March 2007

Arts & Letters

A law that cannot be enforced

By Justin Clemens

The politics of art in Australia

Last year, in the mid-afternoon of 1 August, I snuck into the Melbourne Art Fair before it officially opened. I wanted to poke around, see what was going on and visit friends who were working there. A couple of guards were stationed on the main door, but I wandered innocently inside just as they were preventing a couple of Japanese tourists from doing the same thing.

The fair takes place every two years at the Royal Exhibition Building, once the seat of Australia's first federal parliament but now a site for vast enterprises such as the Melbourne International Flower Show and the Victorian Hot Rod Show.

That Tuesday afternoon, everything was in pre-show chaos. Artists and gallery staff were snapping at each other, some of the temporary partitions were still unacceptably higgledy-piggledy, and innumerable artworks were slopping about like garish artificial foodstuffs. It was the usual smorgasbord of offerings from private galleries and a few non-commercial enterprises.

I was there to visit stall B69, on the mezzanine level, to see an installation presented by Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces. The Gertrude Street Gallery has been a fixture in inner-city Melbourne for almost 25 years, providing both studio space and exhibition opportunities for ‘emerging artists', many of whom go on to become well-known names. This year's installation, The only thing you taught me was the only thing you know, was a collaboration between two young local artists, Michelle Ussher and Helen Johnson. I'd already had a look at some of the work while it was under construction in Ussher's studio, and was keen to see how it had turned out.

The artists had begun by cutting out images from a variety of magazines and picture books, which they assembled into small surreal collages. These were a preliminary element, and not intended to form part of the final artwork. The artists had then selected three of the collages and drawn them on paper, on a larger scale. For the installation, these drawings were taped onto large boards; accompanied by a wall-drawing of a janitor in blue overalls, a couple of chairs, several pot-plants, a cardboard mock-Victorian fireplace and a tarpaulin, they formed a strange ensemble.

The drawings were striking. In one, three small tents have settled in a bed of giant leaves next to a humpy, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Old Parliament House, above which bristle giant phallic sprouts of native Australian flora. In the second, a thin man squats on a devastated ground, flying a vast balloon of coloured tents. In the third, naked Indigenous children clamber over a cascade of heavy rocks and giant mushrooms; a wooden platform towers over them; in the foreground, a couple of white women picnic happily, one with bottle in hand.

Beyond the aesthetics, the political allegory was clear: tents can be at once Indigenous and invasive, protest and protection; the Australian landscape has become a place for leisure and relaxation through the expropriation and displacement of its original inhabitants; light, simple, transient tents have given way to more monumental, permanent structures, such as the Royal Exhibition Building itself. (Indeed, the publicity for the Exhibition Building brays that the structure is "the first non-Aboriginal cultural site in Australia to win World Heritage listing".)

Instead of finding pre-show adrenaline at stall B69, however, I stumbled upon a huddle of three women. Michelle Ussher and Helen Johnson were in discussion with the director of the Gertrude Street Gallery, Alexie Glass. Gloom pervaded the mezzanine. Gallery staff and friends shifted about the stall in a silent Brownian motion. At least one of the artists looked as though she'd been crying. Some people stared balefully at me; others rolled their eyes; yet others ignored me. It was one of those things: you can't ask what's going on without irritating everyone, but you can't not ask without dying of curiosity.

It turned out that Christian Thompson, another Gertrude Street artist-in-residence, had just rung Alexie Glass to express his concerns about the image containing Indigenous children. Thompson believed that the image contravened the policy of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) in its depiction of Indigenous Australians. In his view, not only did the image perpetuate stereotypes, but the artists hadn't sought permission from the relevant community. Into the bargain, the people represented might well have died since the original photograph had been taken.

Thompson is a Bidjara man of the Kunja Nation, in Queensland, and the only Indigenous artist the Gertrude Street Gallery has had in studio residence. Gertrude Street, moreover, has no history of working with Indigenous issues, outside of a handful of exhibitors. Still, the relevant protocols aren't exactly unknown in the art world; on the contrary, any gallery-goer in Australia is familiar with such warnings as "These works contain images of Indigenous people who may be deceased."

Following Thompson's call, Alexie Glass went to see Johnson and Ussher. They agreed that it was time to visit the fair's NAVA stand. The representative there advised Glass and Johnson that the image might indeed be problematic, and told them to call NAVA's executive director, Tamara Winikoff, which Glass immediately did. Winikoff suggested that if the original community could be contacted and appropriate warnings displayed, that might be sufficient for the exhibition to proceed as planned. Winikoff further suggested that Glass call the Indigenous lawyer at the Arts Law Centre of Australia. Glass couldn't speak to the lawyer, who wasn't working that day, but another lawyer there advised that the community whose members were represented in the original photograph should be found, and their permission sought.

At this point, Glass went back to Christian Thompson. He agreed that if the community couldn't be identified, it would be acceptable to display the image, so long as it was accompanied by warnings; but if the community could be identified, then permission would have to be given before the image, including the reproduction of it in the show's catalogue, was displayed.

That evening, Helen Johnson recovered the Time-Life book from which she had taken the photo. It turned out to be a 1963 shot by David Moore, a famous Australian artist, featuring Pitjantjatjara children from the Ernabella community, in South Australia.

Johnson went on the web and found a number for the Ernabella community centre, which she telephoned early the next morning. The centre directed her to Ernabella Arts Inc, which, as their website has it, "is thought to be the longest continually running Aboriginal art centre in Australia". Johnson rang its manager, Raven Vass, and emailed her the image. Vass said that she would need to show it to the women artists working at the centre, to see if they would give their consent. Before doing so, however, Vass talked to the former director of Ernabella Arts Inc, who recognised the image. Convinced that there were also copyright issues involved, the former director insisted that Johnson speak to John Dallwitz, an architect and designer who is co-ordinating the Ara Irititja project, which electronically archives materials relevant to the history of the Anangu people.

