6 September 2007 - 16 January 2008
Archive Copy- 14 August 2007
Paul Andrew interviews Kelly Gellatly, NGV Curator of Contemporary Art.
Since his first major solo exhibition in 1989, Bennett has achieved international acclaim for the ways in which he engages with questions of cultural and personal identity. His work consistently challenges conventional representations of Australian cultural identity for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians through a focus on connections to place and nationhood.
Kelly, 'aboriginality' is a word that is often critiqued in art/academic circles – what is Bennett’s approach to the meaning, politics and history of this particular term?
I don’t think I can answer for the artist, but I will attempt to convey what I think about this in relation to his work.
From the beginning of his practice Bennett has been concerned with an investigation of the kind of binary oppositions (good/bad, black/white etc.) that structure our understanding of self and society more broadly and the way in which these are integrally connected to language, knowledge and understanding.
While Bennett’s investigation of identity has been informed by his own position as a person of indigenous and non-indigenous descent and there is a thread of self-portraiture that runs through his oeuvre, the artist’s work extends beyond the personal and a simple investigation of self.
His creation of John Citizen in the mid-1990s – a kind of artistic alter ego that has allowed him to make a completely different body of work – is an attempt to work outside of these kind of labels and concerns and an acknowledgement that his investigation of these issues was serving to pigeonhole him as an artist and determine the interpretation and reception of his work.
Tell me a little about Bennett’s most recent work included in the survey – it’s themes, style, media, it’s ethos?
The exhibition closes with Bennett’s most recent and relatively new body of abstract painting. This body of work, which began around 2003, signals a very conscious end to Bennett’s postcolonial project of the last twenty years.
It is also an attempt to step away from the overwhelming power of figurative imagery and the politics and issues of his work to date.
These paintings (which are executed on both paper and canvas) deliberately deny the viewer any kind of narrative association. This is also carried through to their titles – the works are numbered consecutively in the order in which they are painted over the course of each year (ie. Number one, 2004, Number two, 2004 etc.)
I have never had, heard or read any discussion with Gordon about his use of different media, but it is fair to say that he is truly a cross-disciplinary artist whose work ranges across painting, photography, printmaking, video, performance and installation, and that there are works in a number of different media within the exhibition.
It seems to me that the artist’s work is driven by ideas and content first and that this in turn determines the media in which they are executed. Sometimes the same images are made as both paintings and prints, and many motifs re-appear in different works across different time periods. The kind of ‘sampling’ of different images that we see in paintings from the Home décor series for example, shows the increasing importance of the computer to the artist; a tool which has enabled him to experiment and successfully ‘build’ his compositions before physically undertaking their complex and time-consuming execution.
How does Bennett prefer to describe himself in relation to indigenous art history and whom does he count as influences in this sphere?
Bennett’s position on this has changed over the years. When he first began exhibiting in the late 1980s, both he and his practice were discussed in terms of his own position as an (urban) Aboriginal artist and his work was included in exhibitions of both contemporary art and contemporary indigenous art.
But by the mid-1990s, he came to feel he was in an untenable position. While his work was increasingly exhibited within a national and international context, the combination of his position- or as Bennett would argue, ‘label’- as an (urban) Aboriginal artist, and the subject matter of his work, seemed to ensure inclusion within certain curatorial and critical frameworks, and largely determine interpretation and reception.
It is undeniable that many of the issues raised by Bennett’s practice are deeply connected to the artist’s personal experience, circumstance and sense of self, and that the content of much of his work has drawn upon his struggle to come to terms with his indigeneity.
Yet Bennett began to feel that the cultural and social structures surrounding perception, representation and identity that he aims to deconstruct in his work were ironically serving to pigeonhole him.
Bennett has since gone on to categorically refuse the inclusion of his work in ‘Aboriginal’ art exhibitions, preferring, as artists such as Tracey Moffatt have done before him, to be conceived as a ‘contemporary’ artist who just happens to be indigenous and whose work encompasses an investigation of Aboriginality and the construction of identity within a broad range of complex and interconnected issues.
Bennett suggests that if one word was used to describe his work it is “Question” – is Bennett a philosopher of sorts concerned with truth and truthfulness – and if so in what way?
Bennett is first and foremost an artist but it’s true to say that his work deals with philosophical issues.
