Lucy Jackson – 29 March, 2018
By placing these radicalised readymades into a gallery setting, Thompson transfers the objects into art. He lessens the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, past and present, ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’. Thompson’s readymades never sit easily as art, they remain a material index to an event that took place, and one that often remains unresolved, unpunished. In 'How Long?' the sitters named after war zones act as indexes for Fiji’s geopolitical situations over the last four decades.
Luke Willis Thompson
Luke Willis Thompson
21 February - 15 April 2018
I walked into a black box. The Adam Art Gallery had blocked out all natural light sources—a wall literally built into/against the outside windows and a light blocking corridor just inside the automatic sliding doors. My eyes took a while to adjust, but familiarity kicked in when I smelt the Adam’s signature scent: the rubber flooring.
The exhibition features three film works by Luke Willis Thompson, Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, 2016, autoportrait, 2017, and a new commission, How Long?, 2018. The viewer is led towards them by the subtle glow of the exit signs. All three are located at the uttermost edges of the gallery spaces.
autoportrait, arguably Thompson’s most famous work, is on the bottom floor, Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries is in the black box-like room on the middle one and the latest contribution, How Long?, is located on the level where you enter the gallery, at the end of a long rectangular space. This last one is the result of Thompson’s short residency at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi. Reflecting on the two earlier films first seems essential before considering it.
autoportrait, a silent film featuring Diamond Reynolds, is accompanied by the whir and hum of the large projector on the mezzanine balcony. And as is well known, autoportrait is ‘ghosted’ by another moving image video where Reynolds Facebook Live streamed the moments immediately after her partner, Philando Castile, was shot in an act of police brutality in Minnesota. In this Facebook video Diamond explained and presented what had just happened as evidence. Yet Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot Philando Castile, was found not guilty on all counts the Friday before Autoportrait opened in its first iteration at Chisenhale Gallery in London. So the image we see of Diamond is both post-event (the shooting of her partner), and pre-event (the non-guilty verdict of his killer). She is in limbo.
Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, 2016, focuses on two black Londoners. They stare at the screen for the entire duration of a single unedited 100ft roll of film, a nod to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Both are descendants of victims of police aggression in London. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce who was shot in 1865 in her home by police. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner who was the victim of a police raid gone wrong in her home. When Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries was shown in the Galerie Nagel Draxler, Thompson similarly turned the gallery into a ‘black box’ for viewing purposes.
In Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, I think of Susan Sontag. Standing in the darkened room between the projector and the image, I feel as if I am in a camera. A feeling enhanced by the click, click, click of the projector behind me. Sontag said that holding a camera is like holding a gun, it’s a fantasy machine thats use is addictive. It gives power to the person holding it, and takes power away from the subjects. I cannot help but think of this reference as Brandon stares out at the viewer, as if down the barrel of a gun. We ask ourselves who is holding the gun? The relationship between the viewer and the subject of these films is loaded.
Both films are powerful and demand attention. In autoportrait we are not seeing a chaotic, pixelated, poor quality video posted on social media moments after the event. There is an opportunity for Diamond to deliberately dictate how we see her (with Thompson’s input). Instead of being seen on phones and laptops via social media, she is in the darkened gallery, now framed as a cinematic experience. The viewer is aware of the materiality of the work (we can hear the projector and we know it is a film, not the real person); however Thompson lessens the distance between us and Diamond. The film is large and her face extends over most of the wall. We are encompassed, face to face. Being in this position feels like witnessing something ‘Live’, as if you are there at the moment of recording.
K. Emma Ng writes that Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries and autoportrait allow Brandon, Graeme and Diamond to “exit from the condition of being constituted by trauma or post-trauma.” However, this isn’t exactly what visitors are going to see in these portraits—if they are portraits? The information is edited and all the visitor is provided with is the account of the trauma that they or their forebears have gone through. An example of this information is “Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce. Cherry was shot by police in her home in Brixton, 1985.” The gallery visitor is not given any further information about Brandon. Perhaps it is up to the viewer to try and see something in these subjects that is not trauma. That might be the point.
Thompson’s newest commission is presented as moving away from autoportrait and Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries. Thompson brings us back to the Pacific to explore a naming tradition in Fiji. How Long? towers above us in the gallery, a colour film in portrait orientation that consists of four individuals of different generations. Each subject reacts differently in front of the camera: Jone Lebanon (born 1979), stands against a house exterior looking across the camera to our right; Rosi Lebanon (born 1984), is filmed from her waist up against what looks like a blue tarpaulin—she looks to our left, and loses concentration at some point, smiling; Rupeni Iraq (born 2011), stares straight out at us, he wears a Christmas shirt—he shifts occasionally, but perseveres, looking straight at the viewer; Inia Sinai (born 2017), is the last and youngest subject, a baby held by their mother—Inia is the focus of this last take, with parts of the mother’s head and body outside the frame.
