Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
6 April – 16 June 2019
After visiting Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting, at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the phrase “idol of artistic virtue” unexpectedly flashed through my mind. It was from a review of Quilty – a survey of Ben Quilty’s art at the Art Gallery of South Australia – which described him as “a critical citizen, an artist and an activist … [with] forthright political opinions – spanning the historical treatment of Indigenous Australians to the current global refugee crisis … the “politically fashionable” face of the left-wing.” I had to laugh, for the equivalence of Quilty and Nicholson was more of a joke than a useful idea. Despite the moral imperative each artist shares, their work could not be more different in style and approach.
On the other hand, such a neat nexus of sameness and difference is a rare godsend for art historians, evident in those compelling contemporaneous pairings of the Baroque artists Rubens and Poussin, the Romantic artists Delacroix and Ingres and the Modernists Matisse and Picasso. Now we have Quilty, a Sydney-based expressionist painter whose style and character attracts the country’s leading art galleries and popular media, and Nicholson, a Melbourne-based conceptual artist whose intellectual rigour appeals to contemporary art spaces and international biennales and is championed by scholars. Quilty makes bold off-key colourful paintings; Nicholson inhabits a quiet grey tonal world and undertakes well-researched projects of tastefully assembled archival art, well supplemented in this exhibition by an exhibition catalogue that is more like a text book: thick, studious and elegantly designed.
I don’t expect the Nicholson/Quilty nexus will hold. Although, for the moment, once this co-dependent sign appeared, in which each is a signifier of the other, it formed a myth which clouded my view. Myth is its own truth and one lacking the nuance of the real world, but all the more powerful for it. The difference between the art of Nicholson and Quilty is self-evident, but how each artist was cut from the same mould of artistic virtue, like a Duchampian readymade, is a mystery. Is it simply that each is an exemplary post-boomer? Born in 1973, both belong to Gen X, which in the mythography of popular culture and the more scholarly pretensions of cultural studies are considered the leading wave of a new era driven by ethical standards that leave behind the excesses and moral bankruptcy of their baby boomer parents.
Gen X is an appropriate name, and not just because the impact of this generation is yet to come into clear focus. Like a free-floating signifier, X is a chameleon symbol with multiple meanings (from kisses to the hallucinogenic amphetamine drug ecstasy) and this fluid identity of ex-nomination (not naming) is, it seems, how the post-boomers like it. Here, it is derived from its use in mathematical equations in which x is a sign of no definite value. A signifier with a perpetually open rather than fixed signified, it denotes a free (cosmopolitan? universal?) space waiting to be filled. Malcolm X understood the liberatory politics of its semiotics: formerly Malcom Little, he traded his inherited slave family name for X to denote the negation of his lost African family name and also to announce his cosmopolitan, pan-African transrace ideology.
Post-boomers, it’s said, are highly mobile rootless cosmopolitans, narcissistic, earnest, entrepreneurial and possessed of a highly developed social conscience. Such generalisations have as much credibility as astrology, but they do sketch a certain Zeitgeist that Nicholson and Quilty have made their own. The truth of such faux-sociology is of little consequence to art historians: art historians get more narrative traction from the torque of different styles turning in the same period. In further pursuing this game of difference the art historian might be tempted to revisit the Sydney/ Melbourne myth. Despite its generalisations and essentialisms, the trope of two cities or two nations has animated art-historical thought since its inception, and much Australian art history has been written as a tale of S & M. In 1921 Vance Palmer observed that “Melbourne and Sydney stand for Australia today”; the dialectic between them, “was the hothouse that nurtured the national myths”.
Melbourne, the city of “significant form”, is inward looking, serious and thoughtful; whereas, in outward-looking, hedonistic undisciplined free-form Sydney, artists just push paint around. Sydney is indeed synonymous with celebrity art – it is the city of the Archibald, Brett Whiteley, John Olsen and Quilty (“the closest Australia has to a celebrity artist” according to Quilty Artlink reviewer Rebecca Freezer). Melbourne, where Nicholson lives, is the city of the committed Antipodeans, John Brack and Ian Burn (before he moved to Sydney). But if in the 1960s the S/M paradigm ignited brawls between artists, Gen X are too globally orientated to be interested in such provincialist antics. Quilty and Nicholson are devotees to a new myth – their common cause – that has begun to animate the Australian consciousness: de-colonisation expressed in the identity politics of coloniser verses colonised, Black versus White.
Nicholson looks for his subject in the cross-cultural contact zones of colonial modernity, and while he examines them in places as different as East Timor, Palestine and Australia, his overarching theme is their reverberations in the Australian national consciousness or psyche, which he usually unpacks through the metaphor of the monument (real or imagined). This has given his artworks over the previous twenty years a strong sense of coherence, as if they are iterations of the same idea. Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting has the additional coherence of a curated assemblage, in which one feels the strong hand of the artist as curator. Despite being a survey of previous work, instead of the temporality of a survey (that usually traces a development), the exhibition feels like a single extended work of art.