When it comes to issues like ‘truth’ and ‘truthfulness’ it seems to me that his work is not about these kinds of absolutes but about opening our eyes to the way in which we can believe that what we are taught – and his re-use of images from school history texts is a perfect case in point here – is true.
In drawing attention to the role of language and the nature of perception and understanding, Bennett opens our eyes to possibilities and realities different to the things we have been taught or feel we ‘know’. This is particularly the case with Australian history and the related issues of nationhood and citizenship.
Bennett mentions that ‘freedom’ is a fundamental drive – in what sense does he mean freedom as drive – symbolically, politically? Can you name some examples of this in specific works in the survey?
If you think of the context in which Bennett discusses this – the quote that it comes from – I think that Bennett means ‘freedom’ in terms of a freedom to question and to think differently – freedom to interrogate accepted structures and ways of thinking. From this comes change (hopefully) and the possibility of different realities and futures.
Bennett came to art later in life – where and why was this – how does he describe this experience and motivation?
Bennett chose to go to art school as a mature age student – this was a conscious decision to change the direction of his life.
When thinking of what he might do he was advised to think of things he was good at, and this lead him to art. He began study at Queensland College of Art, Brisbane in 1986. This gave him exposure to postmodernism and postcolonial theory, which were to provide the perfect way of expressing the issues he wanted to deal with in his work.
Appropriation became similarly important at this time and across his career he has incorporated references to and motifs from artists such as Colin McCahon, Van Gogh, Imants Tillers, Jackson Pollock, Margaret Preston, Mondrian and Jean-Michel Basquiat in his work.
Who does Bennett appropriate – why so?
Bennett’s appropriation of the work of other artists allows him to incorporate some of the issues raised by their art within his own practice. In some instances it also allows him to enter into a kind of ‘dialogue’ with them.
In the Notes to Basquiat series,( see work depicted above) Bennett’s appropriation goes a step further. In these works, Bennett works entirely in Basquiat’s ‘hand’, replicating the raw street style of his African American counterpart. These paintings incorporate ‘signature’ Basquiat motifs while also including recognisably Australian subjects, but as if they were painted by Basquiat, not Gordon Bennett.
This survey represents work spanning what period of time – is there a centrepiece to this survey?
This survey spans twenty years of the artist’s practice. It is largely displayed chronologically.
Postmodern art is often critiqued for its overriding concern for aesthetics or melancholy at the expense of political agency – where is Bennett situated in an art historical sense?
I think it’s fair to say that Gordon Bennett is one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed contemporary artists. His work has been exhibited widely both within this country and internationally.
What are two key works that have attracted extraordinary critical acclaim in the exhibition – and why so?
There are too many to mention, however of particular note are The nine ricochets (Fall down black fella, jump up white fella), 1990, for which Bennett won the Möet et Chandon Fellowship and Home décor (Preston + de Stijl = Citizen) Panorama, 1997, for which he was awarded the John McCaughey Memorial Prize.
Many works within the exhibition have been exhibited within Australia and internationally and have been widely published and discussed.
What particular work/works do you love Kelly and why?
There are so many, I hate to single a few out!
I do particularly admire the Home décor and Notes to Basquiat series – both for the sophistication of their imagery, their sampling, and the influence of music (particularly hip hop and rap) upon them.
What makes this survey show urgent and rigorous?
For some artists this kind of survey comes at the ‘right’ time, and I think that this is certainly the case with Gordon Bennett.
He has produced an extraordinary amount of work over the past twenty years and it seems timely to assess it in this context. Of course, like any exhibition, this one is unable to represent absolutely every aspect of Bennett’s practice and this is the challenge of curatorial work.
I hope that the exhibition conveys the nature of his practice over this extended period and the interconnectedness of his concerns – that it provides a journey. I also hope that it introduces Bennett’s work to new audiences while providing some ‘old favourites’ for those more familiar with his practice.
What preconceptions should gallery goers leave at the door as they enter the gallery?
I don’t know about preconceptions, but gallery goers should expect to be challenged. Bennett’s work issues a challenge to political conservatism and social complacency. It prompts us to re-think our personal beliefs and positions, and the broader implications of these on society.
Born Australia 1955
Born Australia 1955
Notes to Basquiat (The coming of the light) 2001
Collection of the artist, Brisbane
Photography: John O’Brien
Copyright Courtesy of the artist