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In 1919 Brisbane was the location of what have become known as the Red Flag Riots, street battles in South Brisbane between Russian émigrés, and others of a leftist political persuasion, and loyalist bands of returned servicemen.1 In the years after the first failed revolution in Russia in 1905, Queensland became the destination for several thousand Russian refugees fleeing Tsarist persecution. After 1917, the community began to shrink as many returned to Russia to be part of the Soviet project. This original left-wing community, however, was slowly replaced or overwritten by their political opposites: waves of White Russians, now fleeing Communist rule, arrived in Queensland from the Far East.
Brisbane’s substantial Russian connection seems to be a strange sidebar of Australian history. It evokes scattered images and ideas: Lenin’s treatise on why Queensland’s labour movement was a bourgeois distraction from the main game of Communist uprising, samovars for sale in South Brisbane markets, the ex-Prime Minister of Russia, Alexander Kerensky sitting on a veranda in the Brisbane suburb of Clayfield as his Brisbane-born wife lay dying in 1945, a Russian Orthodox priest locked up for condemning Stalin during World War II. These are moments largely viewed as irrelevant and trivial to the business of Australian history. Historical footnotes and sidebars, however, seem to be where the interesting moments of Australian history take place and each one of these episodes has its own fascinating material culture.
Robert MacPherson is an artist who has specialised in reframing and drawing attention to the incidental material evidence of our culture, from his early abstractions and his Frog Poem installations to the Mayfair series. Possibly MacPherson’s best known work, Mayfair: (Swamp rats) Ninety-seven signs for C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. from 1994-95, is an evocation of the previously liminal zone of Brisbane where the river met the bay. This painterly reproduction of roadside signage captures an element of local history that might otherwise be lost, while simultaneously playing with the international language of text-based art. In fact the entire Mayfair series, named after the take-away food-bar where MacPherson bought his lunch for many years, melds this emphasis on locality and moment with a wider discussion on the evolution of artistic practice. In his recent show at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA) a more recent Mayfair work is included, Mayfair, Peerless: Ice Cream I May Have Eaten, But Shirts I’ve Never Worn: For Little E.E.W. (2005-06), but its elaboration on the artist’s interest in colour theory is largely overwhelmed by the much larger work in the next gallery.
This work, Popov and the Lost Constructivists (1982-2007), continues the strategy suggested by the Mayfair works with a simple speculation. As Julie Ewington points out in her accompanying essay, MacPherson asks us to consider what might have happened had some of the Russians who ended up in Australia after the Bolshevik Revolution brought fragments of Russian Constructivist experimentation with them. MacPherson’s answer to this question is a room of mixed-media constructivist wall panels, built from the everyday material of Australian life to the scale of kitchen table-top creations. While it is a mischievous supposition, and not based in any statement of MacPherson’s, it is also intriguing to wonder what might have resulted had some of the post-1905 émigrés in Brisbane also been artists and, unable to return to Russia for whatever reason, begun their own parallel pursuit of a revolutionary modern art? These simple speculative ideas can play havoc with our comfortable presumptions about both the history of this country and the history of art.
MacPherson’s use of vernacular materials (egg cartons, old paint-stirring sticks, the lids of tins) in his constructions is actually not that dissimilar to the poverty of materials used in the original Constructivist works. Russian Constructivism relied on the ingenious use of scavenged materials as the newly formed Soviet state struggled with shortages and trade embargos. The use of a discarded fly-swat or plywood off-cut seems entirely in keeping with that economy of construction. As we progress from wall to wall through the IMA’s large gallery space, we watch a compressed development of form and colour in ‘Popov’s’ work. The name Popov was a familiar one to the South Brisbane pre-Expo ’88 community, as were other common Russian names. Russian was offered as a second language at the local high school and the South Brisbane cemetery contains concentrations of Russian Orthodox crosses. These crosses, with their distinctive three cross-bars are, in themselves, faintly reminiscent of some Constructivist compositions. They also represent the slow diminution of the post-war Russian community in Brisbane. From 1982, MacPherson began to collect the newspaper death notices of the members of this community and then expanded this collection to include notices without Russian names. We are forced to wonder whether these are the descendents of Russians migrants, fellow travellers or unrelated strangers? This ambiguity suggests that a particular inheritance may become less visible but maintains its subtle influences anyway.
On the left-hand long wall of the gallery these notices are collected on long sections of cash register roll paper. Both the roll paper and the notices take on varying shades of crème through to yellow as the highly acidic paper ages and develops its own palette. The capricious self-colouring of non-archival paper is one more chance element MacPherson incorporates, but there are also choices that reflect a considered relationship with conceptual art. The death and funeral notices pasted onto similar width paper strips also subtly evoke Daniel Buren’s stripe motif, derived as it was from the common canvas awning fabric he observed in the market. The dialogue between the local and the international, between the historical and the supposedly timeless in MacPherson’s work is softly spoken and densely complex. As Daniel Thomas has observed, MacPherson’s work is often partly about obsolescent things, while in fact reminding us of their continuing relevance to our current lives.2 Popov and the Lost Constructivists appears to continue MacPherson’s practice as the crypto-historian of a material culture we largely choose to ignore.
1. Evans, Raymond, The Red Flag Riots, UQP, St Lucia, 1988.
2. Thomas, Daniel, ‘Everybody sing: the art of Robert MacPherson’, Art and Australia, v.33, no.4, Winter 1996, p.495.
Courtney Pedersen is an artist and writer. She lectures in art history and theory at the Queensland University of Technology.