Australia's Anxiety Again: Remembering the art of Gordon Bennett

Vale Gordon Bennett 9 October 1955 - 3 June 2014

I rarely write at length about the work of particular artists. There are many reasons for this, some obvious (as an art historian and theorist, my subjects usually exceed individuals, but of course could not exist without them), but some are obscure even to me. When I have done so, it is because the work—as it evolves over time, and as it engages its times—becomes something larger and more significant than markers of one artist’s professional career. More than impacting upon the development of art, I respond to it because it is shaping debate about a definitive issue, or, more deeply, because it offers a compelling figure of what it is to be alive in the world now. 

So, I had little hesitation when, in 1999, Liz Ann Macgregor asked me to write an essay on the art of Gordon Bennett for the catalogue of an exhibition she was organising for the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, of which she was then the director. By then, I had been tracking Gordon’s work for a decade. I vividly recall the first work of his that I saw. It was during a period when I was writing the three chapters updating Bernard Smith’s classic history Australian Painting, which had concluded at 1970. My job was to bring the story up to 1990 for the third edition to be published by Oxford University Press in 1991. I had persuaded Bernard that the front cover image should be Arthur Boyd’s profoundly anti-nationalistic Australian Scapegoat of 1987. But we were divided about the back cover image, an important choice in those days, as books had loose, wrap-around covers. On a visit to Brisbane, when urged to see a show organised by Peter Bellas at his inner-city gallery, I came across the freshly-painted Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella), and knew immediately that this was the answer. It would stand up to the Boyd, complement it, but also show that painting in Australia now extended beyond Boyd’s experiential reach. As pendants to a set of art historical texts, the two images brought readers from Bernard’s Antipodeanism to my, then postmodern, version. For the potential reader picking up the book, the two paintings figured forth, boldly yet with layered subtlety, what Australian painting was and what it could be. Bernard and I were saying that they were, as well, the best existing examples of it doing so. 

My essay for the Ikon Gallery exhibition was entitled ‘Australia’s Anxiety’. During the 1990s, our country retreated from its gutsy willingness to engage globalising economic forces, a willingness to see itself as located in Asia (rather than as a distant relative of Europe and the US), and an open embrace of reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples. Elected in 1996, the Howard Government rolled back each of these developments, introducing a ‘politics of fear’ that has since surfaced again and again, to reach extreme heights at the present time. My discussions with Gordon made me aware that he was alert to these changes, and that his practice was engaging with the anxiety that they generated. These anxieties do their work as part of public discourse, but they also reach into our psychic lives. Gordon’s art is about this interaction. Thus the allusion in my title to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s famous essay of 1945 entitled ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ via Picasso’s comment that ‘What is of interest to us is Cézanne’s inquiétude, that is Cézanne’s lesson.’ 

The Ikon Gallery exhibition was entitled History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett. Some artworks selected for it were shown at the Brisbane City Gallery from July to September 1999. In 2000 it travelled to the Arnolfini Galleries, Bristol, then to Norway, where it was shown at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo. I have kept up with Gordon’s work since those years, but not sufficiently to write about it in the depth and detail that it deserves. The History and Memory catalogue containing my essay is not widely known in Australia, and has never been published here. So I offer a piece of my work that both of us believed stood as a critically independent equivalence to his work of the time. To me, such a gesture is the only tribute adequate to his memory that I can in conscience make.

 

• • •

 

The art of Gordon Bennett is about individuals—the artist, us, those around us, others—who are caught, fatefully but not entirely hopelessly, in the tracery of personal and social relations between black and white Australians. As such, it addresses one of the major traumas at the heart of Australian sociality, that is, race abuse, and it does so through the operations of a psychic framework which may well amount to a national imaginary. It remembers the repressed historical narrative, it registers the shifts and slides of the present, it projects the possibility of futures to be made by us, active viewers. It does all this with aesthetic accents which are, in their structure if not all of their imagery, and against their own grain, distinctively Australian. They register a peculiarly Australian anxiety.

The experience of Aboriginal people in the Australian colonies since the British invasion in 1788 has been, and by and large still is, a shocking one. From the start a thinly-justified land-grab, it was overlaid in the early years by a struggle between, on the one hand, official Christian charity and a state policy of Enlightenment equity, and, on the other, unintended destruction via the spread of disease along with widespread individual brutality, dispossession, acts of collective pacification and restraint, soon degenerating, in certain areas, to systematic genocide. Despite numerous instances of resistance, the tide of European settlement proved irresistible by peoples who never gathered in large numbers anyway, and whose absolute numbers shrunk quickly to a small percentage of the aggressively expansionist, nation-building white populace. By the later nineteenth century it was assumed by the colonists that ‘pure blood’ Aboriginal people, particularly those living in remote areas, would die out, while those of ‘mixed blood’ would be assimilated into the overall population. Concern over the pace of this process of disappearance led, from the 1920s to the 1950s, to a policy of removing young Aboriginal children, other than ‘full-bloods’, from their families and placing them in institutions which would train them to take their place, usually as domestic or farm servants, with white families. These people are known as ‘the stolen generation’, and the issue of the appropriate degree of recognition of their plight remains a major, and divisive, political issue in Australia today.

