Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Toni Robert­son, The Royal Nu­clear Show — 3 (1981). Col­lec­tion Flin­ders Univer­sity Art Mu­seum Col­lec­tion, Ade­laide. On dis­play in Black Mist, Burnt Coun­try, Bur­rinja Dan­de­nong Ranges Cul­tural Cen­tre, Up­wey, Vic­to­ria, un­til Fe­bru­ary 10. When Mid­night Oil re­leased its Red Sails in the Sun­set al­bum in 1984, it cer­tainly gar­nered lots of at­ten­tion. Not only did the mu­sic em­pha­sise the band’s con­cerns with the threat of global nu­clear war but these con­cerns also were strik­ingly pre­sented on the LP’s cover.

The cover de­sign de­picts a night­mar­ish sce­nario: Syd­ney after a hy­po­thet­i­cal nu­clear at­tack. The har­bour is com­pletely empty of wa­ter and in­stead there are mas­sive craters. The north­ern side of the Har­bour Bridge is de­stroyed and where Cir­cu­lar Quay should be is a gi­ant red blob of plasma.

To cre­ate this im­age, Mid­night Oil com­mis­sioned a Ja­panese pho­tomon­tage artist, Tsune- hisa Kimura, who pro­duced one of the most ar­rest­ing pop cul­ture im­ages of the decade, ac­cord­ing to cul­tural me­dia an­a­lyst Mick Brod­er­ick in his es­say, Atomic Pop.

The 1980s un­doubt­edly were the most pro­lific Cold War decade for Aus­tralian anti-nu­clear vis­ual cul­ture, writes Brod­er­ick. The ap­pre­hen­sion about the nu­clear arms race, French nu­clear test­ing in the South Pa­cific and ura­nium ex­ports was ev­i­dent when thou­sands of Aus­tralians took to the streets in protest marches.

Echo­ing this pub­lic ac­tivism were eye-catch­ing screen-print posters. The posters were char­ac­terised by colour­ful, bold de­signs that were used as a po­lit­i­cal tool ef­fec­tively to high­light is­sues such as nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion as well as the fem­i­nist and land rights move­ments. The posters helped politi­cise a gen­er­a­tion, mak­ing it abun­dantly clear that art could af­fect so­cial change and in­clude po­lit­i­cal com­ment.

Screen-print­ing work­shops across the coun­try, such as Red­back Graphix, Earth­works Poster Col­lec­tive and the Tin Sheds, cre­ated posters that adorned cafes, tele­phone poles, univer­sity cam­puses, li­braries and vir­tu­ally any pub­lic space. They had slo­gans such as No Nukes No Tests, No More Hiroshi­mas, and End Ura­nium Min­ing. At the time, per­cep­tion of a nu­clear fu­ture was seen as pro­gres­sive and pos­i­tive, with gov­ern­ments and in­dus­try try­ing to pro­mote nu­clear ex­per­i­men­ta­tion as nec­es­sary to the na­tion’s se­cu­rity and ben­e­fi­cial to hu­man­ity.

One artist who em­pha­sised these is­sues in her poster prints was Toni Robert­son, whose work, The Royal Nu­clear Show — 3, is on show at the Bur­rinja Dan­de­nong Ranges Cul­tural Cen­tre in Up­wey, Vic­to­ria. Pro­duced while Robert­son was an artist-in-res­i­dence at the Ex­per­i­men­tal Art Foun­da­tion in Ade­laide in 1981, it de­picts a dystopian post-nu­clear car­ni­val where crowds wan­der past a bill­board with a baby sleep­ing and suck­ing a bot­tle. On the baby’s pil­low is writ­ten Bomblet. The bill­board reads: “Meet the nu­clear fam­ily, Bomblet the baby nuke. He’s so like his dad! This lit­tle boy was con­ceived as a low yield, tac­ti­cal weapon for use in lim­ited the­atre war.” “Lit­tle boy” was the name given to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Gallery and ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor JD Mittmann says The Royal Nu­clear Show — 3 and other works in the se­ries were pro­duced when anx­i­ety about the nu­clear threat was at its high­est.

“It was only a few years be­fore Ch­er­nobyl, and in­ter­est­ingly, in some ways, Toni Robert­son pre-empted this with the crit­i­cism and satire in this work,” Mittmann says.

“I also think it is very in­ter­est­ing that it is a lit­tle hu­mor­ous and that re­ally un­der­lines that el­e­ment of how art can ad­dress these rather com­plex is­sues quite nicely.”

Mittmann says this work “re­ally res­onates quite strongly with me. It is re­ally a state­ment of the time, but I think not much has changed in some ways. We are still sold nu­clear tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially as a so­lu­tion to cli­mate change prob­lems. Cer­tainly, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber how dan­ger­ous these things are, and so I think this print might have been from 1981 but if you had 2011 un­der­neath it, it would work in just the same way.”

Screen print on pa­per, 77cm x 51cm

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