You are here
Like each work in Ryan Presley’s recent show at Boxcopy, the title Terror Island (Wish You Were Here) raises many complex ideas in a wry, spare and deceptively simple way. The ‘terror’ in Terror Island, of course, makes connections between Terra Australis, the hypothetical southern continent proposed by European map makers before the discovery of Australia by Europeans, for which the nation is named, and the current framing of the violence of some people as noble and that of others, specifically those resisting colonial control, as illegitimate. Terror invokes, as well, the uniquely Australian colonial doctrine of terra nullius, which labelled pre-colonial Australia empty, erasing 80,000 years of human history on this continent. In addition to highlighting the way the application of the word island, rather than continent, to Australia supports the idea of colony and erases First Nations boundaries, the ‘island’ of the title makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to reality television shows such as Survivor and Temptation Island, which turn everyone into losers and winners and make a game of exile. The word ‘island’ also invokes current Australian treatment of asylum seekers, gently referencing the familiar irony of colonial Australians referring to those seeking asylum as boat people. The word ‘you’ in the parenthetical subtitle launches a challenge, forcing viewers to think about which side of statements about violent colonialism they may stand on. The word ‘wish’ stresses the deception in both the historical doctrine of terra nullius and the illusion that the policy of colonial erasure is over. But it is the word ‘here’ that is most important in the phrase; as a phenomenological statement, ‘here’ announces the enduring presence of First Nations people in Australia, and invokes the flood of sensation produced by images encountered in childhood. In this show, Presley’s long engagement with Christian iconography, drawn from his own childhood exposure to icon paintings, is given form in meticulous works that invite close and extended viewing. They offer the kind of immersion that church paintings and images in picture books produce, in which initial reactions are subjected to questioning, and new details are discovered with repeated encounters.
The work done by this small collection of paintings is both deep and broad. The image shown on the invitation and encountered first in the Boxcopy exhibition, the oil on canvas Fair Coin (Sum Zero) (2017), shows falling, or rising, silver coins that transform, behind an array of deftly rendered fresh figs, into BasicsCards. BasicsCards are electronic transfer cards redeemable for a restricted range of goods and only at certain stores, which are distributed to welfare recipients in remote communities instead of money. A scorpion and a frog drift with the falling or rising currencies, invoking a web of fables from different traditions that pit an inherently vicious nature against good deeds. The background of the painting is gold leaf figured with a geometric pattern. Variations on this lattice pattern are present in most works in the show; they are derived from cymatics, patterns produced in particles and fluids in response to sound waves, and they provide a unifying thread. The BasicsCard in Fair Coin explicitly refers to the Northern Territory Intervention, the most recent instalment in a two hundred and twenty-nine year franchise of colonial policies that disguise exploitation and extermination as paternalistic control. In this painting and in Golden Soil (2017), a suite of four smaller works encountered next in the show, the use of gold leaf references Christian iconography and the way religious forms, emptied of values, are used to render palatable the use of force and violence by colonisers. Golden Soil shows images of black cockatoos and Sturt’s Desert Pea, the floral emblem of South Australia, as well as elements of classical European architecture, mining machinery and a mushroom cloud, referencing the Maralinga nuclear tests and ore mining, both of which have had a devastating effect on the health and the lands of First Nations people in Australia. An ironic reference to exploitative work for the dole schemes, stolen wages, and the pressure on First Nations communities to bargain away land rights in exchange for fundamental welfare and healthcare services taken for granted by colonial Australians, is also implicit in the gold leaf works, evoked by the phrase ‘wealth for toil’ that follows the words ‘golden soil’ in Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The flat brightness of the gold leaf and the white cymatic patterns leach intensity from the luminous oil colours in the foregrounded animals, plants and objects in these paintings; viewers are forced to look closely at them to reap the detail.
Hung on the wall across from these works, World Without Exit (2017), a series of six small, square paintings made using ground ochre pigments in egg tempera applied to Hoop pine boards, shows patterns reminiscent both of the art of northern Queensland and Northern Territory, and the complex geometries of traditional Islamic art, but which are in fact derived from cymatics. Each painting in the series represents one note from the musical phrase associated with the line ‘for we are young and free’ from Advance Australia Fair. These works challenge interpretation by deliberately collapsing ways of reading representations from different cultural traditions. Highly ornamental, they trouble the pleasure produced by religious images and language, which are used, in association with colonialism, as a way of legitimising violence and invasion.
However, the work that generated the most attention and questions from the audience during Boxcopy’s ‘Artist in Conversation’ event is the sole figurative painting in the show. Hung on the back wall, which faces the door to the gallery and dominates the small space, this work carries the same title as the exhibition, and shows a male figure, an Aboriginal warrior saint, astride a water buffalo, aiming a lance at several toothy sharks, rendered in naval camouflage, amidst decorative, stylised waves. The background features a skyline with iconic Australian buildings and an offshore detention facility, adding a special poignancy to the parenthetical title Wish You Were Here. Sharks are a repeated motif in Presley’s work, representing Australian police and white colonial culture, whose violence sometimes turns on themselves. This painting draws on representations of St George and the Dragon to prompt questions about who is validated with the term hero in religious and popular stories. Simultaneously triumphant and disturbing, the work produces a complex emotional response and reveals details that cannot be resolved into a single narrative.
Presley’s paintings in Terror Island combine realism and symbolic elements in a way that produces a visceral and emotional, as well as cerebral, experience of the ongoing displacement, violence and oppression experienced by First Nations people in Australia, and, most importantly, the survival and enduring presence and power of First Nations cultures. The alternation between three dimensional perspective and geometric flatness, the harsh note struck by the gold leaf, with its bright single tone, against the rich depth of the ochres and oils, mimics and calls into doubt the colonial account of much of Australia as barren, which has been used to justify both the invasion and attempted destruction of country and culture. The combination of traditions of representation from different cultures provokes recognition of the many ways humans impose meaning on the world and the unequal value placed on cultural traditions through colonialism. But in these works Presley has also created paintings that exert a strong pull on the imagination, as do images in picture books and rooms seen in childhood: a continued, immersive engagement that is formative as well as critical.
Awareness of the uses of religious symbolism and forms to peddle division and violence has never been more urgent than it is right now, and Ryan Presley’s Terror Island (Wish You Were Here) grapples with the souls of images wittily on a range of levels, and with subjects of real urgency for Australia, as it nears the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Ryan Presley, Terror Island (Wish You Were Here). Oil and 23k gold leaf on Hoop pine panel, 100 x 53 x 2cm. Courtesy the artist.
Ryan Presley: Terror Island (Wish You Were Here). Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist.