Pat Hoffie: ‘You gotta love it’

Artspace, Sydney
31 January – 3 March 2013

‘Cultural identity’ is a term so frequently used and misused, that it is in the same basket of generalities as ‘romantic’ and ‘real’. It began its course in popular parlance in the 1970s and has retained its currency with the rise of globalisation. One of the slyer paradoxes of our contemporary ‘global’ culture is to heap praise on cultural identity, while at the same time to undermine it. In international Biennales, why is one artist chosen over another? Because of cultural flavour, a cultural look; an artist looks the part. Meanwhile every country has the same shop in the airports, every city has a McDonalds and someone anywhere can be seen wearing Nikes and Levis. But this is an unwelcome fact that the curatorial tourism in art fairs and festivals would rather forget, since it erodes the most important selling factor: novelty. It is in a country’s best interests to have a distinctive culture to sell, lest it pale into the haze of global uniformity. Pat Hoffie’s latest series of works, You gotta love it, is a confrontation with the way in which culture is both consumed and manufactured. Her object is Australia’s recreational ‘backyard’ of Bali, which, together with its neighbours Vanuatu and Fiji, is among the best examples of the self-consciously reframed other.

Reframed othering, if it can be called that, occurs when a culture manipulates itself into a shape congenial to its consumption by another power. One of the most dramatic instances of this, in fact, occurred in 1868 in Japan when the new Emperor Meiji opened the formerly closed doors to the rest of the world. But the manner in which this was done was carefully staged, most notably in what Japanese were expected to wear. The kimono, once an undergarment worn by both men and women, became solely women’s clothing, while the men were expected to wear suits. Japan cannily had it both ways: to be seen to be modern while preserving signs of its national identity. 

Another example is Aboriginal bark painting. Because of the naturalness of the bark itself, its rawness and irregularity, one could be forgiven for the assumption that these types of works have existed for time immemorial. Not so. They date back to around three hundred years, made by the denizens of the coast of north Arnhem Land to have something to exchange with the traders who frequently stopped there along the spice route that was thriving in Indonesia. More recent examples are also prevalent, particularly in designs and fashions in places like Singapore whose ‘real’ culture is so diverse and Westernised as to have become entirely effaced. Or in Hoffie’s case, Bali has completely reconfigured itself for the sake of the mostly Australian tourist. Its exoticism in the kinds of things it produces is entirely directed at this industry. In short, it must look ‘truly’ itself because of how the tourist wants it to be.

Pat Hoffie’s works were largely a series of wooden hand-carved pseudo-heraldic arrangements, each holding a motto, alternately banal or brashly violent, echoing xenophobic statements that have circulated recently in the media and by word of mouth. One work had two cane toads facing each another sitting on top of the slogan, ‘fuck off we’re full’, obviously quoting from a bogan statement in response to asylum seekers, yet also referencing the fact that cane toads, like the bogans and like us, are relatively recent introductions to this country. Other works included two elephants over ‘head like a burnt thong’, or a straight statement adorned with flowers: ‘harden up princess’; and figures riding a wave with a couple of palm trees on either side with ‘toughen up princess’; or two turtles atop ‘eat a dick’. 

Hoffie’s work exposes the insidious contempt of the tourist over the subaltern class. While not all have these feelings, places like Bali are filled with people who cherish deep prejudice against those who host them. And one of the reasons such places are so poplar for such people is that they are given the opportunity to patronise in a way that would not be permitted in their home country. One wall of the exhibition contained six square placards of low relief text of varying sizes, with a relentless series of degrading expletives and exhortations: ‘don’t laugh my other ride is your mother’, ‘suck my vomit rod’ and so on. Thus Hoffie conjoins sexual with racial degradation, a parade of verbal ugliness ironically raised to incongruous dignity; all letters exquisitely carved and painted gold. 

But what is most striking and depressing is that these phrases all come from things that exist, such as bumper stickers, badges and T-shirts. All carved by Balinese craftsmen, these works brought the language of tourist kitsch to its most shameless and brutal limit of vulgarity. Hoffie is an artist who has long been interested in cultural thresholds, and the ways in which identities are manipulated, contrived or reconfigured according to pressures of expediency or economy. This is important work because it is part of a growing recognition that cultural identity ought not to be consumed with sentimental naivety. But the taste for cultural typecasting and tokenism is a malaise that has been rife in art in decades. Many artists have made entire careers from being the standard bearers for race and identity. They are feted in the privileged world of art to compensate for the social injustices of the world outside. Yet if more were sensitive to the fluid and unstable nature of culture and identity, fewer artists would be asked to become stand-in for cultural stereotypes. And Hoffie’s work is a caustic reminder of the complex disarray of many cultures and economies that have been manipulated by arrogance.

 

Pat Hoffie, you gotta love it, 2012-13. Installation detail, Artspace, Sydney. Photograph Louise M. Cooper.

Pat Hoffie, you gotta love it, 2012-13. Installation detail, Artspace, Sydney. Photograph Louise M. Cooper.

Pat Hoffie, you gotta love it, 2012-13. Installation detail, Artspace, Sydney. Photograph Louise M. Cooper.

Pat Hoffie, you gotta love it, 2012-13. Installation detail, Artspace, Sydney. Photograph Louise M. Cooper.