The social gestural of The National

Peter Polites


When I went to see the National, I had to take an Uber to the train station. As I closed the door of the car the cigarette smell inside the cabin overwhelmed me. It was like the driver had just finished a dart. I discreetly opened the windows to aerate the space but the rush of frigid air from outside did not disperse the scent. From the backseat I tried to take in as much as I could about the driver. He was my height, my age and Mediterranean background. At some point in the journey, looking outside at passing Bankstown, I realised that the scent was coming from him. It was baked into him, permeating the fibres of his clothes. And I thought to myself - I know this smell, even if he washed his clothes, it was still all over his skin, coming out of his mouth, right in his teeth. I knew the smell because I too had been a stress smoker and I can always recognise a version of myself from the past. After shuffling through my vain thoughts of being inconvenienced by such a scent (dear god! what will the curators think of me!) a part of me poured out sympathy. Smoking in such a way, is such a flag of distress.

On the road we saw a classic car. He lifted a finger to point it out to me and then low whistled. He talked about how he followed a classic car group on Facebook, and I told him about my dad’s Kingswood which Dad still drives around Belmore. I was shocked when he told me he knew my dad’s car, because he lived in Belmore and had seen the Khaki coloured vintage car steering up and down the streets of the old neighbourhood. I told him that I grew up in Belmore too but now live further out west. I found out that he was driving the Uber because it was a stop gap in his life and didn't know if he wanted to live in Belmore anymore. We talked about the change in the old neighbourhood. The once usual strip of useful shops had given way to fast restaurants, dedicated beauty places and tobacconists. Gentrification is often discussed in terms of white, hipster communities displacing migrant communities. In parts of Sydney, the aspirational children of the diaspora are creating a kind of gentrification that is signified by duplexes. The results are the same, members of the community alienated, dispersed and not connected from the people they once knew. I imagined that his distress came from a change in the community that he grew up in. But of course, despite all this, there is a certain perversity to complaining about gentrification when you are a migrant settler on stolen lands.

There is a work at the Art Gallery of NSW that reminded me of my role as migrant settler. As I walked into the entrance court, along a wall was the work of Brenda L Croft. It’s a series of portraits, from floor to ceiling taken from the series Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me). It was printed on the contemporary technology of inkjet but originally taken in tintype - a photography technique pioneered in the 1800s. I imagine this is part of the intention of the artist, to reference these two time periods. The portraits were of First Nations women who have a connection to the areas of where The National is taking place. They are in front of the 19 century Australian galleries, where the colonial imagination interprets the Australian landscape. This is not lost on me, their placement in front of these galleries is a reminder and a resistance. In the pictures, the women are young, some are old. Some of them stare directly at the viewer or to the sky. The photography technique had rendered a hyper-real chiaroscuro. Impossible works to ignore, ever present even as people just breezed past them. To me they read as moody and reflective. When I stood in front of them, I noticed a blonde man who was holding his girlfriend's hand. They seemed like a casual normie couple, there to spend more time with each other than the artworks. He quickly up downed the portraits, then kept moving. Because it was school holidays, I saw a bunch of children painting little craft pieces, occasionally looking up to the faces. Everyone had to engage with these faces and reflect on their position. The title of the work was a direct reference to prominent and important Cammeraygal woman, Barangaroo. The multiple faces of the women on the wall, centred the matrilineal histories of the area we were standing on, serving a reminder of always was and always will be.

Apart from the staunch reminder and the recentring of women's stories what comes through in the work is the sense of a community existing outside the institutional walls. By creating and presenting multiple portraits, I find myself thinking of the people outside of these walls. I thought I recognised MP Linda Burney and I'm reminded of her experiences and her stories that I know of. It made me reflect on who these women were. What are their stories? Where did these women live? How did Brenda access these women?

When I went to art school from a working-class background, I felt uneasy about coming from a community of people who never access these kinds of institutions. It’s because of this unease I am always drawn to work that reminds us about the world outside of the white wall. There are many artworks that compose the National but throughout all the ones that I saw, the ones that stayed with me were the ones that kept reminding of a community, of connection to people, of a world outside.

