Past origins, present politics

Anneke Jaspers, Art Gallery of New South Wales


In his last body of work, Home Décor (after M. Preston) (2012–13), the late, great conceptual painter Gordon Bennett looked back to an earlier moment in Australian art history. Bennett adapted his graphic compositions from a series of images by the celebrated modernist Margaret Preston, used to illustrate a suite of articles over 1924–30 in which she championed a national style founded upon the visual language of ‘native art’. Working empathically with Indigenous forms, Preston claimed, was the key to developing a modern aesthetic that was authentically tethered to place. (1) And to this end, she pressed into the service of bedspreads, rugs and cushion covers Aboriginal designs derived from traditional objects.

Bennett’s counter-appropriation of Preston’s designs was clearly not a ‘genuflection before the canon’ but an attempt to renegotiate a past entangled with his sense of identity: an act of historical positioning, deftly weaving together a critique of cultural imperialism and colonial power relations. (2) It marked the untimely culmination of a mode of history painting he had developed over three decades – here masquerading as abstraction – which took aim at the assumptions and occlusions of a white Australian cultural narrative. Notably, these Home Décor paintings do not only invoke the nationalist project of the interwar period, or the vast history of Indigenous sovereignty embodied within Preston’s source materials. A recurring discourse of cultural convergence is also latent within the works, specifically the spurious concept of ‘white aboriginality’ advanced by Preston and her contemporaries of the Jindyworobak literary movement, and later revived (to different ends) by Imants Tillers and Paul Taylor during the early 1980s. (3) The ensuing debates around locality, provincialism and appropriation are hence captured within Bennett’s purview, framed by a perspective from the thoroughly globalised present, where the legacies of colonialism remain firmly entrenched.

In this spirit, we might say that Bennett’s Home Décor paintings encompass a ‘constellation’ of historical times, riffing on Walter Benjamin, who used the term to describe histories that reconceive relationships across different periods in order to unsettle dominant narratives. (4) Benjamin’s notion holds particular currency for contemporary artistic practices concerned with looking back – or, more specifically, historiography – which have been particularly prominent in recent years. Since Hal Foster named this ‘archival impulse’ over a decade ago, a range of more focused arguments has emerged to address the distinctive approaches rallied within its frame. (5) Claire Bishop, for example, has diagnosed a mode of art concerned with the ‘ghosts of modernity’, principally expressed through the appropriation of modernist precursors: emblems of failed utopic thinking ‘reformatted’ by contemporary artists into different mediums, largely as a formal rather than ideological exercise. (6) This strand of practice, she argues, signals a nostalgic return to the future-oriented thrust of modernity, one that points to just how foreign such idealism is in the current political climate. (7) But Bennett’s appropriations (and, by extension, one could easily argue, other work originating beyond a Euro–American world view) clearly run counter to this logic, demonstrating that an appeal to modernism’s ‘seductive alterity’ risks reproducing aspects of that earlier period’s regime of cultural oppression, including the tendency to exoticise a global South. (8) Instead, the temporalities compressed into Home Décor specifically exceed that of western modernity. And, moreover, the works enact a series of authorial displacements in which a modernist notion of artistic genius can never finally be located, since the Indigenous makers of the objects Preston appropriated will never be known.

In terms of subject and style, much of the work that could legitimately be captured under the rubric of reformatting modernism refers to the early-20th century avant-garde and to the interdisciplinary experiments of the 1960s and 70s, the former shaped by the political upheavals surrounding World War I and the latter marking the high tide of modernism and transition towards postmodernism. In one sense, this is symptomatic of the gravitational pull within current art practice towards moments of historical rupture, both more distant and more proximate. On the other hand, Bishop’s argument belies the fact that many artists look beyond the scope of aesthetic histories to more explicitly address other disciplinary accounts of the past: social, economic, environmental and so on. While acknowledging the force of works like Bennett’s, it is here that more politicised engagements are often to be found: works that take up his strategy of ‘using history against History’ to complicate and contest versions of the past that have been instrumentalised in the name of power. (9)

The apparent urgency to engage with histories in the current moment is often attributed to the amnesiac conditions produced by globalisation: our hyperactive exposure to information and the rapid cycle of consumer obsolescence. Conversely, some critics have also pointed to the fact that in the age of the internet the past is more available to us now than ever before. Jan Verwoert has offered another, more compelling take, suggesting that it is not ready access to a multitude of old material that has prompted this retrospection but a radical shift in how we experience our historical situation. In the wake of the linear, unified time of modernist progress and its suspension then collapse during the Cold War era, Verwoert stresses that we have entered a period in which a multiplicity of once-marginal histories has re-emerged. (10) Hence, we have gone from feeling ‘a general loss of historicity’ in the 1980s to sensing ‘an excessive presence of history, a shift from not enough to too much history or rather too many histories’ to contain within the universal pretence of a western teleology. (11)

With the return of so many repressed histories, Verwoert proposes the world has been remapped according to a range of competing and overlapping temporalities that reflect the enduring conflicts and inequities produced by modern regimes of power. (12) This, in turn, has catalysed the rise of anachronism as a key trope in cultural production: the desire to relate different historical times or embody the disjointed temporality of the present as this plays out across geographic space. In its broadest terms, appropriation is central to this enterprise, but it is no longer practised according to the logic of postmodernism, wherein signs were severed from their original context. Instead, found sources are used to conjure the circumstances from which they came: not arbitrarily quoted or nostalgically reformatted but mobilised in an active, critical dialogue with the present. Equally, many artists work outside a paradigm of citation, finding other means to construct relationships across time, narrative documentary and embodied research being key among them.

