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It would be easy to see re/form as an inexorable display of 'political correctness'. While its time frame is 1979 to 1995, these are works of the 1980s, overtly political, didactic and idealistic. They are modest yet incisive statements about how some of us would like the society we live in to be. When I began Art School in 1980, I remember being irritated by a lecturer who believed that art had changed nothing. I thought, perhaps naively, that the explicit politics of Picasso's Guernica and Goya's Madrid, 3 May, 1808 or the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration must have made some impact.
re/form's appearance at the Logan Art Gallery is timely in that it not only enables us to view these works in a new historical/political context but also to assess their success. Many of us had lived through the 1980's in the belief that Australia was a tolerant society with fair play as its driving force, where racism, sexism and poverty were on the wane. 1998, and thanks to the rise of One Nation we are horrified to find that nothing could be further from the truth. The works that Beth Jackson has selected from the Griffith University Art Collection represent a period of noble intent when many people really believed that art could be a powerful force for change.
Although I now see art as having a limited ability to motivate social and political change, the bringing together of Griffith University's art and law departments has laid the foundations for an interesting project. The catalogue which accompanies the exhibition is a series of essays by lawyers of varying status, each with an area of specialisation including legal codes, citizenship, women, gay and lesbian rights, copyright and the environment. One would expect that this alliance of the often arcane worlds of art and law would be an anathema to the 'lay people' to whom the show is pitched. Fortunately however, it is not. The essays are packed with interesting information which reads like law 'trivia'. I don't mean that what is written is trivial, rather, that it is interesting in the way that trivia tends to be.
Since ancient times art and law have been among the civilising forces at the centre of humanity's struggle with the vagaries of 'natural order'. While art and culture might protect us from nature, law protects us against ourselves. In re/form however, law, like art, appears to be somewhat ineffectual, able to change little other than itself. C. Moore Hardy's We were out-of-it from Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project reminds us that Homosexual law reform did not bring an end to violence against the gay community and that no one really expected that it would.
The works which deal with Indigenous Australians illustrate most effectively how thin a veneer law provides for the myth of civilisation. Max Stuart's short film Broken English, in which an Aboriginal man is wrongly accused of murder, is a harrowing indictment of law's capacity to conceal the prejudicial behaviour of its makers, interpreters and keepers. Opprobrious works such as Richard Bell's Held in Justice and Donna Confetti's Black Deaths in Custody highlight the failure of the Westminster judicial system to deal with anything outside its immediate jurisdiction. To these artists 'the law is an ass' and while their works may not have saved one life, their passionate critique makes for potent statements about how the white man's law has failed in respect of cultural difference. Importantly, this point has not escaped the lawyers involved in re/form whose interest in human rights issues is in keeping with that of the artists shown.
Many viewers will find some of the work in this show overly earnest and devoid of the spectacle we have come to expect from contemporary art in the '90s. It is work which will always depend to some extent on the social and political climates of the time in which it is seen. Richard Tipping's Untitled (FCK) and Meat Mart are interesting exceptions. Thanks to the immutable advertising of MacDonalds and KFC, he is able to use their own publicity in a witty attack on the dubious politics for which these companies are known.
The potential for misreading works of a political nature, however, is a constant problem. If it is true that Cherie Bradshaw's ultimate anti-prostitution statement, Prostitution is the rental of the body. Marriage is the sale!, has been read as a plea for the reform of prostitution laws, then clearly there is a lot of work yet to be done. Ironically, however, the apparent ineffectuality of many of the works in re/form renders them every bit as relevant today as they were at the time of their making. Where nothing has changed the item remains on the agenda.