from the editor's desk

A review of ‘HERE&NOW2020’ and ‘A Sorrowful Act’, two exhibitions at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery

HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer, curated by Brent Harrison and featuring eight artists. Exhibition currently running at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until 5th December. Review by Scott-Patrick Mitchell.

A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk, by Drew Pettifer (curated by Ted Snell AM). Exhibition currently running at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until 5th December. Review by Amy Lin.

These exhibitions are currently open to the public for viewing, until Saturday 5th of December. For more information on both exhibitions, visit Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

In celebration of these exhibitions, Westerly has also published both online and in issue 65.2 a feature of work from Amy Lin and Scott-Patrick Mitchell offering an ekphrastic response to the two exhibitions, compiled with exhibition images. Follow the links to read!

Andrew Nicholls, The Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) (detail), 2019–2020, archival ink pen on watercolour paper, 4 parts, each 114 x 140 cm. Photograph: Bo Wong.

HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer

As a member of the LGBTIQA+ community, there was a certain level of excitement and intrigue in attending HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer, curated by Brent Harrison. There is context to this: the Law Reform (Decriminalization of Sodomy) Act of 1989 prohibited the ‘encouragement or promotion of homosexual behaviour’, including displaying queer artworks. Thankfully this law was overturned via the Acts Amendment (Lesbian and Gay Law Reform) Act of 2002. One could argue that the 1989 Act galvanised an entire generation to speak out against such draconian laws. I have clear memories of being a teenager in the 90s and the artwork produced by WA queer artists at that time had a particular sense of danger and rebellion to it, unafraid to incorporate the abject, such as bodily fluids, and the outraged. In part it was a push back to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of that era. But now? Now it seems we are concerned about the passing on our history and communal knowledge, as exemplified in HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer.This exhibition brings together works from eight artists including Andrew Nicholls, Janet Carter, Benjamin Bannan, Colin Smith, Brontë Jones, Lill Colgan and a curatorial installation from Jo Darbyshire.

Jo Darbyshire is a local artist and curator who is well aware of the history of the LGBTIQA+ community. I have been in awe of Darbyshire’s work since The Gay Museum (2003)In HERE&NOW20, Darbyshire once more pays homage to the past, to legacy, with a series of thirteen paintings featuring Australian legends such as Sidney Nolan, William Dobell, Bessie Davidson and Grace Crowley, among others. But this installation, DOWNUNDER, is more about the texts that appear beneath the paintings. These texts add extra context to the lives of the painters exhibited, showing how oppressive the heteronormative art landscape of Australia can be toward queer artists. The resulting installation adds another dimension, not only to the thirteen works, but the entire exhibition too.  

In Andrew Nicholls’ The Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), we are presented with a cornucopia of fauna, flora and nude male forms. Here, Nicholls details a new mythology of desire, one where the idyllic is unashamedly homoerotic. I’ve known Nicholls for years and have always been in awe of his technical skill. More than that, his dedication to queer aesthetics is commendable, this work especially: Nicholls has, for a long time now, cemented a place as a leading queer artist in Australia. 

I think one of the reasons I particularly love LGBTIQA+ art is because, as a community, we have extensively used codes to communicate our existence, a language of symbols that enables us to identify each other with ease. These often subvert the symbols placed upon us by those in authority, those wishing to regulate or diminish our identities. That’s why a work like Soothing Systems by Lill Colgan speaks volumes in an exhibition such as this. On the surface, it’s merely a repurposed silk-crepe blouse, ethereal with dye and metallic embroidery. But that dye actually comes from security tags used by retail spaces to reduce garment theft. The metallic embroidery comes from the metal used in said tags. And then, as if to make the work hyper-personal, Colgan has sewn an acronym into the work. What does the acronym mean? Only Colgan knows, because the acronym is one that holds meaning only to them, so much so they apparently have it tattooed on their body. All of this culminates in a liminal shift within the artwork, the ethereal gaining strength, embodying a secret power, something beyond.   

