Colony: Aus­tralia 1770–1861 & Fron­tier Wars

NGV Aus­tralia, Mel­bourne

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED - noted by Miriam Cosic

“Our land­scape is over­writ­ten by its his­tory. Its scar­i­fi­ca­tion is only vis­i­ble if one looks hard, lis­tens closely and is pre­pared to not look away,” writes Nat Wil­liams, a curator at the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia, in the mag­nif­i­cently pro­duced cat­a­logue of the two-part Colony ex­hi­bi­tion. The book is as much about po­lit­i­cal his­tory and the clash of civil­i­sa­tions as it is about art his­tory, and makes as pow­er­ful a state­ment as the ex­hi­bi­tion it­self. Colony is a close ex­am­i­na­tion of the growth of Euro­pean set­tle­ment across Aus­tralia: it cel­e­brates the mile­stones and achieve­ments, but coun­ter­points this with the ex­pe­ri­ences of Abo­rig­i­nal dis­pos­ses­sion, death and era­sure. On ar­rival at the Ian Pot­ter Cen­tre at Fed­er­a­tion Square, one passes an hon­our guard of dec­o­rated In­dige­nous shields from across south-east Aus­tralia, each a per­sonal state­ment of its maker and his cul­ture. From there, ex­plor­ers’ maps of our coast­line lead to rooms of art and arte­facts, doc­u­ments, jour­nals, por­traits, land­scapes, fur­ni­ture, pho­to­graphs and wun­derkam­mern. All of these el­e­ments chart the growth of Euro­pean set­tle­ment and the in­ter­ac­tion with tra­di­tional owners of the land. This is part one, Colony: Aus­tralia 1770–1861 (un­til July 15), which takes us up to the year the NGV it­self was es­tab­lished. The ex­hi­bi­tion’s con­tents – en­com­pass­ing the en­gage­ment with nat­u­ral his­tory, the sci­en­tific in­ter­est in the “na­tives” (which seemed to fade as Eu­ro­peans be­gan to see them­selves as na­tive), and the land­scape paint­ing bound by Euro­pean tropes – are en­gross­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing. This is a cu­ra­to­rial feat, with ob­jects col­lected from state mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions to fill out the story. Never ab­sent, how­ever, is its po­lit­i­cal sub­text. With few ex­cep­tions, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are ob­jec­ti­fied: ei­ther ro­man­ti­cised as the “no­ble sav­age” or de­meaned al­most to the rank of fauna. Lit­tle is ev­i­dent of their so­cial or spir­i­tual lives, or their daily ac­tiv­i­ties. Colony: Fron­tier Wars (un­til Septem­ber 2), the smaller of the two linked ex­hi­bi­tions, is up­stairs via two es­ca­la­tors. On the way, at the first land­ing, is a for­est of burial poles from dif­fer­ent re­gions. Dig­ni­fied, beau­ti­ful and som­bre, they re­mind us that our cross­over in points of view is sat­u­rated with what artist Jonathan Jones calls in his cat­a­logue es­say “an eter­nal mourn­ing”. On the sec­ond land­ing is Jones’s in­stal­la­tion Blue Poles, a com­pos­ite play on many themes: the burial poles, the Jack­son Pol­lock mas­ter­piece, the colours of Michael Ri­ley’s in­ef­fa­ble Cloud se­ries and more, all ad­dressed in a group of Jones’s trade­mark light poles in pas­tel blue. The body of the show be­gins with Julie Gough’s me­mo­rial, Chase, a dense group of 315 hang­ing sticks. Be­yond that, Gough, Gor­don Ben­nett, Brook An­drew, Ver­non Ah Kee and oth­ers memo­ri­alise mas­sacres, the loss of home­lands and the weak­en­ing of cul­ture. There is more sad­ness than anger in this col­lec­tion. “Our age-old philoso­phies of death and grief will con­tinue to in­form our artis­tic prac­tices,” writes Jones, “un­til Aus­tralia comes to terms with the im­mea­sur­able loss of life that we have ex­pe­ri­enced in the found­ing of this na­tion.” M

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