Gordon Bennett’s mother was one of the generation subject to intensive assimilation. An orphan from age five, she grew up on the Cherbourg reserve, two hundred and forty miles north west of Brisbane, knowledge of her own people’s beliefs and customs being forbidden topics. Bennett tells her story, and that of his father, who was born in England and worked in a variety of jobs in Australia, in his essay ‘The Manifest Toe’.1 Bennett himself grew up in Southern Queensland, Melbourne, then Queensland again, with no awareness of his Aboriginality. After high school he became an apprentice fitter and turner, then a linesman for Telecom for eleven years. During this period, his growing sense of his Aboriginal heritage met the endemic racism of workplace culture. The result was, he writes, that ‘my dignity and self-esteem were through the floor’.2 During the early 1980s, he rebuilt his sense of self-hood, came to understand ‘the need to stop denying and repressing my Aboriginal identity’, committed himself to his growing interest in art, and entered the Queensland College of Art in 1986. He regards the courses he took in painting, Postmodernism, Aboriginal Art and Culture and in Classicism as pivotal to his development as an artist.

Although there are now, in a national population of over eighteen million, more than 350,000 indigenous people, the question of how the state acknowledges prior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership of the land goes to the heart of Australian nationhood, territory being the primary source of legitimacy for all parties. Past treatment of indigenous people constitutes one of the two or three most significant themes in Australian history. As for the present, the issue of how to bring into productive relationship the competing expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the descendants of the Anglo-Celtic settlers, and the ethnic communities created in the waves of immigration, especially since the 1950s, is the central problem facing the polity today. It shapes experience in Australia, in the generality of public debate and in the details of everyday life.

Gordon Bennett’s art emerges from the nexus of these issues. It has been given its main direction by them, it is subject to them, and it comments—in original ways—on them. His art, then, is part of the national account, the economy of debt-creation and expatiation, which weaves the textures of Australian life. This density of the past in the present is as vivid for Australians as the memory of the Industrial Revolution is for the English. It is an intensely reflexive counterpoising of action, inaction, guilt and payback, yet subject to a complex forgetting. Historian Henry Reynolds has called it ‘this whispering in our hearts’.3

I will pick out key works in this exhibition, which will take us to the centre of these debates. Bennett uses a number of communicative modes: the illustration of a story told from an objective point of view, the perspectives of a simple morality, the voice from one or other side of a black and white divide. But none of these alone, none as the dominant voice. His art alternates from closed composition to open suggestiveness, from a cacophony of imagery to a sudden, sharply-pointed figuration.

 

Speaking In Bones

The series of cartoon-like images Valley of Dry Bones, made in April 1991, was provoked by a newspaper report of the discovery of the bones from a number of dismembered bodies, uncovered by erosion, remnants of a massacre of Aboriginal people near Hornet Bank, a sheep station in Queensland.4 Bennett is searching, in these watercolours, for a way of communicating with a directness which presumes no prior literacy, as in children’s books. In the first, Valley of Dry Bones (To the Sound of Cicadas), Bennett shows a young Aborigine mourning these people, seeking to communicate with the skull of one of the dead. Opposite stands a ‘monument’ to European civilisation in Australia: the building blocks of the English language—for Bennett always a symbol of the imperialism of Western rationality. Set into these blocks are images from the early Settlement at Sydney Cove: one depicts the careful imposition of modernising grid structures which divided the native land, the other a bourgeois couple, their backs to the massacre, surveying their newly-acquired property as if they had gentry rights to it for centuries. Atop the blocks stands an angel, symbol of Christian power, appealing for silence. The church sits quietly on the horizon, and crosses rain down their systematic order. The subtitle refers to the moment when, standing alone in the Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, among the elaborate gravestones of the white settlers, Bennett himself sought to think himself towards the memory of these own unknown people, while buried deep in the ear-splitting sound of cicadas (grasshoppers) in chorus.

Bounty Hunters refers to the widespread practice (one which began in the middle of the nineteenth century and continued to the middle of the twentieth) of gathering up body parts, particularly skulls, of Aboriginal people, to fuel the interest of anthropologists, phrenologists and other scientists in the physical history of humanity. Rewards for this proved so useful to some that, not only were graves robbed, but, as Bennett shows here, Aborigines were killed and decapitated for this purpose. A gruesome detail is the boiling of the flesh off the heads, in order to produce the desired clean white skulls.5 For Bennett, it is not human greed alone which produced these excesses, it is the very European world view, symbolised by the A,B,C blocks in linear perspective, which regarded Aboriginal people as so close to the pre-human that they were of value only as objects of scientific curiosity.