In the large first room, for example, three projects that were originally conceived at different times and in different contexts mesh as if one installation that has imposed itself on the space-time of the gallery. It is as if Nicholson’s practice is caught in the loop of eternal return: for over two decades he has revisited a set of related themes that accumulate in a layered fashion rather than develop dialectically in a particular direction so that each is exhausted and surpassed. Allegiance to a shared moral imperative or myth is not enough to establish a common cause. The very different looks of Nicholson’s and Quilty’s practices are a manifestation of this imperative and not just a matter of a distinctive taste or style.
Quilty takes sides in his various commitments, making a clear ethical stand, whereas Nicholson embeds his ethics in procedural matters that anyone who has passed through university ethics committees will well understand (Nicholson is a university lecturer). The net result of the ethics committee is to shift agency from the researcher (subject), in this case the artist, to the objects of the research, thus ensuring the project is in some sense collaborative and neutralises the objectification of power (the subject/object bogey) that is implicit in research. The danger is that it can also render the workings of power – its objectification and “ex-nominating operation” – invisible. The purpose of the ethics committee is to minimise mistakes; if Quilty’s gusto easily derails, Nicholson runs an operation so smooth, faultless and foolproof that it’s guaranteed beyond critical reproach.
Few would doubt Nicholson’s commitment, but he rigorously occupies the position of the ethical observer/outsider/researcher who comes not to judge but to listen and mediate a situation that he presumes is complex and ultimately unfathomable and has a stake in it being so. This drives the scholarly, academic and reasoned tone of his engagement and his constant self-reflection in which he frequently even narcissistically observes his thoughts, and from which he weaves speculative scenarios as if in a daydream. A signature format is personal even intimate letters that trace his thoughts, his closeness to the subject and calm intelligence. While always addressed to an X, although in the telling form of a redacted name (in which the censor shows its hand), as you read the letters a number of people come to mind; some are long dead, sometimes a particular person and at other times “the people”, nation or public.
While addressing historical or apparently real events and things, the letters and other documents serve an imaginary purpose, meshing stories with more stories as if in this web some elusive Dark Matter might get caught. Theory tells us that Dark Matter makes up most of the universe, and Nicholson’s projects, it seems to me, pry into that mysterious withholding power. In this respect the title of the accompanying publication, Tom Nicholson: Lines Towards Another, is apt. The letters are also documentary evidence. This scholarly format is important to Nicholson. While heavy with documents and documentation, his is not a documentary art that seeks to accuse or hold X to account. As with the contemporary art genre of archival art of which his art is exemplary, its primary purpose is to circumvent the artist’s subjectivity or ego with the logic of the sign or language. Deconstruction not self-expression is Nicholson’s game, and this is the chief distinction between his practice and Quilty’s.
Nicholson’s play with language is imaginative rather than forensic. His archives don’t uncover a mystery but add to it. He won’t be drawn. There is no connecting the dots; instead, there is only fragmentation and coincidence, without revelation or redemption. Rather, he worms his way into the subsoil of his subject, quite literally in that he attends to its material conditions, as if this materiality carries a greater weight than the excess of data in the documents floating like froth on top. Underneath lie the fossils of ancestral chatter where, as Tony Birch eloquently put it, he can “get at the barely whispered”. In turning over the soil that has hardened into the ideology (mythology) of national narratives, he loosens it into “an aporia, in which historical and geopolitical presumptions may be rethought”. If, as John Mateer also recognised, Nicholson thus enacts “an undoing of the singularity of events to enable the reinterpretation of their nature as historical facts”, it’s to open future possibilities not correct history “to destroy or desecrate the colonial memorial”.
It’s difficult to argue against Mateer that Nicholson’s “ambition is the political activation of the artwork”, or against Birch calling him an “activist in the truest sense … Nicholson does not talk about social justice … [he] embodies it”. At the same time, Ann Stephen’s ambivalence about such claims, an ambivalence that reflects a fundamental ambivalence that comes with Nicholson’s methodology – bound as it is within the limits of language – strikes a deeper note. Writing in a format that appropriates Nicholson’s letters but is addressed to him, to ‘Tom’ and not to X or a redacted blank, her critique parodies Nicholson to unsettle (but not deny) his inheritance in the activism of the conceptual art of Ian Burn and Joseph Beuys that Nicholson admires. Stephen characterises Nicholson’s early Banner project – returned to in his later work – as “homeless cosmopolitans, without a fixed identity”, and asks: “what is served by artists such as yourself retrieving, appropriating or quoting the heroic but anachronistic relics of revolutionary … cultures?” “As you can tell”, she concludes her essay, “I’m still undecided”; and this is where Nicholson wants us, pitching our tents on the plane of undecidability.
