What is it to know a place? Franck Gohier seems to have been grappling with this question for most of his creative life. While on one level his works are an eclectic mix of subjects and mediums, on another, they are also inadvertent portraits of the place that he has called home for over 40 years, Darwin. ‘a thousand miles from everywhere’ surveys two decades of an artistic practice that is indelibly linked to the former frontier town. However, in Gohier’s works, we do not find obvious or exoticised visions of place, but instead intimate renderings of an impossibly complicated cultural landscape. Here is a place that is at once unmistakeably unique and, as the artist puts it, ‘a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere else.’ It is foreign yet familiar.
To describe Gohier as an artist is both accurate and inadequate. His practice is built upon a vast cultural substratum that spans the disciplines of art-making, social commentary, and historical inquiry – mobilising elements of all, without ever committing to one. In describing himself, Gohier adopts the moniker of ‘urban archaeologist’ alongside that of ‘artist’, and upon closer inspection it is easy to understand why. Since his adolescence, Gohier has maintained an unyielding fascination with local history, literally digging around Darwin for artefacts from the not-so-distant past. ‘We would go out with Mum and Dad and play in all the rubble,’ he recalls. ‘Finding things just strewn through all the strata, broken asbestos, glass and corrugated iron; there were all these layers of meaning, peoples’ histories were just scattered all around.’ Despite the passing of time, nothing seems to have changed in Gohier’s fundamental approach, as he continually seeks to reclaim abandoned histories. Gohier describes to me how he found bullets on a local beach that dated back to WWII, and immediately found a place for them in his aptly named work Shells. For him, the past is alive rather than dormant.
It would be misleading to reduce Gohier to the singularity of his immediate surroundings. His work is often built upon the ground of popular culture, which offers a recognisable and accessible point of departure for all viewers. ‘I’m able to use that as a visual hook to engage people,’ he explains. ‘But then I add my own socio-political commentary on top of that, and overlay it with other meanings.’ The result is an iconographic collision: Luke Skywalker wanders through the Australian desert; The Phantom drinks a glass of milk; and Cyclone Tracy is paired with the popular children’s game Twister. Disparate worlds collapse into one another, with fact and fiction occupying the same space. ‘It’s a bit like fishing, you create your lure and people are caught,’ Gohier observes. The familiar aspects of his artworks lull us into a false sense of security, before seamlessly morphing popular culture into critical commentary.
There is a frenetic energy in the manner that Gohier discusses his work, which, it soon becomes clear, suffuses his broader practice. As the artist explains, one moment he can be wholly obsessed with an artistic subject, and the next he can have completely abandoned it. When I ask how he decides when a piece is complete, he pauses to reflect. ‘A lot of my works aren’t really that planned… they just develop as they happen,’ he confesses. ‘I get this feeling that I feel real happy for a couple of hours and then I’m onto the next board – it’s just: next, next, next.’ While this mentality has propelled the creation of his art over the past decades, it has also led to the destruction of it. Gohier confides that he over-paints and, even years later, destroys much of his work, in an effort to come to some semblance of an artistic resolution. ‘I just put a hammer through them, because they just aren’t working anymore,’ he casually remarks. And, undoubtedly enjoying my audible horror, he adds ‘Oh well, it’s part of my process.’
Viewed against this backdrop, the art that has made it into ‘a thousand miles from everywhere’ is all the more precious. The sculptures, prints, and paintings have all weathered Gohier’s judgment and have been deemed worthy. They not only tell the story of a changing place, but also of an ever-evolving artist.
Tai Mitsuji is a Sydney-based writer.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
3 February to 1 July, 2018