The Small Brown House evokes the original scene at Hornet Bank. On the horizon is a ‘Queenslander’ farmhouse, its rooms typically raised on stilts against flooding and monsoonal humidity. The white mother and daughter hurry to the house, oblivious of the murder and rape occurring on the riverbank below. The massacre which occasioned the series was precipitated by this event. In retaliation, local Aborigines killed the family and burnt down the house. This led to the massacre. Blooding the dogs shows another practice: bull terriers being ‘blooded’, not by being fed chickens or other animals, but by being set upon an Aboriginal person. In Cornfield (with Scarecrow) an Aborigine caught stealing corn is strung up, a corn shoved in his mouth as a warning to others who might wish to do the same thing. Finally, in Valley of Dry Bones, the young Aborigine of the first panel has grown up to become an activist, his T-shirt marked with the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Returning to the massacre site he appeals: ‘Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’. These words, from the Old Testament, are quoted directly from the 1947 painting The Valley of Dry Bones by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, whose manner of rendering landscape is much admired by Bennett, and is echoed in his treatment of grassy headlands and red river banks in this series.6 

 

Art Across The Great Divide

In February 1990 Bennett intervened directly into the artistic strategies which most characterised Australian art during the 1980s—appropriation, quotation, parody and irony—and turned them on their head, showing them to be limited protocols. One painting, more than many others, achieved this turnaround. The Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) is an imposing display. I will explore it in some detail, as it exemplifies the density of the exchange between cultures in Australia, one which occurs, in this case, across the terrain of advanced art. Bennett’s act is as anti-Postmodernist as it is anti-racist. It is a return to history painting, a shout from the silenced.

Bennett was driven to his intervention by certain statements made by two of Australia’s most inventive, critical and subtle postmodern artists. Chilean-born Juan Davila had developed an art of extraordinary power, one which, amongst much else, attacked Australian history and art, and international avant-gardism, as masculinist constructions which violently repressed their own incipient, insuppressible homosexuality. Imants Tillers, of Latvian parentage, had created an art of simulation so prodigious that it had come, for many, to embody an Australian distinctiveness, the totality of its recycling of imported modes seeming to be the language most reflective of immigrant experience.7 All this Bennett admired greatly, but in 1984 Davila had commented angrily when French curators, in the organisational structure of the exhibition ‘From Another Continent: Australia, The Dream and the Real’, held at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, had expressed preference for the art of Aboriginal Australians, while treating that of non-Aboriginal Australians with derision as merely imitative of European and American modes. Davila’s anger at such condescension was well-grounded. Bennett, however, felt that he strayed into the same mode in statements such as ‘The Aboriginal ground painting, with its community links, was perhaps the most attractive work visually, but reflected the passivity that characterised the Aboriginal intervention in Paris’.8 And Tillers, in a 1988 mosaic mural for a Sydney pavilion commemorative of the centenary of Federation, had sought to figure Australian nationality by showing a Baselitz ‘New Type of Man’ figure striding towards Papunya artist Michael Nelson Jagamarra’s Walpiri imagery of peoples meeting in the desert, both set on a grid format derived from Jasper Johns. In a discussion about this same juxtapositioning in a previous work of his, The Nine Shots (1985), Tillers claimed to see his appropriative mixing as ‘a dangerous activity, much more dangerous than quoting from Kiefer or Schnabel’. To which the interviewer, Paul Foss, replied that ‘the thing quoted, “appropriated”, or remade means nothing other than what it originally meant if it cannot at the same time be caused to corrode or displace its historical and cultural sources. So the sense of danger or dread you describe may come precisely from the failure to do anything with the quoted material except repeat it unassailed’.9 

Assailing the assumptions of this type of exchange—Tillers’s excitement at breaking an imagined taboo, Foss’s apparent ‘anything goes’ hipness—is exactly what The Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) does set out to do.10 Bennett wants to show that, when anyone takes pot-shots, there are repercussions.

The central image emerges from a background of paint flung Pollock-style (in the black strip at left the flung paint is frozen in thick impasto). It is taken from the woodblock frontispiece to A.J. Vogan’s book The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia of 1890. The woodblock is entitled Queensland squatters dispersing Aborigines, itself reproduced in Bruce Elder’s book Blood on the Wattle.11 Bennett has not used the section of the image which shows an Aboriginal woman, surrounded by the dead bodies of the men of the tribe, pleading for her life and that of her child, while a white squatter reaches for another bullet and a black policeman raises an axe. In The Nine Ricochets we see the axe itself raised, the hand obliterating the head of one Aboriginal man, while below a body is decapitated by the lower edge of the picture. Behind a man—white, Aboriginal?—leads off a young woman. Although no violence is directly shown, bloody murder and violation pervades the scene. This is a long step from vague evocations of generalised images of Aboriginality: it goes to the heart of the worst in relations between the races, it shows white and black people acting beyond their humanity. And raises hard questions, such as: are we ‘all the same’ only in our inhumanity?

There is something chilling, then, in the stateliness of the image—the poised axe, the calm dignity of the man at the back, the delicate balance of dark and light areas. Compositionally, the tying in of the painting by the black strip at the left, its white square attached, its internal red square floating, echoes Constructivist harmonies. And the spill of the figural forms from upper left across to the right and then down back to the left calls to mind Malevich’s accumulative Suprematist compositions. None of this is idle association. It is precisely Bennett’s procedure. The compositional logics of early European modernism are being asked to carry a content which those artists’ Primitivist fascination with the visual cultures of colonised people prevented them from seeing. The cold shudder is occasioned by the fact that this pairing occurs across a gap of deadly repression.