There is a similar liminal space to Janet Carter’s Drawn From Life. Gestural portraits accompany a video installation that maps Carter’s adventures through lockdown as she interviews local community members. This is all part of an ongoing project that explores the passing on of queer knowledge and intergenerational kinship. The space in this work creeps up on the audience as parallels between COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS emerge. For me, personally, this work brought back childhood memories of 1980s England, watching news reports about the impact HIV/AIDS was having at the time. Even at a young age I instinctively knew that that was my community on those screens, dying. Carter’s work brought this all up, yet somehow still held me in tender electronic hands, reminded me that I was here, now, a survivor, that I had legacy to pass on to our younger generation. 

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss all of the artworks in depth, as I had hoped. Which is a shame, because the remaining four artworks by Brontë Jones, Benjamin Bannan, Colin Smith and Nathan Beard are all incredible in their own right. In particular I would encourage you to sit with both Smith’s Bloodletting and Jones’ Wet Ride Scrub Daddy. It is important to note that Wet Ride Scrub Daddy does discuss homophobic violence; however, as somebody who has experienced such violence, I felt very ‘seen’ by Jones’ installation. I am grateful for the manner in which she deals with it.  

HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer curator Brent Harrison should be thoroughly commended for creating a space that showcases queer creative talent in this manner. Naturally, it doesn’t capture the entire scope of Western Australian queer art, which is why I would encourage art galleries across the state to pick up where this exhibition leaves off and program more LGBTIQA+ group shows, to extend the sense of legacy this one has created. But for now, HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer is the perfect salve to remind us of where we, as a community, have come from. And, more importantly, where we can go. 

Detail of Drew Pettifer, 39 framed photographs, 2029-2020, chromogenic prints, each 27.6 x 38.2 cm, collection of the artist. Photograph by Bo Wong.

A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk

Drew Pettifer’s A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk, curated by Ted Snell AM, recontextualises the beginning of Australia’s European queer history, in exploring the 1727 wreck of the Dutch VOC ship Zeewijk on the Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. The company abandoned the wreck and established a base on Gun Island, building a new boat, Sloepie, from the remains of the wrecked vessel. During this time, two young shipmates—Adriaan Spoors and Pieter Engelse—were caught in the act of sodomy, and were tried and sentenced to death by marooning on separate islands.

Viewing The Wreck of the Zeewijk alongside HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer, which runs separately and simultaneously, patrons get a tangible sense of how queerness has been and is pushed to the margins, and the art makes queer voices, stories, histories, pain and pleasure, both visible and heard. The Wreck of the Zeewijk begins by following a corridor in the gallery, with one wall displaying a timeline of homophobic and transphobic laws in Australia and the world. This allows the exhibition to first situate viewers in the past, and moves them through to the present in a dry display of archaic regulations. As such, the laws and customs that have oppressed queer bodies are clinically and concisely summarised, stretching like a frightening tunnel to a present day map of the world. In this map, coloured dots illustrate the parts of the world where LGBTQIA+ people are protected—and not protected—from discrimination and violence. On the right hand side of the corridor, the exhibition zooms in on the 1727 event, with framed images from Zeewijk interspersed with blank spaces, representing the incompleteness of historyImages of artefacts from the wreck, such as pipes, wax seals and cannons, are juxtaposed with text from the wreck’s documents, and contemporary photos of islands where the boys may have perished. In this way, the physical remains of the Zeewijk, the evidence of the language that instituted its law, and the benign yet harsh setting of the Abrolhos Islands are brought into a conversation. The result is an eerie interaction between manmade infrastructures—linguistic and physical—and the sublime power of the natural environment. There is a disquieting display of cause and effect, of before and after, between the society that sentenced the boys to death, and the places where they may have spent their last days. Pictures of Stick and Sandy Islands simmer with a sinister, ghostly atmosphere, whilst also appearing as places that could, in other circumstances, be Mediterranean holiday destinations. 

