Gavin Malone

Boots and all

Gavin Malone: In the Footsteps of Stuart

In 2005 Adelaide-based artist Gavin Malone presented an exhibition In the Footsteps of Stuart at the South Australian Museum. The exhibition was one in an ongoing series within the Inside SAM’s Place programme, a collaborative project between Craftsouth and the South Australian Museum, which involves artists working ‘inside the museum’ to promote public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of South Australian craft, art and design. This was not the first museum intervention for the artist. In 2002 Malone and Georgina Williams, a senior Kaurna woman, presented a collaborative exhibition, Dislocation, in the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery of the South Australian Museum. Dislocation was a cross-cultural synthesis of conflicting and complementary world views. Developing the concept involved Malone ‘walking country’ with Williams and visiting her ‘growing up‘ place in Narrunga country at Point Pearce on Yorke Peninsula. Malone witnessed burial sites marked by piles of stones and cement slabs. From this experience came one of the most striking images in the exhibition; a notched timber headstone standing in a bed of wheat. The notches could either refer to felled trees or the loss incurred by Aboriginal people. Central to this work was the idea of long-term ecological and social sustainability. The ruthless clearance of the land on Yorke Peninsula, and with it, the fabric of Aboriginal societies which lived there, has been historically viewed (according to ‘settlement’ history) as a triumph of western civilisation. For Malone, such episodes are reminders that in the longer term the economic privileging of a single plant species (in this instance wheat) to the exclusion of all others will mean that western culture will not survive unless, as he describes, it adapts to “the indigenous nature of place.” Paradoxically Malone also says that “blackfella culture, as it once was, cannot survive here either.” This sense of a shared dilemma explains why cross-cultural collaborations have been central to Malone’s practice. He has worked with the Kaurna community, for fifteen years on cultural renewal and interpretation projects, public artworks and exhibitions. These include Bulto Ityangga/Traces (with Karl Telfer and Greg Johns) at Lochiel Park Green Village, Yitpi Tukkutya Parrundaiendi / The Dancing Spirits (with Karl Telfer) at Flinders Medical Centre and Tjirbruki Narna arra’- The Tjirbruki Gateway (with Sherry Rankine and Margaret Worth) at Warriparinga, a place of particular significance to Kaurna people in suburban Adelaide.

Malone’s career as an artist has favoured interventionist and ‘outsider’ strategies (such as using non-gallery spaces like museums, streets, shops and a diversity of bushland settings) designed to communicate with far larger and culturally diverse audiences than those associated with alternative art spaces. His credentials as an ‘under the radar’ agitprop artist are persuasive. Some with longer memories will remember Malone’s group of ‘Eco-Druids’ of the early 1990s dressed in academic gowns and wearing gas masks, mounting silent protests about academia’s failure to respond to perceived predatory environmental behaviour by government and corporations. Malone’s commitment to a better world as defined by human and natural sustainability was locked in, almost as he says, from day one at art school. Malone initially intended to be a painter. He made one painting in 1992 and did not make another until 2008. In fact, it is his proud boast that he graduated from art school in painting without ever having made one in his final year! The attraction for Malone in preferring to make objects was, and remains, to be able to address social outcomes through a full range of media and formats including large scale installations which incorporate performative elements. Central to many of his strategies has been an emphasis on the symbolic properties of materials as seen in his use of red gum (signifying indigeneity) also wheat, paper, stone and metal. In many instances the very materials used come with their own stories – such as one sculpture made from the pulped paper of the artist’s Honours thesis and a set of 1952 (the year of Malone’s birth) Australian pennies translated into mock medals commemorating martial valor. In another work shredded bank notes were served (complete with serviettes) as if a meal which ironically celebrated unsustainable consumerism. By 2003 Malone had decided that through such works he had created what he terms an ‘Ecological Self Portrait’ consisting of an ‘economic self’ (1952 pennies and shredded bank notes), an ‘ecological self’ (red gum seed and salt) an ‘emotional self’( wedding ring and a key inserted into a timber heart) and an ‘ethereal self’( wedge-tailed eagle feathers). Through this body of self-symbolism the artist felt that from this point on he was equipped to re-imagine himself and the world from a number of different perspectives. As he later comments, “I look forward to the day when we have red gum, limestone and sheoak for brains, when we overcome our cultural mal-adaptation and adapt our thinking and cultural practices, from agriculture to high culture, to be of this place.”

