ANDY BUT­LER

Steven Rhall’s ex­hi­bi­tion De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects ad­dresses the way colo­nial so­ci­eties have ex­hib­ited In­dige­nous art and cul­ture, and makes its au­di­ence face their pre­vi­ous com­fort with it, writes Andy But­ler.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - ANDY BUT­LER is a Mel­bourne writer, cu­ra­tor and artist.

In the days lead­ing up to the open­ing of Steven Rhall’s De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects, I see a lot of talk on In­sta­gram about a protest at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory call­ing for a de­coloni­sa­tion of its hold­ings – for a truth­ful dis­cus­sion about the prove­nance of these items – in or­der to over­come the shal­low and two-di­men­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of nonEuro­pean peo­ple in the mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tions.

Ques­tion­ing the “flash­points of the Euro­pean art canon and First Na­tions art” is cen­tral to Rhall’s in­stal­la­tion prac­tice. In De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects, his first ma­jor solo ex­hi­bi­tion, he has cre­ated a sprawl­ing ex­hi­bi­tion made up of a se­ries of con­cep­tu­ally driven works, which puts the au­di­ence and their ex­pec­ta­tions on dis­play.

The work crit­i­cally ex­am­ines how we en­counter First Na­tions art in a mu­seum con­text and how Rhall him­self is asked to per­form his iden­tity as a Taun­gu­rung man. At times the work is pur­pose­fully cam­ou­flaged, vague, re­ced­ing into the back­ground – open­ing up a space for the viewer to con­sider what they ex­pect and want from Abo­rig­i­nal art and the legacy of mu­se­ums as an im­pe­rial project.

“We’re all Abo­rig­i­nal,” Rhall says in his open­ing re­marks to the crowd gath­ered at The Sub­sta­tion in Newport, in Mel­bourne’s south-west. He is dressed in white cov­er­alls, as are his four as­sis­tants. They are con­spic­u­ous. “We’ll be here for the en­tire open­ing,” they say. “En­joy the ex­hi­bi­tion.”

Lots of peo­ple take pho­tos of Rhall dur­ing the open­ing – he is very oblig­ing. He poses with his mum. They lean on an ob­ject that sits right in front of the en­trance to the ex­hi­bi­tion, a gym­nas­tics vault cov­ered with a white waxy ma­te­rial. It has the look, height and di­men­sions of an hors d’oeu­vres ta­ble. There is a vis­i­ble wine stain, as if some­one has used it as a place to rest their drink.

“It’s cov­ered in pos­sum skin,” Rhall tells me later. There is no ti­tle or ma­te­ri­als list on the wall be­side the vault. It’s easy to walk straight past it, but as Rhall poses on the work a crowd gath­ers, pulling out their phones.

Through­out, the ex­hi­bi­tion has few of the ex­pected ac­cou­trements. It isn’t an ac­cu­mu­lated col­lec­tion of art ob­jects hung on the walls with la­bels clearly des­ig­nat­ing them as art­works. In­stead, Rhall’s prac­tice – con­sist­ing of per­for­mance, pho­tog­ra­phy, video, text, ev­ery­day ob­jects and au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion – casts the gallery space as an im­pe­rial ma­chine. He speaks back to the his­tory of 19th-cen­tury mu­se­ums, where non-Euro­pean bod­ies and pil­laged ob­jects are put on dis­play.

Lit­tle jabs at the fraught legacy of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions abound. One work fea­tures a leather bench that I recog­nise from my time work­ing be­hind the in­for­ma­tion desk at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. Usu­ally, it lives be­hind the wa­ter wall in the foyer of the St Kilda Road build­ing. Here, it is lit from above, pre­sented as a piece of art.

De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects takes its ti­tle from a well-known es­say by art critic Boris Groys, in which he de­scribes the process of items be­ing stolen from non-Euro­pean cul­tures and put on dis­play. In turn, sto­ries about those cul­tures were formed and told by the white gate­keep­ers of the mu­se­ums.

Rhall’s work con­sid­ers how this Euro­cen­tric frame­work of ex­hibit­ing con­tin­ues to­day, and what the dy­nam­ics of power are be­tween au­di­ence, gallery, artist and ob­ject when it comes to First Na­tions art and its dis­play in a mu­seum founded on coloni­sa­tion. He sub­verts the ways he is ex­pected to per­form his iden­tity for an art-go­ing au­di­ence.

His prac­tice is of­ten pur­pose­fully eva­sive, re­fus­ing to give view­ers what they want. At points in the ex­hi­bi­tion he re­moves com­pletely the act of show­ing work to a pub­lic. In a video, placed in one of the first rooms, he is sleep­ing on the floor of an empty gallery space un­der a blan­ket. On the mid­dle of the wall be­hind him is writ­ten “NO ART”. He is on strike.

This work and oth­ers play into a pol­i­tics of re­fusal – of not want­ing to take part within the con­text of an art his­tory and gallery sys­tem that has al­ways been for white au­di­ences any­way.

