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Guarding civilization's rim
One of the accomplishments of the collaborative installation, Guarding Civilisation's Rim, was its strategic manipulation of the participant/viewer through a series of physical and conceptual compel/repel 'snares', as it critiqued aspects our colonial past.
Entry to the gallery from the city provided a glimpse through one large street-front window of a near empty space dominated by a digitalised image of a young soldier, circa WWI, perhaps earlier; young, beautiful, sacrificial; like a ghost from any Anglo-Australian family album. The trap was set.
On entering through double central doors, I was confronted, collided almost, with a square bunker of flour sacks encased in a netted room, and shaped to replicate any child's drawing of a family home. As I swerved to avoid contact a second digitalised image came into view, an enigmatic personality, seated this time, and with compelling, direct gaze and the paraphernalia and pose of 'the gentleman'. His vision conjured a sense of possession of the space, of myself and of more. I glanced at the catalogue, "Every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world ... ". At this point my mind took a roll through my own experience of an inviolable Anglo framework which failed to imagine that 'civilisation' was anything but a narrow one-way street for manicured fortresses of suburban dreaming.
Turning abruptly, my eyes settled on the view reproduced above: the net, a distanced glimpse of colour, a drawn blind and in the foreground, an antique morse coding device with an extension cord entering the bunker. My already agitated fingers tapped out a predictable " .. - .. " or "Save Our Souls", and a flux of ambient red on the ceiling of the tent resembled a modest nuclear flash.
In part released from personal reveries of cultural constraint, I strolled to the far end of the gallery to where three pyramids of preserving jars were neatly arranged on a wooden shelf. The first grouping contained potatoes, pears, onions and other Western food staples; the second, large blooms of bottle brush, fern stalks, pandanus nuts and other less recognisable bush tucker; and the third, rice, bean sprouts and fish, together with more exotically indefinable, densely packed components in salmon pinks, carmine reds and dust orange ochres. The contents of each jar floated seductively. Discreet microcosms, inviting entry into private imaginings of a sustaining nature. Preservations of difference, separate intellectualized reveries on cultural wealth. Again I referred to the catalogue. "During the voyage, the hatches are firmly caulked down, every crevice completely closed with pitch.
Emanations from cargo were kept strictly separate from emanations from crew. Cook's ship ... Engaged, disengaged, I turned to face the dominant net, almost stumbling over a set of three objects constructed from pitched beeswax and depicting a billie flowering into a wok. The central bud moved, split, opened over its three week sojourn in the Townsville heat.
Guarding Civilisation's Rim offers such a strictly mainstream 'menu' in its referencing of current postcolonial concerns that it is impossible not to suspect some element of parody. However, what ultimately carried the installation beyond the predictable, was its focus on and reconstruction of cultural identity from the perspective of the personal.
In these 'outer regions of the far north', one of the substantial advantages of the reception of installation art has been the import of the artists along with the work, providing the opportunity for professional interaction and for observation of the art making process. Whilst this at first may seem a rather uncomfortable blurring of product and personality it does seem appropriate in the context of this installation. Signatured as 'The Personal Museum', the impact of the work was layered not only by catalogue writings set out in the format of a colonial museum flyer and by artists' talks, but also by performance undertaken as part of the installation of the work: Woods continued her preserving activities; the budding billie was constructed over the two nights before the opening and Kinder, who came up to pack the work, talked at length with a number of individuals, extending the works observations on history and post-history. These events reinforced the artists' statement that "Of particular concern to the Personal Museum is ... the Everyday, with particular reference to the domestic and the way the elements of the everyday delineate cultural difference".