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Revisiting archival subversions: Artist-collection projects in Australia in the 1990s

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Installation view: Julie Gough Chase, 2001, Tea Tree (Myrtaceae Fan.) cotton, steel, jute. Dimensions variable. Photo: Nicholas Carolan

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Knowledge... is made for cutting (Foucault cited by Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p.10)

An institution intrinsically linked to colonising powers, the museum in Australia has become a site of significant revisionism. Encouraged by an expanding public debate centred on identity and history, Australian artists’ engagements with collection material emerge most visibly in the early 1990s. Through ‘nuanced and careful inquiry, driven by a desire to deepen and complicate existing cultural understandings’ artists and museums have furthered and extended important discussions and criticisms levelled at the museum as institution (Barnett & Millner, 2014, p.2). This essay seeks to remind us of the pronounced nature of four precursory projects taking place at this time, involving the work of artists Gordon Bennett, Julie Gough, Leah King-Smith, Luke Roberts, and the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, State Library of Victoria, and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Motivated in part by the bicentenary of Australia’s settlement, important mainstream debates and discussions centred on the country’s history and identity intensified toward the end of the 1980s. This, coupled with new museology; partly interpreted in Australia ‘as the need to represent Indigenous histories’, post-modernism’s evolving understandings of imperialism and public disputes on the nature of Indigenous dispossession, saw projects involving artists and collections referencing the nation’s colonial heritage gain considerable momentum in the 1990s (Barnett & Millner, 2014, p.27).

Luke Roberts is well known for his extensive work with museum collections. Indeed, Wunderkammer has been described as ‘central to his artistic practice’ (Jackson, 1999, p.28). Across the 1990s and beyond, this has taken many forms and spanned multiple projects, including Wunderkammer, State Library of Queensland 1990 and The Voyage Within The Wonderful Continues, Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales 1991, among others. In 1994 the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) presented WUNDERKAMMER/ KUNSTKAMERA, a modest solo exhibition of Roberts’s work. Incorporating institutionalised display approaches; including object labels and vitrines, Roberts’s tableaux-like arrangements were a pastiche of early 16th century cabinets of curiosities. In an interview Roberts makes specific reference to this;

‘[B]ecause it’s this magical process that happens with labelling and of course ‘magical,’ it’s not necessarily magical if you’re being given the label – it can be very limiting… I am also aware that you could give a billion labels to one thing and none of them could be correct…’ (Roberts & McKay, 2012).  


Luke Roberts, Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera (detail), 1994, found objects with artist’s labels, dimensions variable. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). Photo: QAG

Luke Roberts, Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera (detail), 1994, found objects with artist’s labels, dimensions variable. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). Photo: QAG

Including found and modified objects as well as historical works selected from the QAG collection; Roberts grouped disparate objects to ‘highlight marginality, difference, identity and the very nature of cultural influence and cultural imperialism’ (Roberts cited in Morrell, 1997, p.232). In this way, Roberts ‘question(s) western ideas of truth, ‘Other’, ordinary and extraordinary within postcolonial discourse’ (Berry, 2005, p.82).

A large group exhibition presented in 1996 at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, titled Colonial Post Colonial similarly brought together historic and contemporary objects to reveal untruths and narrow narratives within the museum. Curated by Juliana Engberg, the project sought to ‘recognise the way in which our colonial situation has been constructed’ (Engberg, 1996, p.9). The exhibition opened with a ‘colonial corridor’:

Through ‘[t]his collection of items, standing in for the colonial museum… we begin to gain a sense of how our national history has been ‘framed’… we begin to think about those things which the frame excludes or entraps. What is edited in and out of our national story’ (Engberg, 1996, p.9).

Installation view: Colonial Post Colonial, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, 1996

Forming a critique of this story, contemporary works were grouped in a large adjacent room, and included the work of artist Leah King-Smith. Engaging with archival material from the State Library of Victoria in the production of a photographic series titled Patterns of Connection 1991, King-Smith reimages nineteenth century photographic representations. Describing her intention for the series, King-Smith notes ‘My aim in re-photographing these people was to shift the emphasis away from their outer-world condition, since that is determined by the dominant culture’ (King-Smith, 1993, p.41). Re-framing the photographed subjects in ‘her own painted and photographed landscapes’, King-Smith confronts ‘the denigration implicit in these portraits and… their effect of reducing their subjects to historical curios’ (Engberg, 1996, p.46). Seeking to expand the frame, King-Smith reworks archival material to present an alternate narrative and imaging.

