As an artist of Narungga and Anglo descent, Brad Darkson, has long been fascinated by the status of objects and artefacts held in museums and considered to be culturally significant. Recognising the contradiction between this status as a revered object and their ultimate use value, Darkson writes “Ritualistic objects can be considered to foster a transcendent experience, and necessarily fall short in reproducing the same experience when displayed for consumption.” The object becomes a representation of an action from the past, a mere relic of the ephemeral trace of something that no longer exists. As he says further, “It becomes irrelevant what the original custodians intended. Artefacts are made public and deemed ‘significant’. How that object then performs in galleries and museums does not necessarily align with original intent.” While acknowledging the complex and problematic nature of collecting institutions, it is the physical placement of objects within this secular space that is of most interest to him. The display of hundreds of artefacts is designed to engage the viewing public, who more often than not move quickly from one to the next, impacting the performative role of the cultural object in facilitating and registering a belief system as transcendent experience.
Darkson interrogates this approach to ritualistic and religious objects and icons more broadly. His most recent work to tamper with light is to tamper with reality (2017), is a durational work comprising of a projected vertical line set above an altar-like structure, mimicking the movement of the sun in real time. The work is a challenge to Virilio’s notion that virtual reality can only exist in parallel to reality, and can never truly succeed in simulating itself as the light object relies on the environmental reality to exist. Virilio also argues that new technologies have splintered reality into a substituted, rather than simulated, virtual reality which exists alongside the pre-existing space-world. to tamper with light is to tamper with reality is a wry response to ritual as repetitive gesture applied to everyday technology. From icons to iPhones, the space once reserved for reverence and reflection has been replaced with the glow of an electronic screen and a scan of an online newsfeed. For many of us, it has become the first action upon waking up and the last before we go to bed. By perceiving the digital space as a place of worship, Darkson offers an alternative view of transcendent reality.
This ritual space, further incorporating light and sound culture, also enveloped the physical and sensory experience of LOSS. GAIN. REVERB. DELAY. (2017), presented for the TARNANTHI Festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art as an extension of his previous time spent during the Incubator program at Vitalstatistix. Darkson’s residency at the Waterside Workers Hall presented the opportunity to explore his family history and the relationship to the working worlds of Port Adelaide in parallel to the transmission of cultural knowledge between generations. What emerged from his research was not only confirmation of proud and deep roots in union activism and social justice on both sides of his family, but an interest in the memories of family and community and inherited stories of industrial objects with unclear origins leading to vague recollections of events as so many pieces of a puzzle to try and make whole. As Darkson says in his artist statement for the work, “We all turn to things from the past to inform our understanding of the present, and when aspects of the past become fractured over time we rely on multiple perspectives of a single memory.”
Walking through the dimly‑lit Waterside Workers Hall for this site-specific installation the viewer encounters a space shrouded by black drapes, in which seven plaster duplications of industrial cogs are placed on plinths, each draped in the Eureka Stockade flag. The scene is reminiscent of a stage, tomb or crypt with the sound element—voices providing fragmented recollections of labour and unionism punctuated with a resounding bass drum—pervading the entire room. The objects, cast from an original found in storage at the site in Port Adelaide, notably preserved during the period of the Port waterfront development, are deemed culturally significant as icons of labour and industry.
Oral histories and their validity and significance were also previously explored by the artist in PALM VALLEY (2015). Presented in the project space of the former Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, PALM VALLEY maps competing Indigenous and European scientific knowledge systems in reference to the origin of a threatened species of palm (Livistona mariae) specific to Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park, southwest of Alice Springs. Recent DNA comparison between Livistona mariae and a similar species found over 1,000 kilometres north of this location confirmed what generations of Arrernte people have always known—that the seeds were transported some 30,000 years ago. Walking through darkness in this installation, a looming soundscape of fractured conversation (archive … fragments … the same story but in different ways) lured the viewer to an illuminated speaker box. Peering down onto what was later revealed to be a three‑dimensional, topographic reproduction of Palm Valley submerged in liquid, this knowledge is made audible, physically transmitting ripples through the landscape. This intriguing model landscape also invokes the quality of a form of military‑style surveillance, maybe a threat or warning for us to pay closer attention.
Through this and other multimedia installations, Darkson offers us an altered sense of reality through reconstructing the objects, icons and remembrances of place as domains of sensory reflection and ritual connection.
Marie Falcinella is Chief Executive Officer of Ku Arts, the South Australian Aboriginal artist and art centre support organisation.