Such acts of historical retrieval are frequently discussed as a form of ‘haunting’, the return of the undead to remind us of deferred desires, unresolved injustices or lost inheritances. (13) Alternatively, we might borrow the concept of ‘temporal drag’ from queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman, where the ‘pull of the past’ reveals a ‘stubborn identification with a set of social coordinates that [exceeds our] own historical moment’. (14) While these readings emphasise different modes of association – one more traumatic, the other grounded in empathy – they both affirm art’s capacity to animate the social imaginary. Thus, in The National 2017: New Australian Art, when suppressed Indigenous traditions, obsolete currencies, looted antiquities, bombed-out cities, displaced food cultures, threatened species and second-wave feminist political practices are returned into view, their untimeliness is charged with an affective potential.

Significantly, these forms of art do not only reflect our contemporary relationship to time but also to space. As T.J. Demos has noted, such works occupy ‘a diverse range of micro-political artistic positions’ that address specific local contexts while accounting for the ‘cultural, financial, and environmental geographies’ that link these places with many others. (15) This attention to how the local intersects with the global is a wider phenomenon. Indeed, Anthony Gardner has ventured that the ‘foregrounding of locality’ has emerged ‘as the cornerstone of contemporary practice’. (16) While the international art world continues to reproduce a western program, he argues, artists are ‘insisting on the importance of the local, the specific, the contingent’ in ways that recalibrate global axes of dialogue and influence. And so it follows: locations such as Arnhem Land, Bougainville, Canberra and Beirut figure prominently for artists in The National at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Against the homogenising and alienating effects of globalism, then, much of the work presented here asserts the particularities of place and of subjective, situated experience. In part, this unfolds through methods of research and making that emphasise the perspective of a body on the scene. This is true more broadly of contemporary art concerned with history but also of social practice, typically assumed to be the locus of ‘socially engaged’ art. It is no coincidence that two of the seminal texts documenting the rise of these tendencies appeared in tandem: Foster’s pithy synopsis ‘An Archival Impulse’ and Bishop’s polemic on ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. (17) Foster astutely clocked their shared preference for the tactile and embodied rather than virtual, despite the ascendancy of the internet; but these more-or-less simultaneous developments in art have otherwise rarely been thought together. (18) In fact, they are more often considered in oppositional terms: archival art is deemed to trace social change, while relational practices attempt to induce it.

Yet there have always been nuanced parallels. Both tacitly engage with the concept of endurance, not as performance duration but in relation to what survives through time, or what disappears and what is remembered. They also pressure the discipline of art history (and history, more broadly) by undoing its classical ideal of a unified, authoritative viewpoint, whether through structure or content. (19) If previously the affinities were latent, however, now it could be argued these two trajectories increasingly share a common horizon, where the insistent materiality of historiographic art meets the transformative agenda of social practice. Even so, it is telling that while the work in The National at the AGNSW has developed from both lineages, their familiar ‘experiential regimes’ no longer hold. (20) Instead, we see an investment in art’s political potential manifest across a more diverse field of aesthetic experimentation, which resists any false separation between formal and social concerns.

While a key connecting thread between the works presented at the AGNSW is a mode of retrospection, or at least a focus on the dual forces of time and change, they don’t offer teleologies. Rather, these works propose new sightlines onto specific histories, which in turn allow us to reconstitute a sense of what is becoming in and of our present, or what might yet become. These sightlines are numerous, taking in the relationship of capital, gender, religion, race, geography and technology to the modelling of social difference and the disparate historical narratives and enduring power struggles this difference produces. But perhaps moreso, they seem attuned to the related but incommensurable notion of cultural value and how this is expressed through everything from, say, traditions of object-making to territorial disputes, popular media, relationships to land, forms of protest, and languages both verbal and visual. Sometimes these articulations of ideology are explicit, often they are more oblique, but collectively they build a picture of how systems of belief innately frame our understanding of progress: a construct now suspended between so many complex and conflicting realities.

