Melbourne painter Jon Cattapan was a war artist in East Timor where he wore night vision goggles. This reminded him of earlier moments of surveillance from a balcony apartment in St Kilda in the eighties.
In the late eighties St Kilda’s Grey Street by night was an animated carnivalesque affair. From the privacy of my apartment above the street I formed the habit of sitting quietly with a beer and watching the comings and goings of the night trades, the arguments, the deals gone bad. Undoubtedly, it was firsthand image absorption because yes, I was there, but in a very crucial way I was certainly not there. Hidden away and memorising events that could be retold as inglorious anecdotes, I came to realise the importance of my own role in these episodes as a very still, very removed lookout. I was keeping watch, but with what real intent? None, except to gather narrative starting points for imagined pictures of the nocturnal.
I have been reflecting on how the crude possibilities of those earlier private surveillances have evolved through various art and life opportunities — most recently a very pointed set of colourations and figures that I call Night Visions inspired by my gig as an official artist for the war memorial
in Timor Leste.
“We have some heat sensing equipment in Timor that is so sensitive it can pick up and image the body heat of a mouse in a field a kilometre away.” I found myself in conversation with a Major whilst we waited to hitch a ride on a Blackhawk down to the beautiful district of Oeccuse. Having been in Timor Leste for a few days, I had been reflecting with him on the possibilities for artists using these kinds of technologies to generate images. I had already been out for a surveillance patrol with some of his soldiers the night before when I was provided with a monocle that flips down from a helmet and can operate through night vision mode and infrared mode. The heightened images have their own particularities. Heat imaging for example is a beautiful multi-coloured pattern whilst infrared throws up a dull grey monochrome. But it was the night vision mode, with its spectral possibilities and unearthly green hues that became for me synonymous with my time in Timor Leste and more particularly with a broader enquiry: how humans occupy territories.
Over the next couple of weeks I found myself repeatedly joining these night patrols, surrounded by a dozen armed personnel, making our way down deserted dirt roads, or into outlying villages. All of these experiences were siphoned through the luminous irradiated green light of the night vision monocle.
Displacement can be a useful thing. I felt it very much being in the Timorese bush on moonless nights surrounded by armed soldiers engaged in casual conversations with slight-statured locals. I felt moments of uncanny clarity. It was as if by looking through the monocle, a relatively prosaic scene became instantly more visually loaded. In this way I foresaw also a way of translating these interactions and these colourations back into my paintings not just as an illustration of place but also as an evolving permutation of this loaded visuality. The viridian veil that imbues the landscape and the flared points of light emanating from the doll-like figures once recorded through the lens are just plain eerie. Maybe in part it is a psychological recognition of ‘night vision’ as being completely associated with conflict now through TV footage and so on. One feels in looking through the monocle, that something or someone is on the verge of materialising or perhaps de-materialising. Certainly, there were ghosts to be had through scoping out the local terrain like this, and in these moments I was there but not there.
Jon Cattapan is a painter who lives in Melbourne. In 2008 he was commissioned by the Australian War memorial as an official artist auspiced by the Australian Army in Timor Leste. He is represented by Milani Gallery and KALLIMANRAWLINS.
Card image (detail): Jon Cattapan, Looking Back (Baucau), 2010, oil and acrylic on linen, 195 x 250 cms. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.