The white panel is a collation of tiles on which Bennett has cited a section of a large painting by Imants Tillers, Pataphysical Man (1984), itself composed (as is usual for Tillers) from many small canvas boards. Tillers draws the central image of Pataphysical Man from a 1920s work by Giorgio de Chirico, in which a toga-draped figure subsides under the weight of collapsed classical ruins. Tillers does not simply repeat the de Chirico image, he presents it through elaborate finger-painting, and marks his work all over with hand prints, evoking the stencilled hands ubiquitous in Aboriginal cave painting. In the section cited by Bennett, a youthful figure, half-boy, half-bear-cub, runs scared from within the falling monument.12 In The Nine Ricochets, (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella), the image functions to suggest not just the presence of whiteness, but that its life, too, is threatened in this kind of situation. Suddenly, the subtitle starts to make sense. ‘Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella’ is a concept widely used by Aborigines: it is the idea that when an Aboriginal person dies, he or she comes back as a ghost, that is, as ‘white’. The young boy/bear becomes the risen spirit of the Aborigines slaughtered before us. The pessimism of the painting is that his after-life will be as dangerous and deadly as his life on the earth has been.

There is, therefore, much more happening here than an appropriation by one artist of an appropriation of another artist who himself is a great appropriator. Tracing these links as mere artistic cross-referencing would be to pursue an infinite regress of meaninglessness. Despite the fact that a number of critics at the time espoused a philosophy of endless intertextuality (in Australia, most notably Paul Taylor), when we pay close attention to why each citation is made, it becomes clear that even the appropriators have some specific meaning they urgently wish to convey. Although Bennett did not know it at the time, Tillers’s boy-bear was drawn from the book illustrations of Latvian artist Jānis Jaunsudrabiņ, and was an image that meant much to him as an immigrant child. A tiny serpent on a cross which appears just to the right of the boy-bear in the Tillers (and therefore the Bennett) was an image of importance to them both: for Tillers an echo of Catholicism, for Bennett the rainbow serpent of Aboriginality crucified on the symbol of the European church.13 

Bennett’s goal in 1990, however, was to turn the torch of appropriation back onto those who appropriated Aboriginal imagery in violation of its contexts of origin, and in a manner which, whatever their intentions, whatever their commitment to the free play of images and ideas, echoed the high-handedness of past abuses of Aborigines. Thus his use, in the red rectangle, of the geometrical figure of eternal reversal. And scattered around the painting are nine roundels, dot painted in the manner of the sign for place used by Central Desert Aborigines, yet with blood issuing from them. As ‘bleeding sites’ they evoke memories of places where events such as this massacre occurred. While Tillers’s painting The Nine Shots alluded in its title to the chaos principles employed by Marcel Duchamp in arriving at the composition of his work The Large Glass, for Bennett the connection with the European and international avant-garde is of minor significance. These roundels remind us of places where actual rifle shots were fired off, perhaps wildly but not randomly. Someone always gets hurt when violence erupts, especially when it ricochets around the spaces between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. To Bennett, locality matters, enormously, and self-hood always seeks centring, despite the seductions of decentredness.14 

 

Words Will Always Hurt Me

Just how personal race relationships can be is another major theme in Bennett’s work. Suprematist Painting #1 (1993) uses the word ‘nigger’, which has almost disappeared from official English, but not from natural language use. Cutting the words into his painting—by squeezing them on in red beforehand, painting over them in the white of the main field, and then cutting the surface to reveal the word not just as a mound but as blood—is to treat the painting’s surface as surrogate skin. This suggests both the sacred Aboriginal practices of marking the body, in which powerful designs are written into the skin, and the common and garden defiance: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. Just as the latter is usually only uttered when words are, in fact, harming one’s sense of self, the reference to incision is reversed: this naming is not one of social inclusion but of exclusion. When we take the two words together, we see that the person who is being named ‘Nigger lover’ is not necessarily an Aboriginal person, but a non-Aborigine who seems in sympathy with Aboriginal concerns. Or, just as likely, given the crude stereotypy of racism, an Aboriginal person who does not look Aboriginal to the speaker yet who is in apparent relationship with an Aborigine who does. Thus the deep relevance of using a white format to carry these words. Whether Aboriginal or not, a person addressed this way is cut to the quick by these words, by being objectified in this relationship. Viewers of this work cannot avoid imagining concrete situations in which such naming practices might occur. This is an effect of the real.

Bennett’s appropriative strategy is both straightforward and subtle. Quotation is literalised: this is just a quotation, from common language use. It also cites Malevich, as the title acknowledges, his Suprematist paintings, in particular the ultimate cosmograph, White on White (1918). It refuses Malevich’s transcendental direction, reversing it for an effect back in the real world. White Suprematism becomes white suprematism. Modernism is used to make the real more real. 

