Survey exhibition, Art Gallery of South Australia 3 September 7 November 1999
That artists are not entirely separable from their work would seem too commonsensical to deny, yet the formalist hold on art criticism for much of this century squeezed out the person in its need to crush anecdote. Social scientists, art critics and curators alike may now admit the personae of their subjects, as well as themselves, in the writing they produce. Hence Antony Hamilton looks out warily in the full page colour frontispiece of the catalogue from an array of Burke & Wills props (beard, stony ground, dry hole in ground, kangaroo skin draped on knee). Is he a bushman? No, but he was born on a farm and lives in the bush (Beltana, to the north west of the Flinders Ranges, in a situation of wilful hardship). Is he a naive? No, he is art school trained (at the South Australian School of Art in the 1970s). Does his short (c. thirteen year) career deserve a state gallery survey? The answer hinges on whether or not we should take Hamilton seriously.
The Art Gallery of South Australia appeared to do so. The exhibition was generously arrayed through a suite of spacious galleries, as in the attractive catalogue, by curator Sarah Thomas (the gallery's budget did not run to reproducing all works, but Thomas's essay ably integrates and expands upon her informative wall labels) . The exhibition's arrangement encouraged the viewer to see the show as a single installation, at least in the three principal spaces of its display.
Minimally worked pieces took their place in a congregated invocation of sensation which, for some, might parallel that of wandering around the outback ruins of settlement – whether at Beltana, further north at Lake Killalpaninna or into the Cooper Creek area, for example – where the fringes of sheep or cattle farming territory intersect with memories of camel trekking and the fate of explorers. In such places relics as slight as a twist of wire, through their contradictory offering of spare poetry and a banality which deflects meaning, can prompt a late twentieth century species of 'weird melancholy'.
So where is the art? Hamilton traces his lineage back to Duchamp and (especially) Beuys, as mediated through art school in the 1970s. He plays intently yet lightly with this heritage, his work operating as spaces of intersecting narratives which acknowledge transparent beat-ups like that of the Nullarbor Nymph story of the 1971, while respecting, it would seem, the persons of its roo-shooting perpetrators (Miss or Myth? 1992-94); which associate Elle Macpherson underwear with 'kanga chic'(Weebubbie dream of the kangaroo girl, 1994-96); which incorporate sly reference to media hysteria around the Azaria Chamberlain case, at the same time as recalling older stories of lost children, from Tarzan to antiquity (Rock the Cradle, 1998). Hamilton is media savvy without being overly critical, myth invoking without being overly portentous. The most dramatically proposed work in the show, Hung White Fox and shadow, 1999, might suggest that ghosts walk the land, but if the slumped red sacks of Raddle Man , 1997, can suggest 'the magnificent Elder's Ranges' , the abrupt change of scale occasioned by the sticks of raddle - "whitefella ochre" – in that work bring the viewer to a real life scale of museum objects. Hamilton's work, casually resting on first encounter, stutters, on engaging with it, into questions of time, space and memory. Through it we understand that we can still die of thirst in the back of beyond, even if captured on candid satellite camera. Yet inWhere the crow flies backwards, 1999, intensely material mulga logs frame the theatre of a lone, stuffed and suspended crow: the work postulates a tangible yet fictive zone that limns the never-never, an outback as metaphysical as it is real.
Hence Hamilton's work, in its modest beauty and immediately apprehended presence, segues from the allusive to the elusive, towards the source of its resonance. It may be seen as simply re-presenting the outback as an example of the Freudian repressed to our predominantly coastal settler culture – but also, perhaps, as a gesture towards the Real, in a Lacanian sense, that is, as that which is largely excluded from, or media-veiled in, our minds, but which acts beyond speech as a irreducible parameter of our thinking.
Hamilton's work certainly invokes specific stories (of bush spirits, lost children, male endurance) in a sufficiently multivalent, contradictory and non-cliched way to intimate the outback as a defining void in our register of our imaginations. Further, Rock the Cradle's title refers to Ayer's Rock and Cradle Mountain as sacred sites of white tourism and media fetishisation, but Indigenous stories inevitably hover around such a work. The void of the outback opens out on to one much more crucial, namely that between Aborigines and whites . If the outback can constitute one (of several) approaches to this, it can retain its centrality to debates about Australian identity, place and ideology. To summon the Real pointfully and as a condition of such a point, one must be ... serious.