Historical Incisions

Exhibition Review Intervention 4: Michael Schlitz Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery 3 February - 2 March 1997

"Some of the more timid were alarmed at a double jawed instrument coming so near to their noses, could scarcely be persuaded by their new shaven friends to allow the operation to be finished; but when their chins were held up a second time, their fear of the instrument - the wild stare of their eyes - the smile which they forced - formed a compound upon the rough savage countenance, not unworthy of Hogarth. I was almost tempted to try the effect of a snip on the nose; but our situation was too critical to admit of such experiments."(1) Matthew Flinders, 26th March 1796

Michael Schlitz's prints, journal, and objects were inspired by historical accounts of the journeys of the explorers Flinders, Bass and Martin, and by his own expedition on the Brisbane River two years ago. In a heavily laden canoe, without a map or a compass, Schlitz paddled from the source of the Brisbane River to the point that Oxley reached and charted in 1824. While attempting to complete the explorer's journey Schlitz read Oxley's journals, believing them to be infallible accounts of historical events. Later, after reading other histories, Schlitz became increasingly disillusioned with the 'truth' of Oxley's version of events.

In Intervention 4 Schlitz explores the way history has been constructed and validated. He slyly implies that curators and historians have traditionally presented facts and objects out of their original context and attempted to seamlessly reconstruct events to allude to an absolute truth. Provocatively, he has inserted his work amidst iconic landscapes, still lifes and portraits by artists such as John Glover, W.C. Piguenit, Benjamin Dutterau, and Thomas Bock that are displayed in the Colonial Room of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Schlitz challenges the viewer to reconsider these images and how the version of Australian history that they present has been authenticated by their collection and placement in the museum context. This intervention is the fourth in an occasional series overseen by David Hansen, the senior curator of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, in which contemporary artists have exhibited their work in an 'active relationship' to the historical and scientific collections.

Unobtrusively, Schlitz has hung a small gilt-framed print depicting a drifting, unmanned coracle beside William Duke's 1848 oil painting of the whaling ship Aladdin. The whaler plunging majestically through the waves once evoked dreams of adventure and hopes of vast wealth in antipodean oceans. Strangely, considering Duke's attention to detail, there are no sailors on board, an omission which endows it with the bizarre dream-like quality of the Marie Celeste. Like this whaling ship, Schlitz's image of a coracle alludes to dreams and journeys. The coracle image, constructed out of the doubled bow of a long boat found in a decades-old book for boys, represents Flinders' second Tom Thumb which, although less than twelve feet long, was used by the explorers to survey the uncharted coastline of New Holland. Schlitz suggests that the coracle, which overtly refers to the explorers Flinders, Bass and Martin also represents his own exploration of the unknown. It is like a second skin between the outside world and his perception of reality.

The surgeon, the navigator, and the boy sailor appear to be adrift in Schlitz's etchings. Identically dressed in naval uniform, with their hair neatly tied back, they appear to bear with pride the authority conferred on them by their God, King, and Country. In Schlitz's image these men at the edge of the mapped world sit in the coracle gazing beyond into an undefined, unknown space. There is no horizon, no guiding star, no sight of land. Unlike the Aborigines whose fear Flinders notes with amusement when he cuts their hair, these explorers, their faith, values and prejudices firmly entrenched, appear unaware of their vulnerability as they peer out into the uncharted pea-green void.

In contrast to the explorers in Schlitz's prints who peer into and beyond the space delineated by the edge of the image and seem to be intent on things unknown, a formidable certainty is evident in the eyes of the portraits of the early colonists who were complicit in constructing a varnished narrative for us to read. Depicted for posterity by artists such as Dutterau and Bock these images are heavily loaded with references to the authority, wealth and high esteem of the sitter. Irreverently, Schlitz disrupts the reading of one of Bock's more pretentious portraits by adding a pair of gangly legs appropriated from an early etching which depicted two squatters toasting the Queen on her birthday. Photocopied and enlarged, Schlitz has unceremoniously pinned the truncated limbs to the wall.

Viewed from a ship or boat upon the Derwent River, Hobart Town was depicted in apparently realistic detail by colonial artists Knut Bull, Henry Gritten and W.C. Piguenit. In Bull's oil painting, the town nestling under a dark and brooding Mount Wellington is bathed in a radiant light which pierces through threatening clouds. Evidently touched by God, Hobart appears idyllic and peaceful, no hint is given of the brutish existence eked out in this isolated outpost by many of its inhabitants. Between these images Schlitz has inserted panels of his own etchings which describe in burnt sienna line and gold ink a fictitious landscape with rugged mountain peaks and calm seas. At the same time as they join the colonial paintings up to create one continuous horizon, one panoramic vista, these panels disrupt the romantic visions and emphasise the subjectivity of the artists' gaze.

Seeming to echo Flinders' words, among Schlitz's fragments of text is a quote from Foucault: "knowledge is made for cutting."(2) Through his intervention in the Colonial Room the apparently seamless objective construction of history becomes undone. While at first glance his prints seem to discreetly meld with the Museum's display, and while they touch only a few of the colonial paintings directly, they insidiously disrupt the whole room.

Dutterau's account of Australian history is presented in his painting The Conciliation (1840) the preliminary sketch for a monumental 'National Picture'. In this image the bricklayer and lay-preacher George Augustus Robinson is portrayed as a benevolent hero, shaking hands with one of a large group of content, healthy and grateful Aborigines. Far from revealing the complexities of emotion that Flinders noted in his journal as being worthy of Hogarth, Dutterau's depiction of the Aborigines suggests a naive timidity. This image, which seems to depict an actual historical event, is in fact a romantic reconstruction of Robinson's misguided mission to round up and transport the remaining Aborigines of Van Diemen's Land to Flinders Island in order to Christianize and civilise them. On Flinders Island the dislocated Aborigines were ravaged by disease, hunger and despair.(3) Whereas Flinders antagonistically cut the Aborigines' hair and symbolically defied their strength, Robinson literally took their strength and decimated their numbers.

Parodying constructed models of tall ships proudly kept in glass cabinets, a coracle enclosed in a perspex case sits beside Schlitz's journal on a polished colonial cedar pedestal table. The strips of paper which adhere to the fragile skeleton of the boat are cut from two of Schlitz's own prints and reveal glimpses of a copied image of a meeting between French explorers and Aborigines depicted in the mode of the 'noble savage', together with pieces of indecipherable text. The shell of the coracle is incomplete and prone to leaks, metaphorically referring to the uncertainties of language.

Similarly, Schlitz's journal traces an uncertain journey. One navigates the pages of prints, lines from a map, sketchy outlines of distant horizons guided by snippets of text, some legible, some obliterated and illegible. No landscape is identifiable. Suggesting that history is merely a myriad of dislocated glimpses experienced through the individual imagination, in this exhibition Schlitz has pieced together a narrative and constructed a history from fragments which allude to his own journey. Fragments that weave a story not so much of discovery but of exploration.