Through its title, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art’s new exhibition declares, in three variations, that it is not new. ‘Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu’ takes as its point of departure the scientific botanical work of Sir Joseph Banks conducted through his journey aboard the HMS Endeavour from 1768-1771, commanded by Captain James Cook. This voyage led to the collection of approximately 30,000 specimens of plant life from Australia and New Zealand, with 1,600 specimens totally new to Western science. For this show, that particular practice of discovery and assigning names is rejected as merely a form of colonial mythmaking that disrupts language, culture and history.
Banks’ research will feature at points through the inclusion of a series of copperplate etchings of Australian botanical illustration. However, beyond these illustrations, none of the other artists’ work explicitly engage with Banks’ own practice or research. Instead, Daniel Boyd, Newell Harry, Fiona Pardington, Michael Parekowhai and James Tylor present works preoccupied with subverting the colonial prejudices of language by reframing the mythologies of nationhood engendered through Bank’s form of colonialist scientific practice.
Harry, with his works incorporating concentric circles and texts in neon, is one artist directly interrogating the legacies of language and its value; with a particular focus on what begets value. These neon works are large in scale, not only because they are often over a metre wide and tall, but also because their light is a powerful emitter of intense and attention-demanding colour. Neon is, of course, the material of advertising, so when Harry’s works are present they are hard to miss. The texts accompanying these colourful circles are often brief statements embracing rhyme, alliteration and simile, and are presented in white neon. Circle/s in the Round: WHITE WHINE (2010) and Circle/s in the Round: AVID DIVA (2010) neatly exemplify the humorous but biting wit of the artist’s wordplay.
The art gallery is a context rich in cultural capital and so positioning words and language in this space delivers a spiritual elevation of their value. Placing Harry’s text works within a critique of the colonialist project of discovering and (re)naming specimens which have existing names and cultural significances, begins to reveal the layers of institutional power that continue to remain in contemporary society.
If Harry’s work produces a laugh with a snarl, then Parekowhai’s will give you an ever-broadening smile. Parekowhai’s objects often seem extraordinarily ordinary. Whether it be a pallet and a triplet of trees wrapped in black tarp in the work titled The Moment of Cubism & Nude Descending a Staircase (Tree) (2009) or a taxidermized sparrow in the works Robert Hayden, Dave Douglas, J. D. Jones, (all 2004), Parekowhai presents artefacts that are so heavily drawn from the everyday that their meaning as artworks have the potential to be endless. However, what is ever-present is the pairing of species and their cohabitation of the post-industrialised world. The pallet, the pot plant, this is not nature as it organically occurs but nature as it is manufactured, and curated into the world. Jokes, autobiography and art history references are layered into these objects as a method of countering the control and containment of nature. In ‘Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu’ Parekowhai’s works suggest that the historical and cultural role animal and plant life have played perpetuates a contaminated and sanitised history.
‘Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu’ contemplates the plurality of flora, fauna and Aboriginal language that was previously not considered by Cook and Banks. Their research practice is seen here as creating unstable vocabularies and language hierarches that are akin to myth-making.
By creating an awareness of the different cultures that have been flattened through this process of colonisation, not only will audiences be provided with the opportunity to appreciate the scope of language and nature in Australia and New Zealand, but the pervasive hierarchies created by this form of dispossession will also be subverted.
Luke Letourneau is the Kudos Gallery Coordinator, Sydney
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Until 10 December, 2017