The viewer needs to read the exhibition text, which states the subject’s names, to join the dots. Each is named after a conflict or war zone. Thompson relays in the exhibition catalogue that in some Fijian communities a child born while their parent is serving or killed in contested territory is often named after that place.
The title, How Long?, seems to ask how long will these wars and conflicts continue, and how long will they continue to be manifested in people’s names? Filming Inia Sinai, the baby, implies that it is not only the naming tradition, but war itself, that is very much in the present. Perhaps there is a link between the idea of ongoing war, and the specificity of police brutality. How long will we be witnesses to both of these general, and specific events? How long will it take us to act?
This connection to place is a key element of Thompson’s practice. In his Walters Prize winning work inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam (2012/2014) gallery goers walked into an empty gallery and then took a taxi to an unnamed location, which ended up being his family home. autoportrait was made in response to time he spent in the United States and Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries was made during Thompson’s residency in London. But what about Aotearoa? How Long? is about a geographical location both physically and perhaps emotionally closer to New Zealanders. The term ‘sister image’ has been used prolifically to discuss autoportrait, so I hesitate to use it here, but How Long? also presents the viewer with a parallel or comparison image of Fiji and its communities.
Thompson’s artworks challenge touristic tropes of Fiji as a tropical paradise. The exhibition text that the gallery goer is given, instead, evokes a sense of military pride and an awareness of history. This CNN article about Fiji’s military history explains that before colonialism, tribal leaders earned their power as warriors, and then after colonialism, that ‘warrior psychology’ was transformed into a military mentality. Therefore, the notion of the ‘warrior class’ has been part of Fiji’s history, linking to its masculinity and economy. Does How Long? anticipate ongoing generations inheriting these same psychologies?
As New Zealanders, we are implicated in the Pacific narrative. Perhaps Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries and Autoportrait allow us to consider more distanced examples of racial discrimination and police brutality as models for our own situation in the Pacific.
Thompson has a history of utilising the ‘radicalised’ readymade. In Sucu Mate/Born Dead (2016) he brought unmarked gravestones into a gallery which carried histories of trauma, violence and death.
The gravestones were from a Fijian cemetery for Chinese labourers in a colonial sugar plantation. In Untitled (2012) Thompson exhibited three garage roller doors at Te Tuhi. Objects from another crime scene: Pihema Cameron tagged the doors which led to the owner of the property chasing and stabbing him to death. The owner was convicted of manslaughter, not murder.
By placing these radicalised readymades into a gallery setting, Thompson transfers the objects into art. He lessens the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, past and present, ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’. Thompson’s readymades never sit easily as art, they remain a material index to an event that took place, and one that often remains unresolved, unpunished. In How Long? the sitters named after warzones act as indexes for Fiji’s geopolitical situations over the last four decades.
Standing in front of How Long? the viewer comes face-to-face with the warrior mentality. We are standing in front of people who represent a timeline of Fijian deployment. Yet when Rupeni Iraq came on the screen, he was a child, just seven years old. My friend and I turned to one another and agreed: ‘he’s so cute’. Once we had put the pieces of How long? together we felt ashamed.
What happens when the visitor doesn’t read the information provided? In the darkened gallery it was almost impossible to read the exhibition text. John Hurrell has previously written about how autoportrait requires investigation into the back story . Then the art demonstrates its calibre. But if visitors choose not to research or read the supporting material, then they might miss the deeper discussions and meanings at play. Perhaps they will even risk continuing to fetishise ‘the other.’
The ‘black box’ has other connotations: it is the essential piece of evidence to retrieve for air crash investigations. With this exhibition, the gallery changes from being a ‘white cube’, a space that subtracts distractions to induce a presence that is divine, into a ‘black box’. Does this change have a metaphorical association? Has the gallery become a site of evidence and investigation?
Thompson’s exhibition is an experience that starts when you enter the darkened space, eyes blinking, adjusting to the lack of light. The space between his films is deliberate; the distance between each artwork allows us to reflect and prepare for the next. The result is a feeling of solitude as you witness the works in the gallery - that is until someone breathes over your shoulder in the dark.
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