In its meditation on colonisation and reconciliation, On This Site evokes the frontier. More than a geography, the frontier is an idea. It is the borderline, the edge, and the point of demarcation. In On This Site, it is the point of collision between two worlds, two ways of knowing and two conceptions of land and country. Curators Siân McIntyre and Kate Blackmore, who each address nationhood, identity and colonisation in their own artistic practices, say that On This Site aims to ‘generate a renewed dialogue around the meaning and relevance of reconciliation in Australia’. It is immediately apparent in the show that this dialogue will be neither singular nor comfortable. Reconciliation implies a return to harmony – a settling or mending. The works in On This Site collectively serve to emphasise the undercurrent of violence of this idea: isn’t the attempt to settle what got us into this situation on the first place? Perhaps reconciliation is not about a restoration of harmony so much as a celebration of difference.
Claudia Nicholson’s earthenware pieces reflect her grappling with an identity that is both coloniser, by virtue of being Australian, and colonised via her Muiscan heritage, a pre-Columbian civilisation. Colonisation is far from an Australian problem alone; history seems endlessly to repeat its atrocities. In Salote Tawale’s video Sometimes you make me nervous and then I know we are supposed to sit together for a long time, the artist positions herself as a deity, staring point-blank into the camera whilst consuming fruits with aggressive relish. The work is a challenge – Tawale asserts her Fijian heritage in the face of a Western culture that threatens to annihilate that which it cannot understand. In spite of these universal narratives, however, On This Site is firmly focused on Australian shores. Christopher Pease, Joan Ross and Ishmael Marika’s works across painting, print and animation, and filmmaking respectively invoke contrasting experiences of land; a confrontation of indigenous and colonial practices. Marika’s films in particular, produced as part of The Mulka Project (a Yolngu Aboriginal multimedia archive and production centre in Yirrkala, northeast Arnhem Land), evoke the critical irreconcilability that is at the heart of two very difference experiences of land, thrown together in the process of colonisation.
In contrast to these stories of connection to land, Garry Trinh’s photographic series Welcome Home presents a repetitious array of images of security-grilled brick homes, fortress-like and impenetrable. This ‘fear-induced architecture’ presents a bleak vision of the Australian dream, which has retreated into partitioned cells. Unlike Marika’s representation of environment, which is untamed and filled with forces we cannot understand, Trinh presents a landscape reduced to brutalist compartments. The homogeneity of these homes could likewise suggest the effects of colonisation more broadly – the attempt of the colony to control and secure. Rounding out the exhibition is Karla Dickens, whose masks of copper and wire suggest their own abject attempt at security, albeit a violent and ultimately self-defeating one. On This Site is refreshing in its refusal to reconcile diverse experiences of colonialism and post-colonial life. Here, the frontier is not a site of repair; rather, it is a site of uninhibited difference. If history has taught us anything, it is that difference, not homogeneity, is where progress resides.
On This Site, Tue to Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 11am-4pm until 13 June 2015; Verge Gallery, Jane Foss Russell Plaza, City Road, Darlington, University of Sydney; (02) 9563 6218, verge-gallery.net