John Hurrell – 2 February, 2016
While looking at this system of brutal exploitation and denial of basic dignity (even after death), Thompson's project also focuses on the very contemporary theme of migrancy, the search for work and safety for one's family - the struggle some communities have for survival. It is part of a wider global vision currently prevalent within contemporary art, but here looking at Pacific history in a subtle way that exploits the poetics and history of the modernist white cube.
Luke Willis Thompson
Sucu Mate / Born Dead
29 January - 27 February 2016
Across the polished, bone coloured, concrete floor of the Hopkinson Mossman marches a line of deeply weathered tombstones, facing east: nine thin eroded slabs, battered with striations from adjacent vegetation, wearing traces of white paint and lichen. These dilapidated headstones, all blank (apart from some faint traces of marks on one), come from the Old Balawa Estate Company Cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji. This graveyard featured in a work that Thompson made for a photography group show (about documentation), called In Spite of Ourselves, at AUT in 2012 and which toured to the Dowse.
The headstones were discovered by the artist when he visited the graveyard to clean his grandmother’s grave (she being an indigenous Fijian), and were found in a separate section reserved for indentured migrants (mostly Chinese, and a few Japanese or Indian) brought out to work for the sugar company. Buried without even the dignity of a name, these labourers (their lives) are generally ignored and forgotten. There are no cemetery records, though perhaps there might have been - for there was an office fire that destroyed a lot of documentation. The Fijian government - in co-ordination with the Fijian Museum - gave permission for these tombstones to be temporarily removed, and so after touring they will be returned and reinstalled on the cemetery site.
Here in Auckland, because they are elegantly presented as a diagonal line striding across the gallery’s cement floor, they dramatically contrast with the white walls. (In Lautoka the concrete headstones were painted with whitewash every ten years.) The show has a minimalist look as if laid out by Donald Judd or Carl Andre. The mood, understandably for anybody who is observant, is profoundly damning of exploitation, tragedy and suffering, evoking imagined, untold stories behind each ‘marker’. These workers were kept constantly in debt; we are talking about a form of slavery.
While looking at this system of brutal exploitation and denial of basic dignity (even after death), Thompson’s project also focuses on the very contemporary theme of migrancy, the search for work and safety for one’s family - the struggle some communities have for survival. It is part of a wider global vision currently prevalent within contemporary art, but here looking at Pacific history in a subtle way that exploits the poetics and history of the modernist white cube. Sucu Mate / Born Dead is a better work than (say) the project that won Thompson the Walters Prize because it is not entangled in contradictory variations of Duchampian readymade. Its ideational construction process is much clearer; its emotional impact accordingly more powerful.
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