History and Memory in the art of Gordon Bennett

Brisbane City Gallery; July 29 - Sept 4, 1999 Ikon Gallery, Birmingham: Nov 20, 1999 - Jan 23 2000 Arnolfini Galleries, Bristol: Jan 29 - March 12, 2000 Henie Onstad Gallery, Oslo: April 9 - June 12, 2000

OK, Gordon Bennett is probably Australia's greatest living artist. And, OK, this show is a long overdue retrospective that should have been seen in every State but instead has by now left for Europe. But to just reiterate the excellence of this show or even the hugely important political themes with which it engages does a disservice to the artist. Above all the artist deserves dialogue.

Bennett, I think, is in need of the intellectual therapy of conversation. There are two burdens that he is crying out to share: the prison of language and the cruelty of history. What a weight for any individual to carry!

The subaltern, as Gayatri Spivak has argued, cannot really speak. Subalterns were the native under-officers taught the language of colonial oppressors so they could pass on orders. Whenever they wanted to voice their own culture they were caught in the Eurocentric trap of their adopted language. And, through the cruelty of history rather than by choice, Bennett finds himself an Australian Indigenous subaltern.

Bennett is thus compelled to recycle the language of Western culture. His only hope is deconstruction. By bringing together discourse normally kept apart in Western culture, Bennett exposes the contradictions in our ideology and the skeletons in our history.

For the first time together in this show are key works from private and institutional collections that do this on a large scale. Home Decor (Algebra) Daddy's Little Girl, for example, merges three themes that figure separately in earlier works. Bennett thus repeatedly quotes himself. However, he cannot be blamed for reiterating that which has to reverberate through the postmodern caverns of mediation. By reappropriating his own images he defers their misinterpretation.
Moreover, the rehearsals are never merely redundant because, by bringing the themes together, he exposes further collusions within Western culture: the interlocking of prejudice, style, and mathematical system in this case.

In Home Decor (Algebra) Daddy's Little Girl algebra is the symbolic system that unites language and calculation. The grey modernist grid that ensnares wallpaper pattern Aborigines from the earlier Home Decor series is part of the same system that reserves a space for single-point perspective issuing from the eye of a history-text Captain Cook and permits a "What did you do in the war daddy?" poster in which the little girl's alphabet blocks, almost by accident, form the words "Abo, Boong, Coon, Darkie". I say almost because Bennett is evidently suggesting that the potential for oppression is structured into the alphabet's very rules of formation.

In this version Bennett also places the girl with alphabet blocks against a silhouette of mediaeval torture - two black demons sawing a woman in half. Thus he suggests that the savagery of European colonisation is inseparable from its fictional demonisations.

But the extension of history and fiction into the more 'real' events of memory is also insistent. And many of Bennett's allusions of this kind are terrifying. Whether apocryphal, isolated, or commonplace, the bloody events portrayed in pictures such as Bounty Hunters and Blooding the Dogs form a powerful indictment of how ideology can result in brutality almost by accident.

But what of Gordon's own psyche? Are we to forget the daily trauma of addressing what we hide under the mat?

For we must keep in mind that Gordon is not only Black; he is also White. The flagellation that features in his 1993 almost minimal black works such as Self Portrait Interior/Exterior and his 1995 video Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt is surely self-punishment for multiple transgressions in which he feels to have metonymically shared. He confesses that he has laughed at racist jokes as well as been the brunt of them. Thus he feels he has inherited the guilt as well as the suffering of his forbears.

In this you are wrong Gordon. If the oppression, the crassness, even the cruelty, is after all due to language and social structures - systems rather than original sin - we can yet be absolved if we examine that language and contribute to its correction. We may not be able to wipe out the sins of the past but we should be able to do something for the present and future. The 'war' that 'daddy' should rightly feel guilty about is indeed a war of language, however unfashionable that has recently become in the current Australian political climate, but you, Gordon, as this show demonstrates, have certainly done something worthwhile in it.