I encountered this thread in The National when I was looking at the work created by Shivanjani Lal at Campbelltown. At first, I didn't understand what I was seeing. Oh look, I thought to myself, giant plaster sugar canes. Hooray. They were spaced so apart from each other, and it seemed indifferent, it made me furious, the way indifferent objects do. The sense that I got was one of discontinuity rather than cohesiveness. I longed to see them lined up against a wall, to give the objects a sense of rhythm. Instead, I had to walk through them, more like an obstacle course. The change for me happened when I spent time reading what they were about. I became verklempt, profoundly moved about lives outside of the institutions. This work was a monument to the artist's history and community. Growing up in migrant settler communities in Western Sydney, both me and my partner had weaved relationships with the Indo-Pacific communities of the area. So, when I saw the work that specifically referenced the heritage of the people we knew, a work that operated as a symbolic monument and memoir I was shook. The work looks like giant sugar canes made from plaster; eighty-seven stalks have been harvested from the areas with which I am familiar. The eighty-seven is symbolic of voyages made to Fiji from the subcontinent to take indentured labourers. The plaster casting operates symbolically filled with the materials specific to the artist and community, sugar canes from the area, turmeric from her practice. The base of the stalks is made of brass, which reflects circular yellow light onto the walls of the institution. It gave the heavy castings, the vertical lines, an ethereal quality - candlelight onto walls, giving the impression of something religious. For me, someone who grew up in the traditional Byzantine religion with all its colours and scents, the golden reflection on the walls and thoughts of sweet sugar cane, reminded me of the senses of religion.

I am magnetised to work that reminds me of the communities that I know. It’s personal. It’s totally subjective. But even still, I can make the case that the work which has community connection is a meritocratic artform. And this work has more value than the goods made for a luxury market. We are all aware of the pressures of artists to make a living in late capitalism and I won’t begrudge them for scattering paint on a canvas and popping the champers with a collector. But personally, as an audience member, I will always seek more. I will always search for work whose primary intention is one about community and the social.

At the MCA, Allison Chhorn's work also occupies this space of being a monument to a people. It does the service of reminding us of a world outside the gallery wall. It’s the institutions representing these works that are the lucky ones. They are the ones privileged enough to bring the richness, the complexity and depth of these stories to enrich their spaces. All curators, all audiences and the artists needed to be reminded of this - that the minority's participation in these spaces benefit the institutions. Allison Chhorn's work, like Shivanjani, reminds us of a deep complexity to the settler refugee experience that makes up the current fabric of the Australian nation state. When you enter the darkened room at the MCA, immediately you see a tent made of shade cloth. Images are projected from the inside out and from above onto the walls. Your eyes are tricked into thinking the images can project through the shade cloth and be fully realised. The shade cloth tent is the kind that food gardeners use, I know the fabric from my family, its mesh and see through. My father had a green one that covered parts of his garden. The shade cloth is structured in a way so that it reminds us of a tent, it references the refugee experience. There is a welcome mat at the entry to the shade cloth structure. Viewers walk inside over bits of wood chip, and we listen to a twelve-track sound with images of domesticity, tending of gardens. Interrupting these images are the occasional patter of footsteps and sounds of planes overhead. The more I sat with this work the more I got a sense of impermanence. The more I got the idea of something outside of itself. That this flimsy material tent was a monument to a community, to the memories of a group of people, loving and living, healing their experience with the intimacies of growing, reminding me of the people that I know in Western Sydney from the working-class Cambodian diaspora. I think of my friend and co-worker Kylie who speaks of her family history like the memories on the shade cloth. I remember my friend Vanna, someone whose family navigated trauma and the agrarian tradition in their homes. For me, the thought of a monument like this existing in the institution's walls, fills me with a romance and nostalgia. They mediate the people I know and their histories through these poem objects.

Much has been said of this before, but art has taken the role of religion. And when you unpack this, it’s as simple as identifying the needs of love and human connectivity we require as a baseline for existing. So much of this exhibition has been reminding me of something outside of the gallery walls and outside of ourselves. I find myself coming to these institutions to be reminded of my religion, the complexity of human experience that moves me, and makes me reflect on the world outside. Yes, I come to these galleries to be reminded of the world outside.

The duality of this work is that it exists inside the institution but only because of the world around it. It’s why the workshop documentation of the Ivi collective is so interesting. At the MCA, a ngatu - traditional cloth made from the mulberry tree, is presented alongside images of workshops, texts, and instructions. The pictures are photographs of community members with the artists of the collective, creating the work together. It looks like a Community Cultural Development project but using knowledge and forms that are specific to Tongan communities dissipated amongst a diverse group of participants. Ngatu is used ritualistically, created in process that is collective and de-centres the individual. It is about creating a work that socially engages the community, building a fabric of society together. When I stood amongst the object artefacts that are on show by the Ivi collective, I stood amongst the numerous gestures of a community's work, I stood amongst the work of multiple hands using their gestures to collectively create the work. This is the social gestural work that I am making a case for.

