This is not America

Dell Gallery, Griffith University, Brisbane
6 February - 28 March 2004

... a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty .. . The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.

Franz Kafka, America

In many ways, This is not America presents an enigma. Ostensibly this exhibition takes a political stance primarily focussed on the war in Iraq. But, to a great extent, its messages are encrypted. Indeed, its politics have been so lightly touched that one might be reminded either of the German Enigma code machine or the 'don't mention the war' episode of Fawlty Towers-without the slapstick gaffs of Basil Fawlty.

This light touch is not necessarily a bad thing. Curator Scott Redford was no doubt wary of adopting an overly simplistic political stance or of asking the artists to do so, and this may have prompted him not to write a curatorial statement in the catalogue. Such an absence is both intriguing and frustrating. It clearly assumed an art-sawy and intelligent audience at its first exhibition in Dusseldorf in 2003.

A viewer who happened not to read Chris Chapman's part-fictional essay in the catalogue might fail to realise that there was any concern with the war in Iraq. The punches thrown by the five artists do not connect directly with the body of that ongoing conflict. Their battles seem closer to home. Chapman alone alludes to Iraq. His character, 'M', is leaving the 'chanting, banner-waving' crowds, apparently an anti-war demonstration. After some three weeks, US forces occupy Baghdad. This, thinks M, is not America'. And that is the closest we come to understanding the strangely elusive exhibition title. This' may be Australia or it may be the actions of an America that fall short of the American idea

Compared to his text in the catalogue, Chapman's opening-night speech in Brisbane was more explicit and the exhibition's target framed to be more wide ranging. The title, he explained, offers 'an assertion of local imperatives in the face of an all-consuming global culture of capitalism and voracious entertainment industries'. Redford's exhibition was, he acknowledged, somewhat less than a 'diplomatic mission'. His closing remark was that This exhibition seeks to dismantle the illusion that we live in a civilized society'.

When exhibited at the Dell Gallery in Brisbane, Redford and gallery director Simon Wright did provide a joint written statement. They explained that This is not America poses the question: We are powerless as citizens but are we powerless as artists'. They suggested that artists, along with 'other "others"--queers, Asians and indigenous Australians', might be considered by some as 'Un-Australian', that being 'a term used ... to mask fears of free expression'. We are left to ask whether the artists here are 'vulnerable to self censorship'.

Indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee, originally from north Queensland, is perhaps the angriest voice heard in the exhibition. His large text piece, anotherthing, draws the viewer down into the Dell gallery and into a conceptual space which questions our assumptions concerning race. Once inside the gallery, Ah Kee's minimalist text pieces provide a witty yet hard-hitting assault on race relations in Australia. For the most part, his verbal sparring has little reference to wars beyond our shores, though in hellothere a subtext reminds us that 'I've been to Bali too .. .' and austracism, amidst its catalogue of everyday racist taunts, references terrorism and Australia 's treatment of refugees ('I'm not racist but.. . my job is to guard against terrorism and .. .. I'm not racist but. .. people can't just enter this country without a passport and .. .. '). In comparison, wrongediam is more ambiguous, 'foriamnotsureof I howwrongiamorof I howwrongediam'.

Facing Ah Kee's work, at the opposite end of the gallery, Destiny Deacon's disarming video Forced into images, made with Virginia Fraser, is projected . A SuperB film transferred onto DVD, it silently documents the interaction between a young Indigenous girl and, we assume, a young 'white' boy. As the two sit on chairs facing the viewer, the girl cheekily interacts with the camera-shy boy. In the final moments of the film , they put on sinister adult masks, as if their youthful potential is compromised by society's stereotypes and expectations. The girl's cheeky good humour is transformed into the stuff of horror movies, a guise that may be reminiscent of Chapman's 'voracious entertainment industries'. Yet while 'traditional' Indigenous cultures and languages are threatened by imported entertainment, an Indigenous artist such as Deacon- who lives in Melbourne-presents a sophisticated response to a web of cultural traditions, with little direct reference made to the traditions of her people from Cape York. The silent repartee between the girl and boy in this video says more, perhaps, about underlying tensions and a communication impasse that help rupture attempts at reconciliation.

Hiram To, who returned from Australia to live in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, presents in Corner of luxury and crime the shifting cultural and political landscape as much through the medium itself. His series of 3-D lenticular transparencies, ironically displayed with safety glass, refuse the image any visual stability. A figure is caught shadow boxing with an unseen opponent, as if he were performing the ritualistic movements of t'ai chi. Of course To is not demonstrating a system of callisthenics, but a violent 'street crime', the hammer on the grass a weapon. That this may be symbolic of a cultural assault is indicated by the vague hulking presence of a black formalist sculpture in this Hong Kong parkland. In comparison, a second work by To near the gallery entrance, Being Perfect [I'm ready for my close-up, Mr D], is almost a memorial in perpetuity to the brief moment. This work comprises a photo-engraved zinc plate from the South China Morning Post newspaper, reversed to be readible. The cold plate still holds such local stories of 4 April 2003 as 'Maids get leave to challenge pay cut' and an obituary to entertainment personality Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing, who had jumped from a balcony on April Fool 's Day. To suggests struggles between those with wealth and those without, between local and imported cultures, and even those psychological struggles that taunt the self beneath the fagade of appearances.

The works of Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley liaise more readily with American popular culture and also, perhaps, with David Bowie's Young Americans, which plays in the gallery. Their collaborative work AK47 is blunt in its depiction of a killing machine. 'AK47' is emblazoned on the wall in neon, as if an advertisement, with the shape of the Kalashnikov cut into a green metal case lying on the floor. More intriguing is the collaborative work All that rises must converge, evidently made for the Brisbane exhibition. Here inert neon tubes inscribe the words of the title, with electric cords hanging loose down to the ground, as if the dream is just not happening as the bubble bursts, while to the right a rosy spot burns hot into the wall. Nearby Jennifer McCamley's Piss factory sculptures of foam and polystyrene plinths are reminiscent of total meltdown. This is more the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein than the erect symbol of the Statue of Liberty, and then less some.

Considered in 2004, Janet Burchill 's 2002 work Natural born killers, aligning Oliver Stone's movie title with the American stars and stripes, seems eerily prescient in the light of revelations of the abuses of American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, let alone the numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq. Even more disturbing is Jennifer McCamley's portrayal of an activist of another era, namely a young girl with a machine gun slung over her shoulder and, on her jeans' pocket, an 'I NEED LOVIN' badge. In different contemporary circumstances, her place could be taken by a young suicide bomber or a US soldier charged with the torture of POWs.

'Have you been an un-American?', ask the lyrics of Bowie's Young Americans. Is it, then, Australian or unAustralian to find , as Chapman does, that a 'photo of five (Israeli] soldiers' sleeping beside their tank after a fatal raid in Gaza, during which a child was killed , 'is somehow, weirdly, gentle'? What do we think when we hear US President George W Bush say, regarding the abuses in Iraq, That's not the way we do things in America' (The Australian 3 May 2004)? 'Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?', Bowie asks. If this is an exhibition with a political agenda, will it make a difference? Even a small differenc