An­other work asks the au­di­ence to look through a mail-slot-shaped peep­hole into a dark­ened room where an up­side-down sculp­ture with neon text across it spins. It is ob­scured by a pil­lar, but through a mir­ror you can see a re­versed im­age of what it says, though you have to strain. As I try to make it out, I’m dis­tracted by a face at the op­po­site end of the room – an­other per­son is look­ing in as well. Our eyes lock, un­com­fort­ably. It feels like one of those mo­ments when you briefly make eye con­tact with a stranger on pub­lic trans­port, though so­cial in­ter­ac­tions at ex­hi­bi­tion open­ings are rarely with­out awk­ward­ness.

On the up­side-down ro­tat­ing sculp­ture is writ­ten in bright pur­ple neon “I SAW A SCAR TREE BUT DID NOT TAKE A PHOTO OF IT”. What­ever we were look­ing for or ex­pect­ing is not here.

Else­where, a live feed from cam­eras trained on peo­ple’s faces as they try to make out the text on the sculp­ture plays on screens. At times, peo­ple look con­fused, at other times an­noyed. Ev­ery­one is be­ing watched and put on dis­play. Strangers look at you look­ing, as your face strains to find mean­ing from a work that’s pur­posely ob­scured.

In an­other space a black air-dancer – the kind you might see out­side a used-car lot – sits de­flated on the floor in a pitch-black room. Ac­ti­vated by a mo­tion sen­sor

as you walk in, its en­gine whirrs loudly as it fills up with air. While it’s danc­ing and wav­ing for you, the dancer is spotlit. It has a car­toon sad face on it, eyes the yel­low of the Abo­rig­i­nal flag, hair like a gol­li­wog. It epit­o­mises the racialised de­pic­tions in car­toons pub­lished in Mur­doch news­pa­pers. The sound and the blind­ing light are im­pos­ing and ob­nox­ious, as if to say, “Is this the spec­ta­cle you came here for?” It’s so big it nearly touches the roof.

Only one piece in the whole ex­hi­bi­tion has an art­work la­bel, and it’s tat­tooed across the back of both of Rhall’s legs, re­ally high up, just be­neath his bot­tom. I know this be­cause there’s an im­age of it on a wall. In a pho­to­graph taken from above, Rhall’s body is laid out, on dis­play – ob­vi­ously on the NGV bench that he’s put in the ex­hi­bi­tion. The tat­too reads “Abo­rig­i­nal Art Tat­toos” and then of­fers a ma­te­ri­als list: “Elec­tronic in­put de­vice, paint, a pub­lic, tim­ber rail, draw­ing im­ple­ment/s, se­quen­tial dis­play of draw­ings, floor draw­ing, di­men­sions vari­able”. This for­mal el­e­ment of an ex­hi­bi­tion dis­play is per­ma­nently inked on his body, as though the artist is as much of an ob­ject as the fur­ni­ture.

In an­other gallery space, Rhall’s four as­sis­tants, dressed in cov­er­alls, are sit­ting on a rug around a low ta­ble. Their cov­er­alls give the scene the feel­ing of a fac­tory work­shop. They are a well-oiled op­er­a­tion, mak­ing sty­luses out of sticks for an in­stal­la­tion one floor above called “Abo­rig­i­nal Art Tat­toos”, which takes the wit and dry hu­mour that runs through the ex­hi­bi­tion and twists it into a feel­ing of ten­sion that sits in the pit of the stom­ach. “DRAW YOUR OWN ABO­RIG­I­NAL ART TAT­TOO IF YOU WANT” is scratched on one wall, next to an iPad

RHALL’S PRAC­TICE CASTS THE GALLERY SPACE AS AN IM­PE­RIAL MA­CHINE. HE SPEAKS BACK TO THE HIS­TORY OF 19TH-CEN­TURY MU­SE­UMS, WHERE NONEURO­PEAN BOD­IES AND PIL­LAGED OB­JECTS ARE PUT ON DIS­PLAY.

with sty­luses hang­ing on strings. There are place­holder plac­ards dot­ted through­out the room, where peo­ple’s de­signs will be dis­played as the ex­hi­bi­tion goes on.

Kids are go­ing wild for it, us­ing the sty­luses to draw their own tat­toos. It feels like it could be part of the NGV Kids’ ac­tiv­ity room. Par­ents and au­di­ence mem­bers look on, pal­pa­bly un­com­fort­able. We are all nice pro­gres­sive peo­ple here who un­der­stand cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects of­fers no easy res­o­lu­tion to the ten­sions it raises. In­stead, it asks the au­di­ence to hold them, walk away with them, sit on them. Even if you feel as though you’re in on the wit and hu­mour in many of Rhall’s works, you still feel im­pli­cated in the dy­nam­ics of mu­seum dis­play, es­pe­cially as your face – strain­ing for mean­ing – is

• pro­jected onto a screen.

In­stal­la­tion views (above and left) from De­func­tion­alised Au­ton­o­mous Ob­jects.

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