Taboo

Curator: Brook Andrew
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
19 December 2012 – 24 February 2013

There is more going on in the latest Brook Andrew show, Taboo, than meets the eye. On the face of it, as a group show on a titillating topic, it continues the rhetorical impact of the ‘Sexy and Dangerous’ photographs that first brought Andrew to prominence in 1996. 

Andrew has worked with ethnographic images in archives and museums throughout his career. He has also worked with the conventions of a post-colonial image-world in which ‘the look’ and ‘the gaze’ come styled by the practices of marketing. 

Andrew is part of a change in Indigenous art toward an exploding of the definition. His transformation of his black and white Wiradjuri design through op-art wallpaper into a recognisable branding, appearing on clothes and buildings, is complete in the arrow installed on the outside wall of the renovated Museum of Contemporary Art.

His elaboration on themes of Indigenous identity in the wake of globalised media-images reached a pitch in the 2008-09 Theme Park, a show mimicking a museum and staged across several galleries at the AAMU (Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art) in Utrecht. 

Taboo is a logical consequence of this, and also perhaps of Andrew’s conceptual art in general, turning from installation to curation. In the spirit of anthology, not a lot of the work is new, from which we can glean that the purpose of the show is not to reveal so much as to collect together, in a new context, diverse elements presented in a new light. 

Like Theme Park, Taboo comes accompanied by copious collecting—photographs and images from the historical trajectory Andrew is following—and is elaborated in written pieces from artists and ethnographers in a catalogue of materials (as well as a series of talks, performances and films). But the material in Taboo is more genuinely artefact than artifice, and this gives the vision a different inflection, drawing more on the cabinet of curiosities for its philosophy of collection rather than the critique of a rationalist archive that underpinned Theme Park. 

The idea of the taboo is peculiarly linked to the southern hemisphere and the Indigenous people of Australasia, originating with the discovery of the Tongan word by Captain Cook and his crew in 1776. While the word tabu meant, Cook was advised, both ‘sacred’ and ‘forbidden’, it was the notion of the latter that caught on in European circles. A taboo came to describe an action or situation that was forbidden on pain of supernatural retribution.

‘Taboo’ features new and existing work by Australian and international artists: Bindi Cole, Jimmie Durham, Leah Gordon, Alicia Henry, Ricardo Idagi, Anton Kannemeyer, Jompet Kuswidananto, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, Judy Watson and the collective Yal Ton.

Judy Watson’s newly-commissioned work blood extends her dramatic 2005 artist book, a preponderance of aboriginal blood, with an installation of blood-types collected as specimens from such types as ‘artist’ and ‘gallerist’. The specimens, displayed in a vitrine, and accompanied by a video work, capture the anxiety of classification and race. 

Bindi Cole’s more personal work EH5452 includes video of the artist in a re-created jail cell, evoking the maximum security prison, and her shame at being held on drug charges as a young woman. The installation enjoins the personal and political in her readings of childish faith, work that Andrew describes as ‘cathartic and redemptive’. 

Ricardo Idagi’s work purges his memories and visions of growing up on Murray Island in the Torres Strait, at a time when his culture was subjugated to missionary zeal. His work for this exhibition is poignantly balanced on this taboo against indigenous heritage, since his whole culture was taboo and banished from explicit practice. His intricate sculptural works depict this as both personal, in the new work Black Skin, White Mask, and cultural, in Upi Mop Le – Tail End Man (2011) which incorporates video of the artist into the traditional turtle shell mask (an artefact Idagi has produced in earlier work). 

Perhaps the silence enjoined on the victim of clerical sexual abuse is the closest we come to a taboo on the contemporary scene. Jimmie Durham dramatises this moment in the installation The Meat of Jesus, involving a re-created photographic image from his childhood, of a priest offering a kneeling child a communion wafer. The neon slogan ‘the flesh of Jesus’ announces the breach.

Although developed from the colonialists’ encounters with ‘primitive’ cultures, the taboo turned out to well describe the society of the Victorians, with their sexual euphemism and covered chair legs. It was so useful a notion it was famously universalised in Freud’s book Totem & Taboo, where desires for incest and parricide were to be found unconscious in each of us. Notable, more recent, discussions include Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, in which the taboo is explained sociologically as the prohibition that protects the social world from a foreseeable situation that could weaken it. 

As modernism bleeds into postmodernism, the interest in taboo has not lessened but it has become more arch. Today we talk about taboos, but the possibility of supernatural consequences has slid away, leaving us with an idea no stronger perhaps than the giving of offence. The power of taboo is lost in translation from the traditional context to the global art platform. This may explain why the exhibition was well attended but caused little consternation, and seemed to provide family entertainment, despite the inclusion of pornographic and other material.

What does this impassivity suggest? Taboo, the exhibition, becomes not so much about supernatural terror but about the mirage created at the meeting of cultures. The particular artists taken along in Taboo’s wake produce their own takes on the forbidden, and demonstrate the great variations in the subject and intensity of it, such as what caused leading social anthropologist, Franz Steiner, to lament that it was a concept too vague to designate anything scientific. So in Taboo, the underlying exhibit is the museum itself, a place of classification and display of the fascination and fetish invested in other (conquered) people’s objects and rituals. 

Andrew turns the tables on western anthropology, exhibiting its practices and thought processes as a kind of art. As in his earlier work, the frisson of ‘the savage mind’ leaks out of the Royal Society into the ‘blockbuster exhibition’, and a museum of natural history becomes a space of almost vaudeville display. From the tombs of the pharaohs to the Musée du Quai Branly, Andrew’s curatorial position addresses the impolitesse of anthropological display for the prurience of the building of nation as a building of the brand. This is the scandal that interests him.

The whole panoply of western sciences, in their encounters with cultural difference, have made an exhibition of themselves, Andrew seems to say. Why not now make of the Museum of Natural History a museum of contemporary art? Why not curate an exhibition at a museum of contemporary art using the pivot of that idea ‘museum’, its techniques and tropes, the vitrine, the placard, the diorama, the photograph? 

Taboo tells us that the epistemological crisis occurring in the museum, and its attendant science, is such that we cannot be sure that it wasn’t art all along.

Jimmie Durham, The Meat of Jesus, 2012. Lightbox, duratran, neon. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Alex Davies. Installation view.

Judy Watson, Blood, 2012. Detail. Glass, blood, paper. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Alex Davies. Installation view.

Ricardo Idagi, Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, 2012. Glazed earthenware, feathers, cane. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Alex Davies. Installation view.

Judy Watson, Press photos, postcards, posters, films, magazine clippings, cartoons, books. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Alex Davies. Installation view.