Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is a response to ‘Reconcilation Week’ or NAIDOC Week. It is a fun and thought-provoking exhibition. It is a strange kind of fun, like laughter, even if the laughter is bit bitter and crazy, it is still a laugh in the post-colonial wake of genocide.
It is important that aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists are part of this exhibition. There is an exchange in the references, appropriation and subversion of European or Australian images and materials. As in, Julie Gough’s “Ransom” where antlers are hung with giant beads of Tasmanian coal, or the inclusion of brown glass by John Duggan in his display of stone tools. Everyone owns the history.
Sam Leech’s future fauna are beautiful paintings of strange hybrid creatures, speculating on the future evolution of Australian fauna, like an albino kangaroos with antlers. Sharon West and Gary Smith have also created strange hybrid creatures; Smith’s “Flabbit”, a flying rabbit, is a wonder of taxidermy. In a reference to Duchamp the shadow of the flabbit in its cage is projected across the red surface of Smith’s triptych of paintings.
There are no shortage of spectacular works in this exhibition amongst them Kate Rohde’s 3 neo-rocco cabinets on gold tables, complete with exquisite levels of kitsch details, displaying fake displays of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens. The highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing more paintings and dioramas by Sharon West. West is also one of the curators of the exhibition and has written an extensive essay on the exhibition for the catalogue. Her paintings especially the richly detailed interior of the Australian museum of megafauna summed up the exhibition and included Smith’s flabbit amongst the exhibits depicted.
Lurking behind this exhibition appears to be a strawman argument, a bogeyman of museums, a conservative dragon with a hoard. It is very different from the current museums and exhibition practice. It is also ironic for art that refers to and partially relies on the gallery institution for its viability. The installation and display of collections is played with through out the exhibition. Like, Denise Higgins “What Remains” that employs the aesthetics of clinical scientific minimalism, storage and labelling. And, especially, in Lyndon Ormond-Parker’s exhibition of historic texts in a vitrine.
Ralph Appelbaum, head of the world’s largest museum and exhibit design firm, said in the Guardian Weekly (01/6/09): “Museums are essentially ethical constructs.” Taxonomies, categories and collections are all ethical constructs that prescribe values to the order that they create. (Read: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) Even what we cannot classify, the “bedevilled creatures” of the exhibition, is itself classified. This may be for the purpose of exclusion and taboo or, in the case of this exhibition, a celebration of unique qualities.