Malone’s practice from the 1990s to the present day has been layered and multi-faceted. Within the broad frameworks of exploring the dynamics of ecological and cultural sustainability and the construct of the cultural landscape he has continued to exhibit sculptures within gallery contexts as well as site sculpture and  installations within landscape settings (such as at Palmer in the Adelaide Hills). An additional strand within his creative journey has been to engage with country by travelling extensively. His travels have taken him throughout many inland and coastal areas of Australia over the last twenty years with the intention of developing an understanding of Australian landscapes, psyche and stories of place. He has drawn particular inspiration from traversing some of Australia’s iconic arid regions notably The Great Victoria, Tanami, Tirari, Gibson, Simpson, Sturt Stony and Strzelecki Deserts.

The idea for In the Footsteps of Stuart, based on colonial explorer John McDouall Stuart’s inland explorations of 1858 – 1862, came to Malone while on a road trip to Central Australia in 2003. The concept was further refined on two subsequent journeys as Malone calibrated his travelling to match as closely as possible the actual routes taken by Stuart. Malone had for a long time been drawn to the figure of Stuart as someone, who unlike the foolhardy Robert O’Hara Burke, had learnt to read the bush and deal with it on its terms, rather than see it as something to be ‘conquered’ by European technologies and an act of will. Stuart’s legendary reputation for leading his parties of men and beasts across fearful stretches of desert was based on hard-won skills to read signs, such as the fall of the land, the behaviour of animals or the colour of grasses, which revealed sources of water. These skills in Malone’s estimation bore the hallmarks of someone who had learnt to engage with the land in an indigenous sense. As such, Stuart became in the artist’s mind, a prototype of the kind of accommodation with the land European mindsets need to achieve in order to survive. In formulating an art work to encapsulate this project Malone settled on self portraiture as the primary vehicle. In walking the land in Stuart’s footsteps and maintaining a photographic record of site visitation, the artist was effectively holding up a mirror to not only self but to a contemporary audience to reflect on the necessity of learning to live with the land. Walking country for Malone involved driving then hiking to sites along Stuart’s various routes and taking photographs of the local terrain. In this context the camera became the surrogate eye of not only the artist but of an imagined colonial explorer scanning the topography for information, which in the original context might spell the difference between life and death. Malone’s larrikin wit cast the artist as a pair of worn boots which played a starring role in the exhibition. Malone regards this strategy as supplying the enterprise with the obligatory ‘exploration artefact’. And as he adds, “They could represent any explorer, dead or alive, lost in the interior or triumphant on return.” The self portraiture component of In the Footsteps of Stuart was given an oblique twist with Malone’s bare feet featuring prominently in each image. The presence of bare feet referenced in part the artist’s belief that in order to properly walk country one should do so bare-footed. The fact that his (Celtic-ancestry) white feet looked totally ‘out of place’, and even ridiculous, set against quartz rock and red sand, was deliberate. In association with the boots (in part a reference to Arrernte men’s recorded comments on the boot prints left by Stuart and his men), the feet symbolised a predicament, as the artists sees it, for European Australians who by and large, prefer to insulate themselves from the land.

In the Footsteps of Stuart involved both performative and pictorial strategies. The performative component derived from the artist sending postcards to family and friends while on his inland journeys. These postcards were later retrieved and the texts edited to be incorporated within a series of 34 exhibition works. Each of these works consisted of post card texts set beneath two photographic images of images; one a ‘macro’( surrounding topography of site) and the other a  ‘micro’( feet photographed from above by the artist)?. An example is Gosses Bluff Tnurrala. The text (to ‘Zofia and Paul’) outlines complementary histories (Indigenous and non- Indigenous) associated with the massive impact which formed a 20 km diameter crater around 142 million years ago. The topographic photograph gives an idea of how the rock formations look today. Beneath this the ‘micro’ photograph carries an added humorous touch of the artist’s feet standing next to a ‘micro’ crater formed by an ants’ nest.  In considering the SA Museum context for In the Footsteps Malone did not set out to directly link his investigations to any artefacts held in the Museum’s collections but was cognisant in a generic sense of this and other Australian museum’s roles in collecting artefacts which resource interpretations of colonial settlement and contact history. It was this ambient context of the museum as a scientific institution which, in the end, informs a reading of In the Footsteps as a ‘walking country backwards’ experience by which the familiar and the well rehearsed narratives of colonial history from which many contemporary perspectives are derived, are made to look less familiar, less convincing, and ultimately, incomplete. In sowing the seeds of doubt and casting self as a foot-loose time traveller, this cultural geographer has done his work well.

John Neylon

John Neylon is an Adelaide-based art writer and curator. He is the inaugural art critic for The Adelaide Review and writes regularly for this publication.