April 20, 2017


Archives are us

By Quentin Sprague
Archives are us
Installation view of Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 3 March–4 June 2017 Photo: Wayne Taylor
The collected wisdom of Patrick Pound and Brook Andrew at NGV

“To collect,” according to Patrick Pound, the New Zealand–born, Melbourne-based artist whose vast archive project The Great Exhibition has recently taken over the ground-floor galleries of NGV Australia, “is to gather your thoughts through things.” Pound, who began exhibiting in the mid 1980s, was initially a photographer, but his urge to collect has long taken over. His practice now consists of drawing disparate images and objects together under arbitrary-seeming categories. If photography provides a framework it is simply because it too involves the constant winnowing and collating that drives the avid collector: archiving selected moments and arranging them as a means to make sense of the world, or, put another way, to gather one’s thoughts.

The Great Exhibition – which brings photographs and objects from Pound’s many collections together with carefully selected works from the NGV – hinges on a kind of loose, open-ended curiosity. First there’s a sequence of photographs – intimate and familial in tone – purchased by Pound from the internet. All are linked by a recurrent device: the photographer’s shadow stretching into the picture, an accidental intrusion that, through Pound’s compulsive logic, becomes imbued with indeterminate meaning. Similarly loose-yet-specific categories continue from one gallery to the next: here are images of people holding cameras, or objects that contain apertures, or representations of people sleeping. There’s a line of 27 books, each containing a number in the title that corresponds with their order. Nearby is a perfect line of circular objects ranging from a broken-spoked bicycle wheel to a crumpled ball of paper.

As the exhibition progresses, the audience is invited to make their own connections: they too can revel in the collector’s impulse towards curatorial indeterminacy. It’s easy, the whole enterprise seems to suggest. At one point there’s even a wall of printed instructions that explains how the connections between various “things” might be made. As each softly poetic category unfolds into the next it’s hard not to sense that such connections are endless, that if the museum were large enough, anything could eventually find its justified place.

Using the archive has in recent years become something of a trope in contemporary art. It’s easy to see why: archives suggest research, real or imagined; they can gesture towards how we construct history or the way the internet has rendered information both endless and endlessly accessible. At the NGV one doesn’t have to drift far to find another example of the archive’s strategic deployment: Brook Andrew’s third-floor survey exhibition, The Right to Offend is Sacred. In the first of the exhibition’s galleries Andrew employs an identical strategy to Pound’s: his own works are embedded alongside a variety of representations of the colonial “other”. Among them are books, engravings, historical political cartoons and comics. Elsewhere, similar material is incorporated into ambitious sculptures that double as tastefully warped versions of the kind of display shelves found in natural history museums. Like Pound, Andrew often purchases such material on the internet, but in his hands it’s employed to far more specific ends.

Andrew, a multi-disciplinary practitioner in his 40s and of Wiradjuri, Ngunnawal and Celtic ancestry, is currently one of the country’s most successful artists on the international stage. Over the past decade he has realised major exhibitions as far afield as Madrid, Utrecht, London and Japan. The NGV retrospective comes not long after Standing By Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener – Andrew’s memorial (in collaboration with his long-term assistant, and artist in his own right, Trent Walter) to the two Tasmanian Aboriginal men publicly executed in Melbourne in 1842 – was unveiled and not long before he flies to the US to undertake an artist’s research fellowship at the Smithsonian.

His use of archives is what much of this recent attention hinges on. He has made an art (literally) of digging deeply into museum collections – many of them the contested bounties of the colonial era – and reframing them through the lens of Indigenous identity. If we can speak of the history of modern art in terms of a colonially inflected master narrative, Andrew shows that the game now lies in fracturing and subverting; in employing strategies that disrupt and re-frame rather than ratify. For him, the archive provides means to consider a pressing question: how might the cultural ethics of one age carry over into another?

Against such a backdrop, Pound’s exhibition risks seeming minor. It’s hard not to wonder what’s at stake. Indeed, it would be easy here to suggest that for Pound, a white Anglo–Saxon male, the museum’s politics are easily ignored in favour of freewheeling aesthetics. But that's to downplay the quiet revelations that animate his intriguing exhibition. For him, the archive becomes a measure by which a life might be gauged; a way that character, rather than identity, can be reflected in the objects we surround ourselves with and how these, in turn, can link us to far greater narratives. Like Andrew, Pound is concerned with the hierarchies that usually lie hidden within museum collections. He too seeks a means of subversion: artworks and objects rendered canonical by the museum’s imprimatur are presented alongside the clutter of the everyday. If you go with it, the mundane might just be elevated to the status of the miraculous. In this, Pound’s project is drawn into focus: it attempts to make apparent the patterns that bind everything.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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