So, as we have seen throughout these notes, is postmodernism. Bennett, learning the parameters of artistic practice at art school during the early 1980s, uses appropriation as a given, a tool, as itself an appropriable strategy. In Suprematist Painting #1 this works in two ways. Malevich’s first Suprematist painting was, in fact, Black Square (1913), a black square on a white ground, or in a white field. Bennett’s buried reference might be to the precedence of blackness over whiteness. If so, this is another use of a modernist icon in order to refuse modernism in general. He does, after all, write all over an icon of modernist art, scarifies it, applies graffito to it. This itself rejects the idea that Bennett, like all who use appropriative strategies, is trapped within an infinite regress of quotation.15 The second, postmodern use/refusal arises from his evocation of the white-skinned Aborigine (or, at least, the white person accused of blood congress with an Aborigine). This reappropriates Paul Taylor’s 1983 celebration of the ‘Popism’ artists as ‘white Aborigines’ (itself a snatch from Norman Mailer’s image of the beat writer as a ‘white Negro’, yet another moment in modernism’s duet with black otherness).16 Modernism and postmodernism, Bennett shows us, may be used to intensify the real.17 

Self-Portrait: Interior/Exterior (1993) consists of three elements. A large whip, from which hang stickers with letters ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ on them—letters which, as Bennett highlights in other works, stand for the racist slurs ‘Abo’, ‘Boong’ and ‘Coon’. The whip hangs next to two life-size slabs: at left the Pollock-like web of drip lines has thickened to immobility, making a coagulated surface of blackness, from which a number of blood-red lines suppurate. The third element is a coffin-like box, also black, its interior dimensions those of the artist’s body, the words ‘cut me’ are carved in red into its base. A closely related work, Wound (1994) is a large acrylic painting, its ground is made up of the coagulated blackness, its central image a Malevich cross over an elliptical lozenge, while down its surface runs a line of blood-like red, as if the body of the painting has been slashed with the whip. The particular shape of the line evokes, for Australian gallery-goers, a famous work consisting of a single charcoal line drawn down a length of canvas by artist, curator and Aboriginal art collector Tony Tuckson. 

In an unpublished statement of 10 October, 1996 Bennett describes the scarified surface of these works as ‘The overpainted Modernist trace of a Pollock skein as a metaphor for the scar as trace and memory of the colonial lash’. He enacts this literally in his 1995 video Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Apple Premiere Mix). The artist, dressed in a black suit and with head bandaged, paces up and down a small room uttering abuse while whipping the coffin-box of Self-Portrait: Interior/Exterior with the stock whip. A huge shadow dances off the wall around him. In 1996 Bennett used this staged self-abuse to introduce a longer video Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Violence and Grief Remix). To the sound of Ice-T’s song ‘It’s On’, and mixed with sequences from the film Killing Times (1985) by Bob Piasto, as well as film of animated journeys through the interior of the body, Bennett introduces many of his key paintings, using the motif of the Papunya-type roundel—for him as for the Walpiri, Pintupi and other artists, an image of site, place, home, of concentration of value. What emerges strongly from this video is his sense of the flow of human interaction, historical memory and natural processes. In other words, the fate of the individual within the political.

 

The Power of the Ordinary

Every year since 1989, although not programmatically, Bennett has made at least one large work that has acted as a ‘summa’ of his concerns to date, and as a ‘history painting’ in the nineteenth century sense that it pictures, somewhat like a story board, the current conjunction of certain powerful forces shaping the nation. In this exhibition the works Triptych (Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire) (1989), The Nine Ricochets, (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) (1990), Possession Island (1991), Self-Portrait (Vessel) (1992), Death of the Ahistorical Subject (Two Settlers on Horseback) (1993), The Aboriginalist (Identity of Negation: Flotsam) (1994), Im Wald (1995), Home Decor (Algebra) Ocean (1998) fall into this category. Other works with the same social force include Myth of the Western Man (White Man’s Burden) (1992), Big Romantic Painting (Apotheosis of Captain Cook) (1993), Painting for a New Republic (The Inland Sea) (1994) and Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = Citizen) Men with Weapons (1997).18

Im Wald (Divided Unity) was painted in May, 1995, three years after the historic judgement, in the High Court of Australia, which recognised that Murray Islander Eddie Mabo owned the land he farmed on the basis of his family’s prior possession, and at a time when the Court was also debating the claim by the Wik Aboriginal people to their prior possession, a claim which was also granted. The Labor Government enacted legislation to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups all over the country to seek land and/or compensation, and established tribunals for the purpose. Conservative state governments swore their opposition, many farmers realised that their leaseholds were shaky, and a rightwing political force, One Nation, emerged from Southern Queensland, determined to recover racial purity in Australia and to stop ‘welfare bludging’ by Aborigines. The Liberal Party promised a middle path on this and most other issues. On its election in March 1996 it set about to quickly demolish the structures of support for Aboriginal peoples, to secure the pastoral leaseholds as land titles, and to this day refuses even symbolic apology for past wrongs.