Nicholson calls his works monuments; ironically, I presume, because he intends them to be the opposite, “memorials”, as Birch calls them. As if impatient with surface bubbles of the contemporary, Nicholson’s projects revisit the past in order to retrieve lost memories and converse with ghosts, because neither the present the nor the future can escape their destiny without acquiring a new past, a new inheritance. In this spirit, the title of the exhibition is a riff on an early work from November 2005, in which posters calling for a “PUBLIC MEETING” on 6 July 1835 were pasted over Melbourne – one month after the “Batman Treaty” agreement when the escaped convict William Buckley returned to white society after 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. But Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting has as its central motif a long-standing national monument, the gum tree (with the sounds of war not far off) – a motif that had also thoroughly engaged Burn.
The first large room of ACCA is filled with Gum Tree School paintings by numerous amateur artists, although not the full 38 works that were in the original 2012 iteration of Nicholson’s Evening Shadows at AGSA. Each is copied or appropriated from H. J. Johnstone’s Evening Shadows (1880), the most popular and copied painting in AGSA and the first painting acquired for the collection. Nicholson doesn’t include in either iteration Quilty’s copy, Evening Shadows, Rorschach after Johnston, painted in 2011 (Quilty shares with Burn and Nicholson a fascination for the amateur Gum Tree School), but he does include his own copy, a charcoal drawing of a detail from Johnson’s original.
Johnson’s painting was in the original iteration of Nicholson’s Evening Shadow at AGSA, as if the ontological status of the original and its return in the copy is a key element in Nicholson’s enquiry. Tellingly, I can’t determine if Johnson’s Evening Shadows in Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting is Johnson’s original or a good professional copy. Johnson, who was also a professional photographer, painted Evening Shadows in London from a photograph. A lacklustre painter who painted in the mode of a copyist, his originals have the look of a copy – as if caught in the logic of the return before the fact. No wonder that Nicholson, an aficionado of the eternal return, is attracted to the painting and the Gum Tree School more generally.
As we move through Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting, the gum tree becomes a prism for unpacking repressed histories of the national ethos. It has, we realise, always been circulating through his projects even if only unconsciously or as allegory. For example, the pile of bricks from Towards a Monument to Batman’s Treaty that spill from the back wall out into the first room, further echoed in the fragments of a mosaic in the next room, Comparative Monument (Shellal), is like a felled eucalyptus. Comparative Monument (Ma’man Allah), a hymn to 69 River Red Gums growing in Jerusalem’s historic Ma’man Allah cemetery, stretches through the final three of the four-roomed gallery like a backbone (and nervous system) to the exhibition.
The final work, Gorge Photograph, 13 September 1939 – six large dark charcoal drawings and a takeaway booklet of letters and a poster – has no direct references to gum trees but is a homage to the transcultural practices of those gum tree painting partners, Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee. A ground-breaking article by Burn and Stephen published in 1993 analysed the differences between Namatjira’s and Battarbee’s depictions of gum trees, but Nicholson’s interest is the contact zone: how the person and art of each is entangled in the other. He is particularly interested in the photographs they each took, speculating on who took which. “Some of them must be by Albert, since they show your father”, he writes in a letter to X (clearly Battarbee’s daughter). There is a third unmentioned possibility, John Gardner, who also painted with them and was an avid photographer but who has long been dropped from the story. But the mirror world of storytelling is as much a site of blindness, omission, absence and repression, as it is of insights, and it’s into this chiaroscuro that Nicholson beckons us in a collective search for the ever-unfolding nuances of the postnational subject.
- ^ Rebecca Freezer, “Quilty”, Artlink online review, 16 May 2019: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4755/quilty/.
- ^ Laurie Duggan, Ghost Nation Imagined Space and Australian Visual Culture1901–1931, St Lucia: University of Queenslmand Press, 2001, p. 90.
- ^ Roland Barthes (trans. Annette Lavers), Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, p. 138.
- ^ Tony Birch “In Tom Nicholson’s Shadow,” Amelia Barikin and Helen Hughes (eds), Tom Nicholson: Likes Towards Another, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018, p. 77.
- ^ John Mateer, “Tom Nicholson: The Activation of the Artwork,” Artlink 35:1, March 2015: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4302/tom-nicholson-the-activation-of-the-artwork/.
- ^ Birch, p. 77.
- ^ Ibid, pp. 77, 78.
- ^ Ann Stephen, “Dear Tom … About Banners …,” ibid., p. 85.
- ^ Ibid, pp. 83–84.
- ^ Ibid, p. 87.
- ^ Exhibited in Parallel Collisions, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 2012.
- ^ Ian Burn and Ann Stephen, “Namatjira’s White Mask: A Partial Interpretation,” The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, ed. Jane Hardy, J. V. S. Megaw and M. Ruth Megaw, Port Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1992.
Ian McLean is Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History at the University of Melbourne. He has published extensively on Australian and particularly Indigenous art.