Born 1976, Sydney. Lives and works Melbourne
Mark Shorter is Head of Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. His work questions dominant narratives around landscape, gender and the body by stretching and turning the ideologies that sit deep in their form to see what bends or breaks. While he often performs as himself, he also makes art through a variety of guises – vaudeville cowboy Renny Kodgers, the quixotic journeyman Tino La Bamba, and the time-travelling landscape-painting critic Schleimgurgeln. These performance investigations express a contemporary grotesque and propose an art that is guttural, visceral and not beholden to the cerebral.
by Jarrod Rawlins
Australian publisher Morry Schwartz, on the subjects of journalism and national identity, said: ‘A great writer is somehow able to feel the country. A country has to be told what it is. That’s the project’. (1) What Schwartz is possibly referring to here is the act of defining an identity, not in the manner of a planned and dictatorial act, but more describing the mood, assisting in giving meaning to a thing, helping to establish the character and essence of something. And in the case that the ‘something’ is a country, and that country is Australia, it will always be a project requiring constant update and revision (and in-between the lines, a calling out of dead people for decisions and opinions they can no longer defend would be good, too).
Defining a country is a pretty cool job, if you think about it; much better than running a country, or representing a country, or owning or destroying a country. Defining is serious business, a blank-slate moment, and if the people are responsive to you and your defining, it will come with great responsibility.
Modern Australian national identity was defined by European mythologising (because they were too arrogant to embrace the already existing Indigenous myths). It’s a simple frontier myth, straight-up (mate) and to the point – a stark, brutal, lonely and vast place. Until recent decades, this country had been broadly defined by these habits, and the associated European landscape paintings acted out their well-placed part to illustrate the Europeans’ fears and desires, with the panoramas of Eugene von Guérard being a famous example.
Any examination of this European landscape painting won’t lead to understanding a nation’s identity, quite the opposite in fact. Examination will produce an understanding of the painter’s ego, ability and motives. And although many a word has been shed in an effort to illustrate that landscape painting in Australia played a part in defining our modern-Anglo identity, this has been done in vain, as it is myth – not landscape, or painting – that created this early definition, and the painter’s role in this was more bit part than substantial.
Now that identity-making by way of white hyper-masculine mythologising is entering its end of days, it is certain that the European landscape painting of the past no longer plays a major part in how we define ourselves and our culture. Perhaps a discussion about the representation of historical truths and who gets a say in what broadly represents our identity can take on a brave new face and relegate these images to the back of the cupboard. Do they really represent a definition of ourselves that we still recognise and want to see in the front room? And because paintings-as-accurate-historical-documents is not really a thing, perhaps a revision of this history is ready to begin, as the only way to precisely define a country is to continually burn that which came before?
Pass me a match.
(1) Morry Schwartz, subscription advertisement, The Saturday Paper, 11 August 2018, p.29.
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