Bennett’s painting Im Wald shows a country poised between two distinct senses of what it is to be Australian, through images of what it is to physically live on this continent. At left an Aborigine (taken from a 1842 watercolour by Adelaide artist S.T. Gill, Native Diving into a Pool) dives gracefully through the grid structure of European rationality into the free flow of natural forces. She/he also descends through a text which reads ‘each man is an interior sea, inhabitant of a fluid matrix’. The rock face is drawn from a sketch by Ludwig Becker, artist and naturalist with the Burke and Wills Expedition (to cross Australia 1860-61), and the water is from an ink sketch by Brett Whiteley, himself inspired by Hokusai’s waves. On the right side, the upside-down falling white figure is a quotation from Georg Baselitz’s 1965 gouache, ink and wash drawing, Ein Neuer Typ (A New Type). This image of a redeemed poet/painter/aviator/wanderer has been much quoted by Tillers. But Bennett reverses Tillers’s general orientation, and specifically opposes Tillers’s solution in his Mammon or Millennial Eden mural of 1988. Here the Baselitz figure appears almost transparent, as if a ghost, and therefore signifies not only as a clumsy, heavy, masculinist, European, war-mongering contrast to the graceful Aboriginal figure, but, according to the perverse logic of ‘Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella’, is its risen ghost. The ghost, however, spins out of control, as if spiralling out of the picture, like a gravity-less spaceman. Yet the text above ties him back in, and it predicts the new conservatism in Australia represented by the Howard Government: ‘At some point in our lives, one might suppose, we have all wanted to move forward and have not. We have stood before the rock and counted the broken chips. We have come against the first cells and heard the endless sands. But we have not moved’.

There is no sense here, of the Central European idea that a clearing in the woods (‘im wald’) can be a compelling metaphor for freedom, release, the discovery of Being, suddenly chanced upon, like light flooding into darkness at a turning of a path. Since 1995 Australia has moved on many fronts, but, politically, it has moved backwards.

 

The Art of Constraint

In late 1995 Bennett began a series of watercolours which examined pictorial elements from works by white Australian artist Margaret Preston in which she tried to think visually as if she were herself Aboriginal. These took the form, in the later 1940s and through the 1950s, of illustrations to Aboriginal Dreamtime narratives, rendered as if they were children’s stories. Preston dreamed of a truly national art, one melded from European modernism and Aboriginal art, an art made from the fundamental abstract principles of both.19 In the watercolours of 1995 Bennett sought to isolate this abstraction, seeking its pictorial logic beyond its figural and body-painting references. He set these shapes against the white picket fence imagery much favoured by the Liberal Party in its campaign advertising. In 1996 he saw the potential of juxtaposing panels of such imagery with panels consisting of sections of paintings by early European modernists, particularly the grid structures of the De Stijl artists. This lead to the series which has preoccupied him to the present: Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = Citizen).

What could this formula mean? What does it look like when we survey the resultant paintings? A + B = C, in Bennett’s taxonomy, is the fixed logic of Western knowing, and is also the beginning of a string of racist slurs. Margaret Preston’s own formula—Aboriginalism plus Modernism equals an Australian national art—is echoed here. So, too, is Lenin’s famous ‘Mass production and electricity plus the Soviets leads to Socialism’. Nor should we forget that in 1995 Bennett copyrighted his video series in the name of ‘John Citizen’, a name which he increasingly uses, with obviously heavy irony, as a creative persona.20 In A few notes in regard to instinct and intuition which Bennett wrote in late 1997, he renders the formula as ‘PAST + PRESENT = FUTURE’ and glosses it as ‘an equation of the universal and the individual’. In a related set of also unpublished notes written at the same time, specifically about the Home Decor series, he elaborates this as follows:

Within the modernist grid of Mondrian’s spiritualist universality and Preston’s stylistic utilitarianism, I hope to further explore a history of ideas, the history of events and spaces between the binary opposites that form their foundation and which form our sense of ourselves.21 

Here is a direct pointer to the purport of this major series of works. Their lead title, Home Decor, tells us that they are pictures, snapshots, of the current, and perhaps future, state of Australia’s visual culture. They have the overall look of home decoration catalogues, themselves an index of popular taste, charts of the degree to which modern art has become ambience. Each work in the series is laid out according to a play between Mondrian’s grid and crossed diagonal structure and the primary colour dynamics of the Dutch artist’s American works, such as New York City and Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Within this jazzed-up modernism, figures drawn from Preston’s ‘Aboriginal’ children’s stories appear: at times they are trapped by this prison house of regularity, at others they dance through it. In major works such as Home Decor (Algebra) Ocean (1998) imagery from earlier works by Bennett appears, including Possession Island (1991), as do other citations—from Guston’s Edge of Town, from Malevich’s costume designs, from Lichtenstein’s benday dot mirrors, from a recent series of computer graphics in which Bennett redraws Basquiat.22

Is this merely an accumulative restatement of Bennett’s constant theme: that Western practices of seeing, including white perceptions of Aboriginal people, have precipitated a cycle of repression and self-doubt which is terminally regressive for all concerned? Yes, and it is a point worth repeating at a time when Australian society is being led to accept this regression as part of its normality. But it is a psychic black hole which is in danger of contaminating Bennett’s art as well, dragging it into the statics of decor, making it an art of the storyboard, of the one theme rant, however elegant and elaborate the display. Indeed, its very refinement, its entrapment in processes of elaboration, could amount to a kind of dancing better and better in the ballroom of the Titanic.

