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  • Gordon Bennett

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    The 1807 act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade was a landmark event in the history of struggles against colonial exploitation, unfree labour, and institutional racism. Yet slavery, exploitation and racism persisted in many forms, and remain potent and poisonous in the present.

    The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge contributes to the bicentenary of the slave trade act with an exhibition of the work of the distinguished contemporary Australian artist Gordon Bennett. In this context, an Australian perspective may appear oblique, perhaps hardly necessary. But Bennett’s work catalogues reverberations of the histories of slavery, across oceans and centuries. In the Museum, his art reminds us also that we must see collections such as those from Australia as the products of a troubled frontier history.

    Gordon Bennett has spent 20 years reckoning with colonial violence and its legacies. His disturbing and provocative paintings, installations and performances have explored the global resonances of Indigenous Australian experience, highlighting the savagery of language, the body in trauma, and the manifold entanglements of art, history, empire, and race.

    Gordon Bennett 01

    Gordon Bennett is mindful of particular histories, but slavery, slave ships, and practices such as whipping do not begin and end with certain dates, nor are they confined to particular geographic regions. Rather, these institutions and habits of violence resonate through history, persisting in language and classification where they are not reproduced in practice. In a major series of history paintings, produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bennett worked on images associated with voyages of discovery, historic moments such as declarations of possession, and figures such as that of the heroic pioneer. He incorporated these icons of colonization, the canonical dots of Aboriginal art, and Jackson Pollock’s swirling drips into mesmeric, turbulent compositions that suggested an interplay of myth and violence. In some cases he painted over Pollock’s driplines, which then assumed the appearance of the weals on a whipped body. The surfaces of Bennett’s paintings, in a number of his series, are the surfaces of bodies in trauma, bodies that have been subjected either to this awful form of work-discipline, or – in the case of the Suprematist Paintings – some form of ritual incision, that fuses skin and language, an inscription on the body of highly charged terms such as ‘purity’ and terms of racial abuse.

    While Australian history has remained an enduring reference point, Bennett has insisted on the global roots and resonances of racism in Australia. A series of ‘De Stijl’ paintings used Mondrian’s grids, stereotypes of black Americans and images drawn from the mid-20th century Australian primitivist Margaret Preston to suggest identities trapped within a lattice of representation and language, a language built around racially invidious distinctions of colour, civilization, and time.

    Gordon Bennett 02

    The ‘Notes to Basquiat’ series works similarly between Australian and wider historical references. Bennett initially produced the paintings for an exhibition in New York in 1998, seeking to link his Australian concerns with that city and with American histories. He had long been interested in Jean-Michel Basquiat, identified as a black artist, but in no sense a purveyor of identities, and a street artist, much of whose work evoked the spontaneity of graffiti and its radical potential. Bennett himself has actively resisted being labelled an ‘Aboriginal artist’, and his work has also proceeded through defacement, though his has always been a considered vandalism, that reflected upon the monuments across which it scrawled. His ‘Notes to Basquiat’ are tributes to a particular artist, but at the same time are wider investigations of imageries and languages. Bennett’s script catalogues slang, buzzwords and brandnames, some specifically Australian – the sources of the motifs include books of Australian trademarks, icons and ‘symbols’ – and some associated with Afro-American histories and slavery. One quotes a newspaper report of a statement by a government agricultural inspector, who sought to justify the branding of cattle (objected to by animal rights activists) on the grounds that ‘we’ used to brand ‘our’ slaves.

    Gordon Bennett’s extraordinary video, ‘Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Violence and Grief Remix)’, developed over 1996-2004, is in many respects a summative work. It draws together frontier footage evoking the genocidal pursuit of Indigenous Australians, a succession of disturbing, racialized motifs, and the performance itself, the whipping of an object over which words and images drift. Its energy in a sense overwhelms its title. History is a manifold, contradictory and enveloping process. One cannot genuinely extricate oneself from it; its dark side amounts to much more than a series of crimes; guilt cannot be isolated and expiated. Unless the expiation of guilt is a rite or performance, accomplished at the cost of acknowledging the true range and reach of history’s violence.

    Nicholas Thomas

    Further reading: Ian McLean and Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett (Sydney, 1996); Nicholas Thomas, Possessions: Indigenous Art/Colonial Culture (London, 1999); Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford, 2005).

    GORDON BENNETT was born in 1955, in Monto, Queensland. He came to art as a mature adult, graduating in Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, in 1988 and quickly established himself as an artist equipped both intellectually and aesthetically to address issues relating to the role of language, empire, and identity. Since 1989, he has held 50 solo exhibitions and achieved national and international recognition, with representation in biennales in Sydney, Venice, Kwangju, Shanghai and Cuba, and in major exhibitions of contemporary art in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Canada, South Africa and Japan. In September 2007, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne opens a major retrospective of Gordon Bennett’s work.

    List of works

    Notes to Basquiat: Famous Boomerang, 2007
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 90 x 60cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    Notes to Basquiat: Kwijibo, 2007
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 90 x 60cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    Notes to Basquiat: True Blue, 2007
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 90 x 60cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    Notes to Basquiat: Australia Day Re-enactment, 2007
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 90 x 60cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    Notes to Basquiat: Australia Day Re-enactment #2, 2007
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 90 x 60cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    High Moral Ground, 2006
    Digital Print on Archival Paper, 48.3 x 32.9cms
    Courtesy the Artist

    Suprematist Painting # 1, 1993
    Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 cms
    Private collection

    Suprematist Painting # 2, 1993
    Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 cms
    Private collection

    Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt (Violence and Grief Remix), 2004
    DVD
    Courtesy the Artist

    This exhibition and publication have been supported by the Queensland Government, Australia through the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA), Department of the Premier and Cabinet. QIAMEA promotes Queensland’s Indigenous arts industry through marketing and export activity throughout Australia and internationally.

     

     

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