About Once Removed PDF Print E-mail

Once Removed is an exhibition of three installations all referring to aspects of place and the predicament of displacement. Interpreting facets of Australia’s environment and culture, as well as of the former convent in which the exhibition is situated, these works reveal differing approaches to place and displacement by young Australian artists of various ethnic backgrounds.

The displacement of individuals, communities and entire racial groups is a global phenomenon, while the feeling of being sometimes out of place is one to which all individuals can relate. As an emigrant, immigrant or an Indigenous person, each of the artists exhibiting in Once Removed has experienced cultural displacement. Sean Cordeiro’s family is from Singapore, and he and Claire Healy lead a globally itinerant life, currently working between Sydney and Berlin. Vernon Ah Kee, an Aboriginal Australian with Chinese ancestry, has experienced the worst aspects of displacement – racism and ostracism – living in the conspicuously Anglo-Celtic city of Brisbane. Just six years ago, Ken Yonetani immigrated to Australia from Japan with little English. He now lives in the mountains west of Sydney. The insight provided by the artists’ various experiences of otherness underpins the narratives of these diverse installations.

Perched between Indonesia and New Zealand in the southern Pacific, Australia could not be further removed from the European culture upon which it was founded. Until relatively recently, many Australians displayed a lamentable lack of interest in Aboriginal, Asian and Pacific cultures. Over the last two decades however, a politically-led reassessment of Australia’s place in the world has resulted in a surge of interest from local and international audiences in Aboriginal art, and a new Australian preparedness to engage with the cultures of neighbouring Asian and Pacific nations. Critical frameworks established during this period, such as the Asia Pacific Triennial, have explored Aboriginal and non-Indigenous art in the context of current visual art practices from the region, stimulating a dialogue that informs much contemporary Australian art practice. Similar reassessments have occurred worldwide, as the focus of curators and consumers has moved from the traditional mainstream to embrace the art of non-Western cultures. Australia’s contemporary visual arts culture has emerged as central to this shift – at the forefront are artists such as Vernon Ah Kee and Ken Yonetani, whose work draws from and comments on their respective Aboriginal and Asian heritages.

Beyond the familial reference to relations of another generation, the phrase “once removed” suggests being remote, separated or in some way different from the norm. In the context of Healy and Cordeiro’s practice, it implies removal and renascence; the experience of moving between places, packing-up, shifting and recontextualising everyday accoutrements that are redolent with personal meaning and memories. In Ah Kee’s project, “once removed” makes obvious postcolonial reference to the mass displacement of Aboriginal people (and more specifically to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children), while also speaking of the artist’s own feelings of displacement from a society that continues to alienate Indigenous and other racial groups from iconic aspects of Australian cultural life. Yonetani’s project explores the disjuncture between humankind and the natural world, underlining the danger of maintaining an existence that is complacently “once removed” from nature.

The formal ordering of elements in the face of entropy is a device employed by the artists in Once Removed as they attempt to make sense of disassociation and displacement. Yonetani’s carefully staged white sugar sculptures are rendered in a language that seeks to codify the damage caused by human disengagement from the natural world. The aesthetic framework for his practice is drawn from Asian culture, particularly cultural traditions that make a spectacle of ordering nature, such as the Japanese Zen garden. Despite its sparse, serene arrangement, the installation evokes a post-apocalyptic landscape in which everything is bleached white and has perished. Here, the excesses of life are inextricably tied to self-destruction and death. Sweet Barrier Reef, for example, describes the fatal consequences of using the natural environment as a dumping ground for consumer-driven industry.

Vernon Ah Kee’s surf narratives and wall texts have a similar imperative to create order from apparent despair – in his case a pessimism that has arisen from racial oppression. Evading the familiar visual traditions of Aboriginal art and adopting instead a conceptual lexicon invested with wry humour, Ah Kee removes the possibility for the kind of cultural pigeon-holing that can separate Aboriginal from non-Indigenous art. Anger at the displacement of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations is clearly spelled out here in black and white wall texts and in a short film depicting Aboriginal surfers reclaiming the beach – a surreal, fairy-tale scenario in the context of a modern Australia world-renowned for its Caucasian-dominated beach culture.

The installations by Ah Kee and Yonetani explore Australian socio-political issues that have global significance beyond national borders. The site-specific installation, Life Span, by Healy and Cordeiro, conversely gathers the world’s dreams, fears and desires into a neatly ordered stack, devised and positioned in response to the distinctive art and architecture of its ecclesiastical Venetian setting. There are 195,774 videos in this towering monolith, their combined viewing time equal to the world’s average human life span of 66.1 years. Collectively the content of this VHS monument ruminates on the human condition, on the meaning of life and on mortality. This installation disproportionately commandeers the small church and substitutes film for religious doctrine as a vehicle for finding quietude and spiritual fulfillment. The juxtaposition between popular videos and the church setting serves to heighten the significance both of the work and of the church, the stack of obsolete media an apt metaphor not only for society’s contrived packaging of experience and emotion, but also for the ultimate transience of life itself.

Together these works critique society’s voracious consumption and commodification of objects, places and people. The displacement inherent to each work’s subject matter is echoed in the incongruous context of the exhibition site and sometimes by unexpected parallels with Venice itself. Water, for example, is a key theme in the work of Ah Kee and Yonetani. Ah Kee proposes the unlikely repossession of the beach and its culture by Australia’s original inhabitants, while Yonetani’s sugar reef conjures the destruction of underwater environments brought about by human activity. Both works resonate with the predicament of Venice, where the physical environment is endangered by tourists in their utopian search for a place that is fast disappearing. Collectively, the fantastical aspect of the works in Once Removed invites a suspension of disbelief, as does Venice itself, because things are not as they seem. Intrinsic to all are allusions to what lies beneath the surface, unseen and unfathomable.

Felicity Fenner
Curator, Once Removed

Felicity Fenner is the Senior Curator at Ivan Dougherty Gallery, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney.