Thursday, March 3, 2011

Curious Colony in Sydney

Curious Colony, arguably last year’s pièce de résistance at Newcastle Region Art Gallery (NRAG) won a trip to Observatory Hill, coinciding with the Sydney Festival and representing the penal colony at the top end of town – another ricochet to the original intent of many a convict-cum-artist-cum- mad-(ad)-men. Promising England the world (19th Century style) and delivering the Antipodes.

There has been plenty written on Curious: the scholarly, elucidating and well illustrated catalogue, with essays by curator Lisa Slade (since head-hunted by the Art Gallery of S.A), art historian Ian Maclean and artist Danie Mellor. Curious at NRAG was positively and thoroughly reviewed by John McDonald in Spectrum (SMH), Margaret Farmer in Artlink, David Hansen in Art Monthly Australia and Christine France in Art and Australia - not to mention dozens of ART3000 student essays, finishing off the B.A at The University of Newcastle. I won’t add unnecessary repetition, and you can read those articles here, but I have made only brief (and far from conclusive) comments relevant to the S.H Ervin installation.
Visiting Curious Colony at Observatory Hill I had a chance meeting with artist Danie Mellor shopping for merchandise. I noted he was yet to make fridge-magnet status like Wendy Sharpe, a joke we shared. He was there photographing his work The Native’s Chest 2010, after having fussed with it over spring.
Danie Mellor with his work The Native's Chest at S.H Ervin Gallery. Photo: Edwina Pickles
I found myself curious regarding Mellor's changes: once gold, the coffin (with its Golden Casket QLD lottery associations) and taxidermied coat of arms figures had Faith Hope Charity in shells retitled Take my bones and paint them. The Native Chest’s king-plated coat of arms emu and kangaroo remain. The changes are cosmetic. This is what else I think I saw: the Wunderkammer beetle now under the coffin, with a collection of boomerangs and white ochre rocks  around the base. The coffin itself has been re-cast in a white mausoleum-like fine-bone China mosaic. The branches/perches for stuffed birds were also ghost-white, previously gold, and the Jolly-Roger skull & cross-bones encased with black beading and diamante eye-sockets is carrying a heavy load: the horrors of colonisation, the torment of slow and stalling repatriation, Damien Hirst, an eBay docket...
Enigmatic? Performative? Or not quite sure when to stop (have I swallowed my tongue yet?), a workaholic on the issues at large. Identity and past subjugation. It’s likely, as Mellor responded to my email, the changes were an aesthetic decision, a toning down. Or as he writes in his catalogue essay, perhaps an act of defying the notion of ephemera – upsetting ‘the preserved and static record, a focused assemblage of disparate parts’ – the static being the museum’s last stand. But then I feel anxious, applying such white logic, and it gets a bit us-and-them-AND -we-are-all-in-this-together.

The kangaroo is one of the driving motifs in Curious Colony, re-presented in chameleonic form throughout. That is why I missed Brooke Andrew’s The Island V 2008. Display width was an issue at S.H Ervin, with its quaint pavilion/fairground partitions, but I imagined it in the gallery’s false proscenium arch opposite Mellor’s slightly over-cooked three-course meal as a raw and beating heart, off-setting the kitsch memento mori, a tactic employed in the NRAG show. Andrew’s (19th century naturalist William Blandowski re-staged) bloody, glam-historical mirror with its cadmium alfoil shimmer, witness to the potent, resolute symbol of the grit of Aboriginal culture and its often neglected warrior ethos. It is neither cute nor curious, but awesome, ragged and defensive. A glint of Empire’s cruellest, challenged. Without it, colour was missing.
Brook Andrew The Island V 2008
The building  ultimately road-blocked the flow between the strategic placement of works that was so effective in Newcastle; there is plenty more to say but it’s a new year now, and NRAG is inviting sponsors for its recent purchase of two Richard Browne watercolours, Coola-benn, Native Chief of Ashe Island Hunters River and Burgun, Indigenous leaders from the Hunter, both painted in 1820. They joined the S.H Ervin install and there were some minor additions from The National Trust Collection. The Joseph Lycett attributed Secretaire (Riley cabinet) stayed home, but The Newcastle Chest stood its ground despite Philip Wolfhagen’s painted panel losing some lustre, (metaphorically speaking) looking thin sitting in what is ever so slightly reminiscent of another library (the original Macquarie Collectors Chest, catalyst and Queen Bee, remains at The Mitchell Library, too old and tired for travelling).
There was still lots to love, and the story translated with impact for my companion, seeing Curious for the first time. Sarah Smuts-Kennedy’s Pyramid scheme 2009 rocked again. Choral coral, candelabras, totemic and anthropomorphic and phallic, pomander-like blooming fungi, glacé pedestals to our own beloved: the coal-hearted, steadfastness of our consuming and consumptive fatness.


  1. Students at Newcastle Art School (Hunter TAFE) also responded to the exhibition in various ways last year. One questioned the historicist aspect of the new Newcastle cabinet - why wasn't it made of a more modern material (metals, glass, using electronics)? Also why were none of the contemporary artists from Newcastle? This is not to create a 'local artist' beef but rather as a response to the fly-in-fly out nature of, say, Wolfhagen's painted scenes and (at the risk of being parochial) a Tasmanian parrot. Perhaps it is just that the examination of the colonial Newcastle presented in the exhibition was not matched by a hard look at the contemporary city, environment and the current state of fauna etc. For example a possible site for the corroboree depicted by Lycett currently sits under the biggest KFC in the southern hemisphere - a site which was excavated to reveal at least 2000 years of occupation. The original wunderkammer was an artistic work embedded with a scientific purpose. In that regard the Newcastle cabinet doesn't come close.

  2. I think the historical aspects of the chests materials relate heavily to wood originally sourced from the hunter area. That of which I think no longer exists in Australia other than in rare parts of Tasmania. The wood used for the chest was made up from this rare find, I feel only highlighting some of the significance of the effects of colonisation and importance of change in the local area. Making the chest, not only significantly local but Australian. Maybe the chest wasn't a direct comment on what is 'Newcastle' but rather a comment on what is foreseeable seen as 'Australian'! The very fact that every artist that contributed to the chests making wasn't from Newcastle as such states on some part, the origins of how the original chest came about eg. Macquarie was Scottish, Lycett was British and 'the bottom drawer' was made up of found objects/treasures from overseas/islands surrounding Australia. The random Tasmanian parrot, which is painted dead by Wolfhagen could maybe metaphorically symbolise something which is not of this area, and also something which is lost and/or gone. I feel that not all the works needed to be hard hitting or obvious to communicate a distinct Newcastle and/or Australian history. On a more closer inspection there was such a beautiful synchronicity of the works (inside the chest and in the NRAG exhibition), and the chest in particular which made for an extremely eye opening experience...The Newcastle Chest may not have the scientific importance of the Macquarie Chest, but it definitely has a contemporary relevance in the sense of communicating, preserving, displaying and objecting or even opposing this very idea and/or notion of collecting. In so many ways I think the Newcastle Chest does make an impact, maybe more relevant than people think...

  3. Point taken on the wood and maybe the parrot. Perhaps the sheer eccentricity and 'wunder' of the Macquarie chest is hard to match. Beautiful and evocative as it is perhaps I found the Newcastle chest just a little cool and, well, metaphorical.