The works gathered here remain alert to the nuances of this predicament and also, finally, make clear that the apprehension of the past in relation to notions of progress – whether characterised as rupture or continuity – is always tethered to a particular historical situation. It is sensible only, as Susan Buck-Morss has observed, ‘in a constellation with the present’. (21) Bennett’s Home Décor paintings signal this at the very entrance to the exhibition, following as they do in the wake of local feminist art histories, nineties identity politics and more recent momentum around the decolonising process. But his reflexivity is common among the artists at the AGNSW, who look to the margins of mainstream narratives in order to unlock new perspectives and political possibilities that are borne of this context – in all its heterogeneity – and belong to this moment in time.


(1) Margaret Preston, ‘Art for crafts: Aboriginal art artfully applied’, The Home, vol.5, no.5, 1 December 1924, pp.30–31; see also Margaret Preston, ‘The Indigenous art of Australia’, Art in Australia, ser.3, no.11, March 1925, unpaginated, and ‘The application of Aboriginal designs’, Art in Australia, ser.3, no.31, March 1930, unpaginated.

(2) A brilliant turn of phrase borrowed from Anthony Gardner, which he uses to dismiss appropriations that reinscribe hegemonic art histories in ‘Spectres after Marx: contemporary art’s contiguous histories’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol.10, no.1, 2011, p.205. 

(3) See Kenneth H. Gifford, Jindyworobak: towards an Australian culture, Jindyworobak Publications, Melbourne, 1944; Imants Tillers, ‘Locality fails’, Art & Text, no.6, 1982, pp.51–60; and Paul Taylor, ‘Popism: the art of white Aborigines’, Flash Art, no.112, May 1983, pp.48–50. On the term ‘cultural convergence’, see Bernard Smith, The spectre of Truganini, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1980,  pp.44–52; and for an overview of this territory, see Rex Butler, 'Introduction’, in What is appropriation? An anthology of critical writings on Australian art in the 1980s and 90s, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Power Institute of Fine Arts, Sydney, 1996, pp.13–46.

(4) Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, 1940, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, pp.253–64. Bennett himself explicitly addressed the constellation as a possibility in his work in a letter addressed posthumously to Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Notes to Basquiat’, unpublished room notes for the exhibition Gordon Bennett at Sherman Galleries, 5 November – 4 December 1999, Sydney.

(5) Hal Foster, ‘An archival impulse’, October, no.110, Fall 2004, pp.3–22. 

(6) Claire Bishop, ‘Déjà vu: contemporary art and the ghosts of modernity’, unpublished public lecture presented by Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne,
17 December 2014, and also given at various other venues around the world over 2014–15.

(7) ibid. 

(8) Far from invoking Preston’s work in the spirit of a ‘failed utopia’, Bennett instead exposes Preston’s seemingly innocuous gesture as another manifestation of colonial violence and dispossession.

(9) Ian McLean’s formulation, see ‘The eternal return of irony: Gordon Bennett (1955– 2014)’, Discipline, no.4, 2015, p.172.

(10) Jan Verwoert, ‘Living with ghosts: from appropriation to invocation in contemporary art’, Art & Research, vol.1, no.2, Summer 2007,

(11) ibid.

(12) ibid.

(13) These readings invariably refer back to Jacques Derrida’s influential book Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York, 1994. 

(14) Elizabeth Freeman, ‘Packing history, count(er)ing generations’, New Literary History, vol.31, no.4, Autumn 2000, p.728. 

(15) T.J. Demos, Return to the postcolony: specters of colonialism in contemporary art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013, pp.158–159.

(16) Anthony Gardner, ‘The demand for locality’, in Natasha Bullock and Alexie Glass-Kantor (eds), Parallel collisions: 2012 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2012, p.189.

(17) Foster, op.cit.; Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and relational aesthetics’, October, no.110, Fall 2004, pp.51–79.

(18) Foster, op.cit., pp.4–5.

(19) For an interesting account of how relational practices challenge the conventions of art history, see Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘Can there be a history of contemporary art?’, Discipline, no.2, Autumn 2012, pp.150–155 (specifically pp.154–155). 

(20) Even while arguing against their interpretation as ‘objects of a new formalism’, Bishop has described the relentless ubiquity of ‘formless-looking photo-documents … reading areas, parades, demonstrations, discussions, [and] plywood platforms’ as the corollary of social exchange entering the field of contemporary aesthetics; see Claire Bishop, ‘Participation and spectacle: where are we now?’, in Nato Thompson (ed.), Living as form: socially engaged art from 1991–2011, Creative Time, New York, and MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2012, p.38. In part, the notable shift away from such strategies in recent
years can be attributed to the co-option of ‘participation’ by the labour and experience economies; as Bishop goes on to note, so many ‘aspects of this art practice dovetail … perfectly with neoliberalism’s recent forms’, p.39. For its part, archival art of the early 2000s also developed its own stylistic codes, with objects and images routinely arranged in quasi-archival environments and the heavy (often-melancholic) use of obsolete technologies – approaches now similarly superseded.

(21) Susan Buck-Morss, ‘The gift of the past’, dOCUMENTA (13): 100 notes – 100 thoughts, no. 004 Emily Jacir & Susan Buck- Morss, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2012, p.43.