Recent notes by the artist show that he is aware of this danger. Writing of the example of Mondrian’s search for a visual language which would bring harmony to the antitheses between the vertical and the horizontal, the static and the dynamic, the male and the female and the spiritual and the material, Bennett notes that ‘While such a resolution would be nice, I am more interested in the dynamic/static interplay between the binary opposites of abstract/figurative, black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, inclusion/exclusion to name a few’.23 Australians will recognise the laconic irony of the first phrase, its pragmatic throw-away of utopianism. His attraction to the warring between constraint and flow, to the energies of ‘the dynamic/static interplay’ was evident in Im Wald, as it was in the videos, and in earlier paintings such as Poet and Muse (1991) and Panorama: Cascade (With Floating Point of Identification) (1993). It is this which points beyond the powerful impotencies which are abroad in the land at present. 

Gordon Bennett, Im Wald (Divided Unity), 1995. Acrylic on canvas, 220 x 312cm. Private collection, Brisbane. Photograph Sam Charlton. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett.

 

Gordon Bennett, The Small Brown House, from the Bounty Hunter series, 1991. Watercolour on paper, one of six panels each 37 x 27cm. Collection: The Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Australian Art, Brisbane. Photograph Phillip Andrews. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett.

 

Gordon Bennett, Suprematist Painting No1 (Nigger Lover), 1993. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50cm. Private collection, London. Photograph Gordon Bennett. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett.

Gordon Bennett, Self Portrait: Interior/Exterior, 1993. Acrylic on canvas on pine frames, 8ft leather stock whip, acrylic on paper tags, 2 panels each 187 x 60 x 25cm. Collection: The Estate of Gordon Bennett. Photograph Phillip Andrews. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett.

 

notes: 

1. In Ian McLean and Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996, pp.9-62.

2. Ibid., p.25.

3. Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, 1998. Reynolds’s first book, which opened up this subject for the current generation of young Australians, was The Other Side of the Frontier, Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia, Penguin, Ringwood, 1982.

4. The incidents to which Bennett is responding are described in Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle, Massacres and Maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788, Child & Associates, Frenchs Forest, 1988, rev. ed. 1998. Other studies include C.D. Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1970, and Janine Roberts, From Massacres to Mining: The Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia, CIMRA, London, 1978, rev. ed. 1980.

5. See, for example, Jan Kociumbas, ‘Hunters and Collectors’, Oxford History of Australia, Vol.2: Possessions, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, Ch.3; Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp.12-54; and Richard Glover, ‘Scientific Racism and the Australian Aboriginal’, in Jan Kociumbas, ed., Maps, Dreams, History, Race and Representation in Australia, Department of History, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1998, especially the section ‘The Methods of Physical Anthropology’, pp.103-128

6. Exhibited in Colin McCahon, Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, University of Sydney, mounted as part of the program of the Fifth Biennale of Sydney, Private Symbol, Social Metaphor, curated by Leon Paroissien, Sydney 1984. The McCahon painting is reproduced in the catalogue.

7. See Paul Foss, in Hysterical TearsJuan Davila, edited by Paul Taylor, Greenhouse, Melbourne, 1985; Imants Tillers: Works 1978-1899, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1988; and Wystan Curnow, Imants Tillers and the ‘Book of power’, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998. On the general context see my chapter ‘Postmodern Plurality’, in Bernard Smith with Terry Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991.

8. ‘On Eclecticism’ in ‘The Dream and the Reality: Sketches from Paris’, Art Network, Vol.13, Spring, 1984, p.51. 

9. Paul Foss, ‘Mammon or Millennial Eden?: Interview with Imants Tillers’, Art & Text, March–May, 1987, p.136. 

10. Yet, read in context, Foss seems less to be endorsing this activity, than warning Tillers against contributing to ‘the recolonisation of local cultural activities in this country’ by falling into a Margaret Preston-like, simply celebrationist combinatorium of Aboriginal and Modernist motifs as if, as such, this mix would amount to an art of national resolution (see ‘Mammon or Millennial Eden?’, ibid., p.134).

11. Bruce Elder, Blood on the Wattle, op.cit.

12. See Kerry Crowley, ed., Imants Tillers, Venice Biennale 1986, Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, Sydney, and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 1986.