On the theme of multiple hands making an object, the work of Elizabeth Day at Carriageworks is another piece which had a community behind it. In The Flow of Form: There’s a Reason Beyond that There’s a Reason (1797 Parramatta Gaol), Carriageworks, Redfern, a bunch of unravelled op shop threads are designed onto a wall to make an image of Parramatta Jaol representing the heavy square lines of sandstone bricks. The threads are arranged to represent a bright and optimistic version of colonial architecture. Elizabeth as an artist has worked across these punitive incarceration spaces, she has a history of creating art with the marginalised communities. In recreating an image of this carceral space - through the means of a community unspooling threads - we reflect on the unravelling of memories. My first thoughts in response to this work was seeing it as a softening, a literal softening of the punitive, hard sandstone Parramatta Jaol. Both the asylum and jaol have been spaces where family members or I have connections too. Jaols and asylums come from the same place, Foucault's work in the seventy’s documents all this. These places are sites of intergenerational trauma and punishment. They are not of healing and Elizabeth has an art practice that is dedicated to healing this trauma. I know personally how important that work is. I hope it's fruitful and that the healing that happens in these spaces is one that I can also bring to my personal life and family. Situated opposite this work at Carriageworks is Bamugora. This is a dome woven by Susan Balbunga, a senior Warrawarra maker. She makes works out of fibres using a knowledge that is specific to her community. The conical work represented here is a shelter for the community. It's made from Pandanus using traditional techniques. But the work sits so close to Elizabeth Day’s work it’s almost impossible not to reflect on the relationships between both structures and how they both exist near each other. The representation of the sandstone Jaol made of spooled op shop jumpers and then the hand-woven fibres of Bamugura, providing safety and shelter. Here the shelter, fabric, punishment, colonial history all interacts. But what I really think is the hands of the people making the work. The multiple community members unspooling the fabrics or the multiple hands that have learned the techniques of weaving.

It’s these gestures that I keep on thinking of. Traditional or community or healing or family gestures like the creative artwork authored by the Aquilizan family. At Campbelltown we see the collective result of a family working together to create the work titled Another Country. The Aquilizans are situated between Brisbane and Manilla and within their work we see the images of travel, movement, and home. At first, I stood in front of what I thought was a series of boxes made up to be a city. I had to take a step back to see that it was made in the shape of a plane. Aha! I thought to myself: travel. Occupying the whole room was a boat made from domestic objects. It was these two objects that held my attention. They made me think about living across worlds and countries, the constant nature of what it is to be in a diaspora. The objects made from various arrangements had me thinking again about the idea of belonging and a reach towards community. I couldn't help but bring my prejudice to the work and think about all the Filipino community members in my life. My friend Christina Ra and her fishy little sister, how both sisters possess a sense of restlessness. I thought about the two objects, boats and planes really were making statements of travel but collectively devised they became a whole family's gesture and commentary. Isobel Aquilizan herself has said the connections formed in the process are paramount. I think about the family working together, all of them using their hands to arrange and create this work together, bonding through the collective gestures.

These ideas of travel, the migrant settler and community authorship made me think about my friend again. The one I first encountered when I sat in the backseat of his Uber. My nostrils still remember the smell of the caked in cigarette. My hands can feel the too shiny leather of the car and my skin can sense the cold Bankstown air rushing into the cabin from the deliberately left open windows. All these were distressed gestures of a man’s fear at a changing community. Then there is my other friend, Lemon Tree, I often tell her that the community of Belmore is gone, that for all our fates and memories, the area we grew up in isn’t the one we remember. And be warned, we too will share the same fate if we don’t give up memories of a long past, the way we gave up cigarettes. Our gesture of using a hand to bring a dart to our mouth cannot be the one we leave the world.

I say that for all the artworks that made up The National, the ones that moved me the most, the magnetic ones, were a gesture of a community memory or history. That these social gestures were reflections of a world outside the gallery. I still think about that driver, the one that smelled too ashy, the one that was so stressed at losing his changing community, the person that I could easily be. It's because of us I searched out works that represented this connection, it’s a way to heal ourselves from increasingly hostile late capitalism: the social gesture.