Drew Pettifer: A sorrowful act, the wreck of the Zeewijk


‘The title comes from the Dutch Australian queer activist Peter de Waal’s translation of the Zeewijk’s journal, which describes the young men as having “committed the sorrowful and Godforsaken act of Sodom and Gomorrah”,’ Drew Pettifer explains about ‘A sorrowful act’.

The exhibition delves into Australia’s first recorded moment of European queer history: a 1727 sodomy trial that followed the wreck of the Dutch ship Zeewijk at Houtman Abrolhos, an island chain off the coast of Western Australia (WA). ‘To me, the truly sorrowful act was the execution of these young men,’ he says, ‘with the added pathos of them being executed by marooning by being left on separate islands, so close, yet so far away in their final moments.’

Pettifer is a Victorian-based artist who also trained as a lawyer and teaches art history — facets of his professional practice that reveal themselves through an ‘interest in research, narratives and histories’ in his art. Though photography has been a core medium for Pettifer, he does often work across media, telling me that the ‘material nuances of different media offer different access points’ and ‘serve as related but unique iterations.’ In other words, he believes that the work itself should determine the form it takes and the media he uses, and that this process should be allowed to play out.

A cross-media approach is on show in ‘A sorrowful act’, which is, in the artist’s own estimation, ‘an immersive exhibition’. It draws together 47 photographs, two sculptural installation works, a textile work, five collections of archival objects from the WA Shipwrecks Museum, two historical maps from the Stokes Collection, a wall-based installation work, and three video works. All devoted to unpacking, in Pettifer’s words, this ‘poignant and captivating’, ‘little-known story’.

The shipwreck and subsequent sodomy trial and marooning, that serves as the inspiration for this exhibition, first came to the artist’s attention during a 2017 residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne. ‘It was a short, 30 second segment in the excellent SBS documentary, A hidden history of homosexual Australia,’ he explains. Though short, the segment piqued enough of an interest for Pettifer to embark on – to borrow a metaphor from cultural theorist Stuart Hall – a long preliminary soak in the subject.

This soak came in the form of a two-month residency at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) at the end of 2018, which provided the necessary space and resources for him to explore the subject further, during which his resolve to turn this pivotal event into a major solo art project only grew – as he peeled back the layers of these young men’s fates. It was during the PICA residency that Pettifer was introduced to Professor Ted Snell, who he acknowledges as playing a pivotal role in facilitating research for the project, and in contextualising this research for the gallery space.

Snell grew up in Geraldton, near where the event occurred and thus brought a connection with place to the project. Place is important in history, ‘first histories’, histories of maritime exploration, and queer histories, especially. The latter dimension of the project has also been a key undercurrent of Pettifer’s work so far. He charts this undercurrent for me via reference to previous projects: ‘I have recontextualised colonial exploration of the interior through a queer lens (‘Mapping the interior: in search of an inland sea’, 2013), re-presented forgotten queer histories (such as ‘The Bill Edwards project’, 2019) and presented moments in the queer struggle in large public billboards (‘The billboard project’, 2012-14).’

The queer history bound by this particular event has a more global resonance, too. Included in the exhibition is a large wall-based work that depicts a current map of the world and highlights the countries that still execute people for sodomy, together with a timeline of queer histories in Australia and the Netherlands. This work shows how far we have journeyed in terms of the consequences faced by those who express marginalised sexual identities, and well as how far we still have to travel.

‘I think this exhibition sits within a broader social context where we are rethinking and recontextualising histories that have been hidden or erased, whether they relate to gender or sexuality or race or other marginalised identities,’ Pettifer tells me in response to a question about his project’s place within queer thought and progress more broadly. ‘While dominant social norms are still ever present, cracks and fissures are appearing in these systems of oppression, including queer oppression, that are changing the way we view the world around us, in the past, present and future.’

For this project, Pettifer followed an archival art practice methodology, using historical material to reclaim, recuperate and retell his chosen under-represented event. In doing so, Pettifer used processes similar to other contemporary artists, such as Brook Andrew, Tacita Dean, Thomas Hirschhorn, Tom Nicholson, Kader Attia and Walid Raad. Ethnography and autoethnography are other research methodologies that have played a role in Pettifer’s practice.

As an artist interested in research, narratives and histories – queer histories especially –, it is understandable that Pettifer felt compelled to dive-in to this little-known Australian story. As an academic myself, with similarly aligned research interests – yet who also confesses to not having known about this event –, I was keen for Pettifer to elaborate on the importance of these deaths as an Australian-first.

‘I think this is a really important question,’ he said in reply, ‘and there are a few competing views that surround it. Sydney queer historian Robert French argues that as the first known execution for sodomy on Australian soil, this is part of the context in which queer persecution has existed in this place. What I think it does is shifts the timeline from seeing homophobia as being imported by the British in 1788 to something that has broader context.’

The scope of this exhibition certainly allows room for deep engagement with this event, while the importance of audience reflection and opportunities for a wider public to engage with the project was also clear through my discussions with Pettifer, who is cognisant of a drive to keep his art accessible. ‘I’m always wary of fine art academics creating ‘academic’ work, and so I aim to create layers in my work that allow them to be accessed and read by different audiences,’ he says. ‘So while there are academic references that can be identified in the work, I do hope that the visceral, embodied encounter with these works and this history can generate a range of responses in viewers.’

This ‘hope’ is, to my eye, the strength of Pettifer’s art, as demonstrated by this exhibition. ‘A sorrowful act’ is immersive and visceral, yet also informed by robust research principles that safeguard the authenticity of the narratives and histories it retraces. As Pettifer says simply: ‘all artists are researchers, whether inside or outside of the academy, as we test and think and trial and respond to what is happening inside our practices and the world we occupy.’ This is true, yet in this exhibition, which takes a specific event in our history as its anchor point, research – in my view – plays a more powerful role. Pettifer acknowledges this, too, describing this project as inclusive of ‘the most dynamic and diverse range of responses to this type of research and the most archival in focus’, and therefore, as constituting ‘a real shift’ in his practice. This shift is especially evident through the human elements of ‘A sorrowful act’, as Pettifer adopts a ‘restrained human presence’.

This show is important for its artistic representation and its role in the re-exhibition of a facet of our history that, like many early events in the lives of sexual minorities, remains under-explored, obscured and up-for-debate – even today. Pettifer says that ‘histories are always contingent in that they are manifested in narratives we form around events’; it is encouraging to hear that there are plans to tour ‘A sorrowful act’ in 2021 – first to Geraldton and Bunbury, then over to the east coast to Melbourne and Sydney. Encouraging because: it is only through the coast-to-coast sharing of a narrative history as tragic as a marooned and separate death sentence – simply for an expression of intimacy – that these young men (and those who followed) may find a tangible, manifest place in the sensemaking of our national past.

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor and media scholar based in Far North Queensland.

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery
29 August to 5 December 2020
Western Australia