13. This coincidence was an element in the collaboration which Tillers sought with Bennett in 1993 around an Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Artspace, Sydney, exhibition titled ‘Commitments’. A collaborative work including faxes between the two artists was developed, but the text of the faxes shows vast gulfs between the conceptions of creativity held by the two. Tillers often mentions telepathy as the source of the images he uses in his work, believing that Bennett inadvertently ‘sent’ him an image for his work Painting with Closed Eyes. Bennett rejects this, and insists on reality of meaning in every usage. (Faxes, early August 1993). In May 1994 Tillers reopened the fax exchange, seeking another collaboration around the concept of a diaspora shared by both immigrant and Aboriginal people. This, too, Bennett rejected as subject to artworld ‘fashion’, and went on to say: ‘I don’t know an Aboriginal word for Diaspora. I don’t know where my homeland is. I know Australia is my country and yet when I step outside my door I enter a territory which is largely antagonistic towards me. A territory where I inevitably end up in an argument demanding my right to self representation against the weight of stereotype and ignorance, or where I am expected to keep quiet about my feelings, my history and my family’s experience so that I won’t “make” non-Aboriginal people feel “guilty”, and if I don’t keep quiet, well that would be just like a half breed Coon to cause trouble now wouldn’t it?’ (Fax, n.d. 13 May, 1994 approx.)

14. As is made explicit in Bennett’s 1994 work The Recentered Self, wherein a stack of nailed down books from Tillers’s The Decentered Self (1985) is ‘Aboriginalised’ through colouration and additional motifs. Bennett’s insistence on place, and on the actuality of cause and effect, is a rebuttal of Tillers’s fondness for chance effects, as argued in his essay ‘Locality fails’, Art & Text, No.6, Winter, June 1982. Nevertheless, Bennett is clearly not fixated on mechanical determinism. In a note to me on this issue, he describes feeling ‘a certain centredness’ in the world outside the stack of books representing Eurocentric knowledge, beyond the reach of Western categories of knowing.

15. See, for example, Rex Butler, ed., What is Appropriation? An Anthology of Critical Writings on Australian Art in the ’80s and ’90s, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Power Publications, Sydney, 1996.

16. Paul Taylor, ‘Popism: The Art of White Aborigines’, On the Beach, 1, March 1983.

17. To read these remarks in the context of a broader argument, see my ‘Modernism, Modernity and Otherness’, the 1994 Franz Philipp Memorial Lecture, in the Australian Journal of Art, Vol.XIII, 1996, pp.145-166.

18. See the excellent interpretations of these paintings by Ian McLean in McLean and Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, in the concluding chapters of Ian McLean, White Aborigines, Identity Politics in Australian Art, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1998. 

19. For colour reproductions of Preston’s work of this period, particularly the ‘Australian Legend’ series of c.1957, which Bennett uses extensively throughout the Home Decor series, see Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987, pp.295-297. On Preston see Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass, Alternative Publishing Company, Sydney, 1979, and ‘Albert Namatjira and Margaret Preston, Changing An Unequal Exchange’, a chapter in my Transformations, Aboriginality and Modernism in Twentieth Century Australian Art, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1999. 

20. In a comment to me (27 March, 1999) on this usage, Bennett said: ‘Yes, I am using John Citizen increasingly. Some may see this as a clever appropriation of the Australian “every man” but I see it more as a reappropriation of my self which has been othered to the point where I can’t identify with “Gordon Bennett” the Aboriginal (life as an adjective is exasperating)’.

21. Gordon Bennett, Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = Citizen), undated notes (late 1997, early 1998).

22. For detailed and acute readings of these works see Ian McLean, ‘Gordon Bennett’s Home Decor: the joker in the pack’, in Colin Perrin, ed., ‘In the Wake of Terra Nullius’, Law.Text.Culture, Vol.4, No.1, Autumn 1998, pp.286-307, and Nicholas Thomas, ‘Home Decor and Dance: The Abstraction of Aboriginality’, Howard Morphy and David Elliott, In Place (Out of Time), Contemporary Art in Australia, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, July–November 1997.

23. Gordon Bennett, Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = Citizen), undated notes (late 1997, early 1998). 

This essay, originally titled ‘Australia’s Anxiety’, was first published by the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, United Kingdom, as part of the catalogue for Gordon Bennett’s solo exhibition ‘History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett’. See History and Memory in the Art of Gordon Bennett exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo, 1999, pp.10-21. It is published here, for the first time in Australia, with the kind permission of Ikon Gallery. 

Gordon Bennett passed away unexpectedly on 3 June 2014, just one week prior to his exhibition at Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Out of respect, Josh Milani hosted ‘Gordon Bennett in Memoriam’, a four week non-exhibition featuring the gallery as a blank canvas with a display of publications representing Gordon’s thirty year art career and a quiet DVD viewing room to reflect on his legacy. In his eulogy, Josh Milani asserted, ‘His was a life given to both his family and to the community—for we know his art will continue to speak to individuals for centuries to come. It will speak through its humanity, its beauty, its vulnerability and its strength, qualities which he embodied as a human being’.

Like Milani Gallery, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne also hosted a memorial in November, when his exhibition there was scheduled. Sutton had worked with Gordon for over twenty years and it is in this context it presented ‘Notes to GB’, an exhibition that reflected upon and honoured Gordon’s legacy. The exhibition was an open conversation between a small group of Melbourne-based contemporary practitioners and Gordon. ‘Notes to GB’ presented work by Hamishi Farah, Ben McKeown, Tom Nicholson, Lisa Radford & Peter Waples-Crowe, in addition to a selection of works by Gordon, chosen in consultation with the exhibiting artists.