Leah King-Smith 'Untitled #5' from the series 'Patterns of connection' 1991, direct positive colour photograph,
94.1 × 93.8 cm. Collection: Potter Museum of Art. Photo: Robert Colvin

In 1998, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) commissioned a suite of projects engaging artists with the institution’s diverse collection. As a second site of permanent British settlement, Tasmania’s colonial legacy has been and continues to be consecrated and circulated in part by the museum. A site of pronounced contact violence; the state’s colonial history is frequently described as genocide (Madley, 2008).

Engaging with the state’s history by way of the TMAG collection, commissioned artist Gordon Bennett produced Home Décor (Relative/Absolute) Flowers for Mathinna (1998). Most prominently quoting an earlier painting of colonial portrait artist Thomas Bock, the work explores ‘Bennett’s principle concern with the representation of Aboriginal people’ (MCA, 2015). Bennett’s quotation references the personal experience of Mathinna, who was taken at age five by a privileged Tasmanian family ‘for their own self-promoting purposes’ (Hobbs et al., 2010, p.15) and ‘later abandoned to intercultural displacement, alcoholism and an early death’ (Hansen, 1999, p.19).

Gordon Bennett, Home décor (relative/absolute) – flowers for Mathinna, 1998, acrylic on linen. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Thomas Bock, Mathinna, 1842, watercolour. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

‘Flowers for Mathinna can be seen as an ironic, postmodern visual bibliography (a portrait of the TMAG as a picture library), yet despite this knowing literariness it stands as a sincere memorial tribute: a gift to Mathinna of and from the twentieth century’ (Hansen, 1999, p.19).

Taking an alternative approach, in 2001 Julie Gough produced Chase in direct response to an iconic work of the National Gallery of Victoria’s colonial collection. Avoiding quotation, Gough’s engagement with E. Phillips Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 1902 confronts the colonial painting in a dialogue across time. Commissioned by the institution in 1902 to ‘celebrate the recent unification of Australian colonies under the act of Federation’, Fox’s painting recreates the landing as a peaceful act (Marshall, 2005, p.179). Projecting an inaccurate narrative, Cook is shown directing gunfire away from local Indigenous people, who are pushed to the painting’s margins.

Installation view: Julie Gough, Chase, 2001, Tea Tree (Myrtaceae Fan.) cotton, steel, jute. Dimensions variable. Photo: Gough

comprises numerous tea tree sticks suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, representative of spears, used by Aboriginal people in the conflict ensuing Cook’s landing. Forcing direct confrontation between the works, Gough and NGV curators removed the heavily gilt frame of the emblematic colonial painting; a literal ‘de-framing’ described as constituting ‘a kind of ritualised debunking’ (Marshall, 2005, p.180). In parallel with suggestions by Hoptman (2012), Marshall (2005) references Gough’s agency as artist, unrestricted by conventional terms of display. Describing the work Gough notes; ‘[it’s] a story of the unfinished business between white and black Australia… (Gough cited by Gregory, 2004, p.296) [it’s] not been negotiated successfully and so remains our haunted house, our outdoors, and indoors, our everywhere’ (Marshall, 2005, p.180).

Informed by the theoretical concerns of new museology and post-modernism; artist-collection projects have contributed to both the development of museological practice and broader social discussions criticising the museum as a site of objective knowledge construction. Joining the expanding postcolonial discourse in the lead to the bicentenary, projects involving artists’ engagements with collection material multiplied in the 1990s and form an important chapter in Australian art history. The artistic engagements with collection material undertaken by Gordon Bennett, Julie Gough, Leah King-Smith, and Luke Roberts reveal and destabilise the historical narrative projected by the museum. Rich in variation, these projects constitute important groundwork for the succession of artist-collection projects transpiring across the following decades. Current projects continuing this way of working demonstrate the sustained relevance and opportunity it affords. Facilitated by the Guildhouse Collections Project, the exhibition KAURNA: Still here by Peter Turner and Clem Newchurch responds to 1840s works by George French Angas held in the collection of the South Australian Museum. While the large-scale architectural intervention gunalgunal (contracted field) by Dean Cross for the 2022 Adelaide Biennial Australian Art: Free/State, reworks two historic pictures: Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa held in the Louvre’s Department of Paintings collection, and an edited Norman Tindale’s Tribal boundaries of Aboriginal Australia, a cartographic document held in various forms across multiple library and museum collections across Australia. These projects reveal the vast potentiality of the artist-collection engagement, and ultimately point to the value of this way of working for artists, institutions, and audiences alike.