‘A collection is as much about elimination of materials as inclusion; a collection tells as much about a maker as itself, therefore it is as contrived as any documented history with one maker.’ – Julie Gough, 1996
‘Tense Past’ features works by artist Julie Gough from the last 25 years, including significant colonial and Indigenous artefacts from major collections across Australia. It is the first major survey of Gough’s practice and an insightful introduction for a first time viewer, as well as those familiar with her practice. Spread over a large wing of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) it is both exhibition and museuological endeavour, with colonial representations of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people including the artist’s maternal ancestors.
Arranging these items alongside her sculpture, sound and video pieces, Gough’s sensitive treatment of the materiality of the Museum, and what is housed within is exceptionally comprehensive. With the collaboration of curator Mary Knight, ‘Tense Past’ dismantles institutional authority by parallel; through its creation of a collection of alternate history. The show’s title is congruent with the artist’s strategy of pairing and re-contextualising works so that there is never closure, only questions. It is also emblematic of a desire to examine personal chronology in parallel to moments in history: everything is under the microscope, including western conceits of time.
A wall text by Gough explains the first main gallery is dedicated to the Missing:
‘…between the 1790s and 1830s most Tasmanian Aboriginal people, perhaps 5,000, mysteriously disappeared. That is the way the historical reports and the school books present our story of being reduced to a few families, mostly living in exile in the Bass Strait islands.’
Gough displays objects that signify the prevailing attitudes towards Aboriginal people in Tasmania of that era, making tangible the violent acts and loss that they engendered, including a Huon Pine table, watercolours of “A Native Hut” and the cartoonish profile of an Aboriginal youth, a Mahogony clock previously owned by a Quaker settler family strikes the hour. Particularly, writing on paper is a pivotal colonial bureaucratic tool and Gough returns again and again to archival writing that documents English violence against Aboriginal people.
Hunting Ground (haunted) (2016) is a series of A4 printed posters that reprint fragments of written records by settlers. One reads: “Mr Shoobridge’s father was out dining with a country settler, when a man came in, and called out, “Well, Master! I’ve shot three more crows today,” meaning, BLACKS.
These texts accent the casual quotidian violence that grounds Tasmanian (and Australian) contemporary identity, yet they are replicas of past words printed afresh, stained onto new paper. These papers also feature in Gough’s video work Hunting Ground (pastoral) (2016-17) projected in large-scale onto the adjacent gallery wall. In the video, papers are pinned to trees or lie quietly between grass and dirt, shot between still views of landscapes in Tasmania. The video’s light illuminates the rest of the space including the viewers that sit to watch or pass through the exhibit. The colonial records do not remain static in an archive but active, living proof.
A powerful symbol of the colonial violence leading to dispossession is another small vitrine in the gallery containing pieces of wood lying on a bed of dried ferns. The wooden vitrine contains a broken box that once held a plaster relief of Manalargena, a Tasmanian Aboriginal warrior and Chief by settler artist Benjamin Dutteareau c.1835. A text inscribed on the box reads ‘Manalargena / A celebrated chieftan of the east coast of V.D. Land one/ of the Mr. R[obinson?]’s faithful attendants atach’d to the mission 1831.’ The artist is unable to find this colonial representation of her ancestor but includes the missing historical placeholder as an object to be studied.
Repetition is key to re-shaping the past in Gough’s works and numerous references and motifs are to be found in between the galleries. Fugitive History (the escape) (2007) and Escape 1 (diptych) (2007) retell a story found in newspaper records of a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl taken from her family to live with settler couple James and Anne Briggs, when she escapes out the window. Two gilt frames from TMAG hold opulent portraits of each of the Briggs (c.1853), but a representation of the girl appears only through Gough’s re-etching of the words of her escape using different materials (linocut, wool, fly wire, bull kelp). We do not know what happens to her after the escape, part of Gough’s provocation to honour the missing and suggest their history defies the western historical record.
In ‘Tense Past’ Gough attends to the double entendre within the title: the arrangements of colonial artefacts dealing in the representation of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and their country, placed in tandem with her sculpture, video and sound works. This pairing re-contextualises such documents past and invites the viewer to re-read western historical records. At times the sheer amount of colonial artefacts outweighs easy access to the artist’s work. Gough’s prolific and varied artistic output on its own would make an entirely different exhibition. The strength of ‘Tense Past’ is its ability to reposition the Museum’s orientation to its own collection, showing the past is as much a contrivance as those that make it.
Olivia Koh is an artist based in Melbourne.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
Until 3 November 2019