Suspended at the corner of the corridor and boldly declaring its pride, is a purple, silver and green flag created by Pettifer. Each side has three columns of onion bottles, the symbol that Snell as curator points out is both phallic and yonic[1]. Stacked in alternating orientation, the onion bottles are a defiant celebration of sexual and gender diversity. Some of the bottles blend into a background of a similar colour, perhaps standing in for all the invisible and unheard stories of queer history and oppression, with the melded shades symbolic of fluid definitions. Approaching the exhibition as a cis-gendered straight woman, and handling poetic language in response to queer art, it struck me that Wreck of the Zeewijk effects a slippage between time and space, but also destabilises binaries and categories. It invites patrons to view marginalised histories with empathy and compassion, and to reflect on present day bigotries. 

The space around the corner is shadowed on the left by two images of the islands. The right hand side is filled with artefacts from the wreck, including onion bottles, coins, brass buttons, rosary beads, fragments of pipe and the remnant of a ship’s bell, among others. There is an uncanny synchrony between present and past, and viewers are reminded of the timeline and map from earlier, and the fact that these barbaric acts of violence are still happening around the world. In his research, Pettifer went to Sint-Maartensdijk and Gent in the Netherlands to walk in Adriaan and Pieter’s footsteps. He met two boys who share Spoors’s and Engelse’s surnames and who may be great-nephews or relatives[2]. Screen tests of these boys gaze over the exhibition with deep vulnerability, quietly overseeing the room from their video installations. Below them to the right are piles of sand and shale, isolated on separate plinths on the gallery floor. The piles stand in for the islands and the boys’ bodies, or perhaps grains that flow through an hourglass to signify the passing of time. The sand and shale resonate with a theme of ruptured pairs—of island images, of images of boys—and illustrates the cruelty of their separation following their illegal union. Like the boys relegated to history and their agonising deaths, the sand and shale lie silent and still, illuminated by the glow of their live namesakes, who blink away above them. 

The exhibition culminates in a video installation of Pettifer’s filmed voyage over the ocean in a research trip to the island. The vision is voiced over with Pettifer’s thoughts on the act of reframing queer history through his research. His sensitive and academic approach to the historical source material washes over viewers who sit, perhaps a little uneasy with the ocean footage, and listening to Pettifer’s personal response to the stories of Adriaan and Pieter. The exhibition ends with the artist’s perspective and voice in the present time, and we remember that although this is an incomplete story of the past, it is being remade and retold through the present art.  The virtual voyage symbolises the liminal space between the boys’ sentencing and their executions, and we are left in this space of transition, neither arriving nor departing. Unlike the boys who reached their brutal destinations, we remain stuck on a loop that seamlessly repeats, on a ship that moves forward, yet is always at some latent risk of wreckage.

[1] Snell, Ted AM, Drew Pettifer, A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, 2020. Catalogue essay, accessed here.

[2] Snell, ibid., essay accessed here.

Scott-Patrick Mitchell (SPM) is a non-binary poet who lives and writes on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. SPM’s work appears in Contemporary Australian PoetryThe Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian PoetrySolid AirStories of Perth and Going Postal. In 2019, SPM won Coal Creek’s Literary Award for Poetry, the Creative Connections Poetry Prize, Melbourne Poets Union’s Martin Downey Urban Realist Poetry Award and the Wollongong Short Story Prize. Most recently, SPM was shortlisted for the International Googie Goer Prize for Speculative Prose, the 2020 Red Room Poetry Fellowship, the Martha Richardson Poetry Award and KSP’s Short Story Prize. 

Amy Lin is a Perth-based writer who has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in WesterlyCorditeAustralian Book ReviewLA Review of Books and other places. Her PhD research focused on the poetry of Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver and Michael Dransfield.

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