The sound of missing objects

Panos Couros, Jonathan Jones and Ilaria Vanni
The Performance Space, Sydney
3 October – 1 November 2003

The Sound of Missing Objects was a collaborative installation incorporating sound, text and objects to discuss the history of the appropriation and colonial dissemination of Aboriginal artifacts in Australia. In fact, the title of the show conjured the irreplaceable loss of innumerable objects of indigenous significance especially during the nineteenth century, the age of the great international exhibitions. Central to the exhibition was its holistic approach and its seamless intertwining of media, text and audio elements. Indeed, The Sound of Missing Objects was collaborative in the truest sense, muffling individual authorial voices for the sake of the exhibitions broader conceptual ruminations on colonialist theft. Also successful was the show’s evocative transformation of the Performance Space into a quasi-museum. Of course as a trope, the fictional museum containing equally fictionalised objects is by now familiar to many. However, at a time when contemporary artistic production has returned largely to the creation of discreet signature works, The Sound of Missing Objects proved that this investigation of institutionalism is by no means outmoded. This point was further highlighted given that issues of reconciliation and the cultural debt owed by white colonists have largely slipped from mainstream political agendas. Although its overall affect was restrained, The Sound of Missing Objects raised some urgent local cultural and political questions.

Curiously the collaborative nature of this exhibition makes it practically impossible to write about from the perspective of individual artists works. Actually what was first striking about The Sound of Missing Objects was its distinct physicality in which the two near-identical galleries of the Performance Space were transformed into a museum arranged with a series of archival vitrines. The vitrines themselves were illuminated from inside and contained lengths of crumpled tissue paper of the sort used to wrap delicate artifacts. Significantly, the actual collections referred to were conspicuously absent leaving only the wrapping. Printed on the tissue paper were schematic renditions of patterns evocative of aboriginal ritual objects or body markings. Simplistic literalness was avoided, however, once the viewer was made aware of that these ‘tribal’ patterns were computer derived, serialised abstractions. Similarly the contemporaneity of this medium served as a reminder that the issues at stake are absolutely of our time and not merely historical or academic.

The physical particularities of the display cases themselves were also significant. Constructed of dark stained timber, they instantly conjured nineteenth century curatorial practices. Likewise the sobriety of these objects concealed an inherent duality. In this way the cabinets, designed supposedly to preserve indigenous cultural heritage, were transformed into virtual coffins responsible for effectively annihilating living culture in the process of displaying it. Such a reading was particularly relevant when viewing Cabinet I which referred directly to both the ‘Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations’ held in London in 1851 and the ‘Exposition Universelles’ held in Paris in1855. The presentation of aboriginal artifacts in the contexts of these international exhibitions relied heavily on the notion of indigenous Australian culture as inherently backward and eventually doomed to die out. Today the ‘vanishing’ of indigenous culture is by no means an alien concept. This would certainly explain the publication of recent histories by ‘eminent’ Australian academics like Keith Windschuttle whose latest book is subtitled, ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History’. The basic premise of the author’s argument being that because indigenous histories are traditionally verbal rather than written, many of their claims about European injustices are unverifiable and therefore intrinsically un-trustworthy. Such unenlightened counter-arguments do little to redress past transgressions or assist in identifying current common ground between white and indigenous populations.

Existing alongside these museological cabinets and contributing another layer to their meaning, were lengths of electrical cord criss-crossing the gallery walls. These emphasised concepts of bondage and culturally imposed restrictions. Such a reading coexisted sympathetically with the isolating act of wrapping suggested by the tissue paper in the cabinets. Traced on the wall in pencil above these entwined chords were colonial descriptions relating to things like indigenous hunting practices, food gathering, spear or boomerang throwing. Also mentioned, in pedantic detail, were descriptions of indigenous male and female body types. The phrasing of these descriptions clearly revealed the European objectification of indigenous culture in ways not only patronising but in fact deeply insidious. Beneath the cords and therefore also symbolically beneath the dominant language of British colonialism, were indigenous words whose precise meaning remained obscure to the uninitiated. Yet the nature of this not-knowing, which is attested to by the general ignorance in white Australian culture of indigenous languages, provided a fitting counterpoint to the banal anthropological explicitness of the colonial inventories. Furthermore, the redeployed electrical cords could be seen to signify a contained and domesticated charge separating cultures yet also perhaps pre-empting the dynamics of reconciliation.

This layered dynamism was also magnified by the works audio dimension. Here unseen voices recited lists of the names of missing museum objects that once belonged to the colonists. Poignantly, such recitations had a funereal aspect, as though the names of lost objects were interchangeable with the names of indigenous people killed since colonisation. Hidden speakers increased this tension as they emitted a low drone that threatened to literally shatter the museum cabinets from within. Conceptions of culture as intrinsically contained and isolable were thereby also questioned.

Overall the success of The Sound of Missing Objects resulted from its thoughtful consideration of the history of the marginalisation of indigenous culture and its objects. Likewise its identification of the political role institutions play in framing Other cultures was equally incisive. So too was the artists refusal to rely on generalised clichés about ‘blackness’ or ‘whiteness’. Despite that, the underlying voice of the exhibition was uncompromising in its social orientation. Similarly, the questions it raised about the nature of the changes that have occurred in the treatment of indigenous culture since colonisation, are questions that need to be raised continually.