Peripheral Disturbance: Wandering Between Worlds
The Guildhouse Collections Project/ Flinders University Art Museum
Opened, 6 October 2018, by Nicholas Jose
I was surprised to be called up out of the blue by Emma Fey, CEO of Guildhouse, and Fiona Salmon, Director of the Flinders University Art Museum, and asked to say a few words at the opening of Gail Hocking’s exhibition Peripheral Disturbance: wandering between worlds today. I’m grateful because it meant that I got to walk through the exhibition with the artist and the FUAM Collections Curator Nic Brown a couple of days ago and listen to them both talk about the works, as many of you have done this afternoon. That was a special experience, as I’m sure you’ll agree. This is an exhibition in a place, on country, which is why it’s important to start by acknowledging the custodians of this country, the Kaurna people, and I join in that, and also acknowledge other Indigenous people who may be here with us today, especially from the APY lands where the Ernabella Arts Archive at FUAM comes from. Peripheral Disturbance has a complex relationship with place, in many senses. It is both in and out of place; it moves through space and time, as we do as we experience the three site-specific artworks that the artist has made here, as we walk between them, through them, around them, as they reach out to us. It’s a very particular experience that we’ll have only once, different each time we do it. The works change and move, with light, with weather and air flow, as we do. They won’t be here in a couple of months, and we won’t either. But we’ll have our memory, our bodies will remember, and maybe the place will too.
This fragile, precarious thing—‘intangible’ to use Gail’s word—reflects the artist’s process. The work comes out of her reflection on the Ernabella Arts Archive held in trust here in the Art Museum. Gail developed her ideas in the company of those hundreds of artworks made by the Pukatja artists over many decades and in changing media, but always on their country. Gail could touch only with white gloves. Archives can be difficult places for Indigenous people, as we learn from the interrogations of contemporary Indigenous artists like Brook Andrew and Natalie Harkin here at Flinders, who engage with them critically as well as creatively. Gail’s relationship with the archive is different. She is an outsider to it, it disturbs her from the periphery. Reading in the library she finds a photograph women sitting at a waterhole near Ernabella, passing on knowledge to keep culture and country strong, as senior artist Tapaya says. For Gail the is an image of women’s resilience through disruptive time. The essay by Hannah Kothe and Tjukaya Tapaya introduces the Pitjantjatjara word kulini, meaning ‘to listen’, which is rich in significance in this context. It also means ‘to heed’. The artist pays heed, translating her feelings in the presence of the Ernabella Arts Archive into her own visual language, where the meanings are tenuous but persistent.
There is something contradictory here. The work has an intense, organic materiality—tree bark, wax, horsehair—even as it speaks to the imagination and the mind. There’s the contradiction of muslin and cement, a contrast of light and heavy; of oyster shells that float because they’re made of porcelain; of wounds that become vessels and wombs. The discipline of means becomes fecund as we respond to these works, in the way that bone white takes on colour from ambient water and sky, in a kind of magic. There’s an element of discomfort here too, though, as Nic Brown writes in her essay in the catalogue. We are asked ‘to shed our skin’. There’s something raw in the interaction between the material and the subject matter that is one of the most affecting aspects of the exhibition. Nic’s essay identifies the ‘matrilineal ecosystem’ that is present in these works. If there is something uncomfortable in the idea of a non-Indigenous artist responding to an Indigenous art archive, there is also something uncomfortable about a white male writer like myself responding to art works that engage so intimately with the concerns of women. But here we are, feeling that friction, stimulated by it in the way that iron filings are by a magnet, reflecting, paying heed as we go. Tangential, tenuous, intangible….
The exhibition’s subtitle ‘wandering between worlds’ recalls the uncomfortable description of another artist from Central Australia, Albert Namatjira. ‘Wanderer between two worlds’ is the subtitle of one of the first books about him. For Gail the phrase refers to all of us, what we all do, and perhaps especially herself, as elements of her childhood in Aoteroa New Zealand—signified by those floating oyster shells, cradled from hair nets—return in her life, her dreams and work, making landfall here on the coast of South Australia. Let me close then by quoting from a beautiful writer from New Zealand who now lives in Australia, Martin Edmond, writing in the context of Namatjira. Edmond says of all artists:
It’s always something else they are trying to show us: difficult to put into words because it is not a linguistic quality…. something far more rich and strange … in which a world not seen before manifests itself.
Sometimes it seems …we are looking back in time towards the beginning; and perhaps these are.
(Battarbee and Namatjira (Giramondo Publishing, 2014, pp. 154, 328)
For me those words resonate with Gail Hocking’s work too, as we have the precious experience of its peripheral disturbance on us.
Image: Gail Hocking, A precarious resilience 2018, found eucalyptus branch, muslin, black cement, porcelain slip, blended soy wax with artist’s skin imprint, hair nets Photograph Grant Hancock