vietnam’s ‘Open Door’ period of the 1980s. This artist brings our attention to the fact that the so–called ‘free market economy’ of the late twentieth-century brought with it hitherto unseen cases of pollution, corruption and illiteracy.

Other artists in the ‘Future Tense’ exhibition go beyond the political nature of human rights to the personal. Dadang Christanto’s performance Litsus requires the spectator to participate in the violence of his family’s past. Christanto’s father was amongst those who ‘disappeared’ in the 1960s in Indonesia, under suspicion of Communist sympathies. Christanto’s performance plays out the stigma attached to the families of those who were taken and the Indonesian society’s silence and consequent complicity in this atrocity. As the spectators of Litsus participate in the performance, they too become complicit in the violence of the artist’s past.

‘Future Tense’ is a sustained exploration of the complexities of human rights whereby contemporary artists have questioned binary oppositions between justice and injustice in works of extraordinary variety. The exhibition transcends the conventional dichotomies of terrorism, presented so often in the world’s media, in a vigorous account of the slippery sites of terror within international human relations. Above all ‘Future Tense’ introduces a new player in the ‘War on Terror’, the self. The exhibition makes us consider that basic psychological truth; we become what we fear most. Each artist ‘dares to unsettle our understanding of who we think we are. They remind us of what each of us is capable…’.9 They remind us that inhumanity, injustice, insecurity and fear, as well as kindness, compassion, respect and hope, all begin within.

Dadang Christanto, Litsus, 2005. Performance, Dell Gallery @ QCA. Photograph Mike Richards. 

Guan Wei, from the series Looking For The Enemy. Installation, Dell Gallery @ QCA. Photograph Mike Richards. 

Saira Wasim, Lamentation of Innocence (Genocide), 2005. Gouache and tea wash on wasli, 30 x 18cm. Photograph Mike Richards. 

Gordon Bennett, Camouflage, 2004. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Bellas Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph Mike Richards. 

notes: 

1. Cited in C. Turner, ‘Security and Human Rights’, Future Tense: Security and Human Rights, ex.cat., Queensland College of Art, 26 August – 11 September 2005, p.2.
2. Idem.
3. Idem.
4. Idem.
5. F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Macgibbon & Kee, London, 1965.
6. Future Tense, op. cit., 21.
7. Future Tense, op. cit., p.7.
8. H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 1994.
9. P. Hoffie, ‘Past Imperfect: Future Tense’, Future Tense: Security and Human Rights, op. cit, p.13.