Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son Joan Ross’s

Joan Ross, Colo­nial Grab (2014). An­i­ma­tor: Josh Ray­mond. Col­lec­tion Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney. Do­nated through the Aus­tralian govern­ment’s Cul­tural Gifts Pro­gram by the artist, 2015. In 1970, when Joan Ross was an eight-year-old grow­ing up in Syd­ney’s western sub­urbs, her en­tire school went on an ex­cur­sion to see the Queen, who was on a royal visit to Par­ra­matta Park. Ross re­fused to go. When the school asked her why, she replied that she didn’t be­lieve in the Queen and cer­tainly didn’t be­lieve in what the Queen “stood for”.

Nearly 50 years later, Ross still re­mem­bers how strongly she felt about that protest, and how strongly she felt about the power and su­pe­ri­or­ity of au­thor­ity. It was mo­ment that shaped her work as an artist and brought about her de­ci­sion to ex­am­ine Bri­tish coloni­sa­tion and its neg­a­tive im­pact.

Ross has de­scribed her long­stand­ing cri­tique of coloni­sa­tion as an ob­ses­sion. “I don’t think you can live in Aus­tralia with­out con­sid­er­ing the past,” she has said. “Ev­ery day, when I go to the beach, float­ing in the wa­ter, look­ing back at the land, I imag­ine liv­ing here in this par­adise and then hav­ing the colo­nials ar­rive. I al­ways feel that I’m on in­dige­nous land.”

Ross retells his­tory us­ing var­i­ous me­dia such as paint­ing and video. She ap­pro­pri­ates im­ages of the ro­man­ti­cised colo­nial past by John Glover or Joseph Lycett, for ex­am­ple, and jux­ta­poses th­ese im­ages with flu­o­res­cent yel­low mo­tifs, which are a metaphor for coloni­sa­tion. This sub­ver­sive in­ter­ven­tion is ev­i­dent in works such as in Oh His­tory, You Lied to Me, which won the Sul­man Prize a few weeks ago, and in Colo­nial Grab, a video an­i­ma­tion on dis­play at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney, in the ex­hi­bi­tion To­day, To­mor­row, Yes­ter­day.

At the MCA, se­nior cu­ra­tor Natasha Bul­lock and I watch Colo­nial Grab, which fea­tures a colo­nial cou­ple who time-travel from play­ing a poker machine to the desert, to a sit­ting room, and to colo­nial land­scapes. It starts with a wealthy Euro­pean woman, who is wear­ing a flam­boy­ant yel­low feath­ered hat and dress. She is play­ing a poker machine named Colo­nial Grab. Another sce­nario fea­tures a Glover paint­ing in which stylised Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are plucked out of the trees and ar­ranged ike­banastyle in a vase, a ref­er­ence to the lack of re­spect shown for the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants.

Bul­lock says Colo­nial Grab is about the game of coloni­sa­tion. “It’s about the pokie men­tal­ity that comes with the land grab, and Joan uses that flu­o­res­cent yel­low in her work, which is kind of dis­gust­ing but fab­u­lous at the same time, as a sign for coloni­sa­tion,” she says. “Glover is a big in­flu­ence. The idea of him just ar­riv­ing with his English gar­den and all those paint­ings he made of his per­fect English gar­den. Ike­bana is another mo­tif she uses where it’s na­ture but it is con­trolled and it’s ma­nip­u­lated and it’s made into th­ese strange cre­ations that are not nat­u­ral but com­pletely ar­ti­fi­cial. Her work is al­ways a bit hu­mor­ous, a bit on edge; it is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act.”

Bul­lock says Ross’s videos are a “re­cent, won­der­ful de­vel­op­ment”. “I do love Joan’s work,” she says. “What I think she does suc­cess­fully is nav­i­gate a re­ally se­ri­ous sub­ject, coloni­sa­tion, with hu­mour be­cause of­ten po­lit­i­cal art can be cold, and it’s hard to deal with re­ally se­ri­ous is­sues. But I think she is able to nav­i­gate the very com­plex is­sues but also take the piss, shall I say, out of the English by ap­pro­pri­at­ing their work and their man­ners and their dress and the land grab, and mak­ing it her own.”

Sul­man Prize en­try is on dis­play at the Art Gallery of NSW un­til Oc­to­ber 22. She is also show­ing work in Grounded: Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian Art at the Na­tional Art School Gallery, Syd­ney, un­til Oc­to­ber 14.

Sin­gle chan­nel dig­i­tal video an­i­ma­tion, in colour, with sound. Du­ra­tion: 7min 38sec

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