Johnson rang Dallwitz, who informed her that David Moore, who died in 2003, had explicitly forbidden the further use or reproduction of his images in any form, and that there were indeed copyright implications in appropriating the image. Dallwitz added that if the artists were to respect the Indigenous people depicted in Moore's photograph, they would have to contact everyone involved (or a relative) and get their permission - an unlikely prospect in the few hours left before the Melbourne Art Fair opened. As NAVA advises, don't leave it till the week before.

Christian Thompson had, in the meantime, contacted the fair's organisers to reiterate his complaint, prompting them to contact the Gertrude Street Gallery with their concerns.

The offending picture was eventually concealed, along with the accompanying catalogues, behind the Gertrude Street stall. The two remaining works were repositioned next to each other, as if that had been the artists' intention all along, and a new, single-page catalogue was hastily produced, shorn of the reproduction of the offending collage.

The controversy did not stop there. In the next couple of days, everyone seemed to be speaking to everyone else. Johnson posted an account on her blog by the evening of Thursday, 3 August ( Alexie Glass organised a forum in an issue of the art magazine Eyeline (an excerpt is available at Contributors included Glass herself, who wrote the introduction with Ulanda Blair; Michelle Ussher; Helen Johnson; Richard Bell, an Indigenous artist; Stephen Gilchrist, the National Gallery of Victoria's curator of Indigenous Art; Zara Stanhope, a curator at Melbourne's Heide Gallery; Tamara Winikoff, the executive director of NAVA; Robyn Ayres, the executive director of the Arts Law Centre; and myself. Christian Thompson was invited to contribute, but declined.

Wherever you look, politics and art just can't keep their hands off each other. If it's not the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas or the former US attorney-general John Ashcroft covering up the Spirit of Justice statue because he objected to her bare breast, it's a gaggle of protestors raging against Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix swimming in the artist's urine. In each of these notorious incidents, art falls prey to a monotheistic zealousness which seeks to cover up or obliterate the object of its rage. Sophisticated Westerners can evince naïve surprise at these efforts: after all, who really takes art that seriously?

But there's always more going on than may appear: the Taliban thought the West's attention to the Buddhas was obscene, given that large numbers of Afghans were being killed as a direct result of ‘enlightened' foreign intervention; Ashcroft was annoyed that his campaign against pornography was being mocked by the press, who kept putting him in the frame with a boob. What makes the furore over Ussher and Johnson's drawing distinctive is that it isn't a result of religious fervour, prudery or a fear of art per se, nor is it caught up in spectacular geopolitics.

The politics of art remain particularly fraught in Australia, where Indigenous cultures tend to place profound strictures upon representations: who can make them, their content and design, how they can circulate. There are also matters of communal ownership and sacred knowledge to consider, which non-Indigenous practices and laws simply don't account for. Not only can the use of Indigenous motifs in works by non-Indigenous artists verge on cultural theft, it can also ride roughshod over social prohibitions. The issues are rendered all the more intense because land claims are often displayed in Indigenous cultural products. The Indigenous artist Richard Bell, in 2002, even proposed "Bell's Theorem" about Aboriginal art: that "It's a white thing." White Australia continues to refuse basic infrastructure and rights to Indigenous people, Bell's argument runs, while the "Aboriginal art" market booms and non-Indigenous artists and dealers profit like bandits. Collectors, for their part, get guilt-assuaging and picturesque bullion to hang on their walls.

In this case, too, the artists hadn't considered the copyright implications of appropriating David Moore's image. How much does one have to tamper with an image before it becomes a different one? There is also the related yet separate matter of how literally the collaged children had been represented in the final drawing. Alexie Glass notes that the artists and Gertrude Street initially had no concerns about the installation, because the drawings were so patently fictional, so "surreal", that it had seemed there were no "representations" of "real" people at stake, and therefore no ethical or legal boundaries had been crossed. It's a decision that, in retrospect, may seem like wishful thinking. But even if there was an infringement of Moore's copyright - something that still isn't certain - this wasn't the substance of Christian Thompson's complaint.

NAVA promotes its protocols as the first step in a process of cross-cultural communication; as "a reminder of the responsibilities involved"; as supplying information; as a way of evaluating whatever ongoing communication there is; and, finally, as "a deterrent for inappropriate behaviours". There's an emphasis upon what could be called the Three Cs: communication, consultation and consent. If, as the German critic Walter Benjamin always insisted, a law that cannot be enforced is no law at all, then the difficulty with such protocols is that they're supported by intense moral anxieties, without any real legal standing. Robyn Ayres of the Arts Law Centre points out that the "Ernabella community and the Aboriginal children depicted had no rights whatsoever under Australian law".  

Christian Thompson is still angry, feeling that his objections should have been addressed long before the Melbourne Art Fair. He believes that he should not have had to raise the matter at the last minute, that artists and gallery staff should be well versed in the relevant protocols. For her part, Alexie Glass seems thoroughly sick of the whole affair. "Why are you still writing about it?" she asked me. "Weren't all the forums enough for you?" Nonetheless, she's been instrumental in developing new cultural protocols for the Gertrude Street Gallery. Helen Johnson, meanwhile, has been working as a part-time designer for ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation), for which she volunteered after the artwork had come down. And Michelle Ussher? She puts it like this: "If you don't feel gutted afterwards, then it's not a work of art." The offending picture remains unsaleable, under wraps somewhere in her studio.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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