Down Under World: Christian Thompson at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An emerging history of transcultural engagements in recent years is evident in the growing number of projects by Australian Indigenous artists working with collections held by British cultural institutions. From Judy Watson’s research at the British, Horniman and Science museums in the 1990s, to Daniel Boyd’s residency with the Natural History Museum and projects by Brook Andrew and Julie Gough at the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, these Australian Indigenous artists have negotiated complex histories of colonial collecting practices, contemporary modes of museum display, issues of cultural ownership and repatriation, as well as the role of the artist as a new kind of researcher and interpreter of archives and cultural heritage. 

Christian Thompson’s body of work with the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford places the figure of the artist quite literally (as mediator and medium) at the centre of things. Rather than repeat problematic representations or displays of archival materials, Thompson has said that he did “not want to want to reify the politics of those objects.”[1] Such politics of display might include addressing the historical veneration of photographers in museum exhibitions, by highlighting multiple authorship and agency, and further consideration of whether it is culturally appropriate to families and communities to incorporate images of their ancestors in new artworks. In response, Thompson photographs himself, adorned with a variety of props and costumes, as a kind of stand-in for the archive and his experiences researching and responding to it.

Christian Thompson, Down Under World, 2012, C-type print. (crystals)
Christian Thompson, Down Under World, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin 

 In Down Under World (2012), Thompson wears the traditional sub fusc robes of an Oxford student, but with a head crowned in crystals. The latter might be an allusion to Thompson’s affective and spiritual engagement with the archive. He has written that he “wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal.”[2] In contrast to the museum’s fastidious and possessive protection of its objects in relative stasis, Thompson’s votive symbols are about the potential of objects as they change states, enlivened by performative practices. 

Elizabeth Kath writes how the development of the concept of “transculturation” was important in acknowledging “the mutually influential relationships between cultures, and the diverse, nonlinear and multidirectional processes of cultural identity formation.”[3] While not overlooking the asymmetries in power relationships between cultures, the trans in transcultural (as opposed to the cross- or intercultural) suggests an understanding of cultural processes as more complex than a two-sided interaction between discrete cultural bodies or entities. Instead, processes are understood as layered and in flux, with temporal, spatial and relational dimensions. Down Under World is not a simple merging of different cultural contexts and identities, but a reflection of dynamic relations, inherently transcultural in nature, between the artist, museum and objects. 

Thompson, one of the first Australian Indigenous students to study at Oxford University, spent significant time in the photographic archive of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The We Bury Our Own series blends signifiers of Oxford, the British Empire, the Australian landscape, and Australian Indigenous cultural practices. In this navigation of different, often hybrid and converging identities, any understanding of the work as being merely cross‑cultural in a binary sense (an Australian Indigenous artist working in a colonial‑era museum in Britain) becomes subtly unraveled as signifiers merge, overlap, and pull apart. If the title Down Under World is a humorous play on this most exoticising and culturally patronising term for Australia (once seen as a strange inversion of white Britishness from a land where even swans are black), the work itself evades easy stereotypes. 

Christian Thompson, Down Under World, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin (ship)
Christian Thompson, Invaded Dreams, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin 

Down Under World suggests an amusement park version of Australia, reminiscent of Brook Andrew’s Theme Park exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in the Netherlands, in its dig at the fantastical colonial imagination. It also creates within it the term “Under World” which seems more in line with the funerary notes of the image (Thompson in a suit, with crystals on his eyes), hinting at the trauma that underlies some of the archival materials witnessed. The “under” could also refer to the use of crystals from underground, or the works reference to a museum archive. The role of artists uncovering objects in museum stores and basements has been a common trope in this kind of work since Fred Wilson’s seminal Mining The Museum at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. Instead of excavation, Thompson’s work becomes a concealing surface layer, a cipher for the archive that can never be completely decoded, because its allusions are impressionistic and personal. The artist from “Down Under” creates a rich and fantastical visual world to convey the archive (a pair of dotted hands, a cheap plastic colonial toy ship, dark rippling water in a gilded frame, a sparkling crystal crown) by hinting at its depths. 

In his artist statement Thompson refers to a story he heard about the use of gems in a particular ceremonial practice, one that could even lead to death. “This was something that played on my mind during the production of this series of photos and video work. The deliverance of the spirit back to land—the notion that art could be the vehicle for such a passage, the aspiration to occupy a space that belongs to something higher than one’s physical self.” Yet it is the physical self (Thompson’s figure) that occupies the centre of each frame, bearing the traces of processes and performances that have preceded the final photograph. Often, archival projects result in artworks that allude to the artist’s situated, site-specific processes of engaging with a collection. In their very occlusion, these processes and the archive, become more deliberately performative in Thompson’s series, invoking an imagined set of rituals. 

In most images of the series, including Down Under World, Thompson’s wears sub fusc—the Oxford uniform worn at graduation, during exams and at matriculation (the ceremony for students entering the university). In certain key moments in academic life at this revered academic institution, the student becomes symbolically assimilated, associated with its longstanding traditions. In acknowledging his position as an Oxford student, Thompson asserts himself as the ultimate insider. But he also maintains distance from the objects of his study in concealing them, forgoing the arrogance that has seen many Oxford researchers before him assert forms of expertise and ownership over the materials they research and seek to expose. 

Christian Thompson, Down Under World, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin (Desert Melon)
Christian Thompson, Desert Melon, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin 

Across the series the sub fusc (sometimes just the white shirt) is mixed with various other items; a black lace veil, a head scarf with Indigenous artwork, a hat fashioned from a crumpled paper print out of an Australian ghost-gum tree; ironically this uniform laden with symbolism becomes a kind of canvas for identity play. When Oxford students sit their final exams, friends throw food and other items at them as part of a “trashing” ceremony that usually ruins their clothes. Reverence and irreverence towards the uniform go hand‑in‑hand, part of a symbolic process of internalising an Oxford identity over time. Thompson doesn’t “trash” the uniform, so much as he re-works it into new configurations (never allowed at an actual Oxford ceremony) and, as with other of his signifiers of aspects of identity, it is both an authentic marker of real experience and a costume to be donned at will. The work is inherently transcultural in this respect. Sub fusc is denied the full force of its acculturating tendencies (only, in fact, fully realised when the uniform is symbolically destroyed), becoming instead, transformed by each new scene staged by Thompson. 

Museums have used the language of transculturation as well as the idea of the “contact zone” to denote inclusionist and dialogic exchanges fostered between museums and traditional owners. In a critique of these practices, Robin Boast argues that artistic and autoethnographic projects that have been invited into the museum can amount to an accumulation of new voices without the museum addressing more fundamental asymmetries.[4] At the same time, many of these museum projects can be viewed as resistant to becoming mere recuperative additions to an institutions postcolonial agenda. In 2013, Thompson’s works were hung in the Hall of Trinity College, where he was a student, constituting the first such exhibition in 450 years and temporarily displacing many of the Hall’s long-hanging portraits, including those of two British Prime Ministers. Although only a temporary intervention, it is a meaningful one in a place where the visual culture is so heavily dominated by the veneration, through portraiture, of white British men, a subject that has been more recently brought to light by the Oxford based version of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which has fought to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, as well as pursued a much broader agenda of decolonisation. 

To return again to Down Under World, the notion of a world turned upside down through a playful and satirical re‑working of the signifiers of the elite, bears parallels to Bakhtin’s work on the carnival as a site where rules and regulations are temporarily suspended. For Bakhtin, the carnival is not mere performance, but lived experience. As he writes in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, it is: “drawn out of its usual rut, it is to some extent ‘life turned inside out,’ ‘the reverse side of the world’ (monde a I'envers).”[5] In his description of one of the essential carnival acts, a ritual mock crowning, Bakhtin describes the performer as “the antipode of a real king” who “sanctifies the inside-out world of carnival.”[6] In performing a kind of “Down Under” spectacle, while dressed in variations of the Oxford robes, Thompson undermines the stability of Oxford’s visual regime through play—one still serious in its responsibility towards his role in the archive, and the privileged position of being an Oxford scholar—while also seeing the material symbols of these identity positions as the perfect vehicle for humour, theatricality and transfiguration. Thompson’s Down Under World is not only a fantasy version of Australia, but an inverted version of Oxford University, revealed through a new costume spun from its very fabric and worn within its walls, to reflect back upon its rituals, practices, and claims to power.

Footnotes

  1. ^ From an interview with Christian Thompson by Jessyca Hutchens, 29 January 2017.
  2. ^ Christian Thompson, Artist Statement: https://www.prm.ox.ac.uk/christianthompson.html.
  3. ^ Elizabeth Kath, ‘On Transculturation: Re‑enacting and Remaking Latin Dance and Music in Foreign Land’, in Julian Lee (ed), Narratives of Globalization: Reflections on the Global Condition, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, p. 25.
  4. ^ Robin Boast, Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited, Museum Anthropology, vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 56–70.
  5. ^ Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics’, Theory and history of Literature, vol. 8, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 p. 126.
  6. ^ Mikhail Bakhtin, p. 124.

Jessyca Hutchens is a PhD student in art theory at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and a Charlie Perkins Trust scholar.

Card image: Down Under World, 2012, C-type print. Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.

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