One square mile

Brisbane boundaries
Museum of Brisbane, Brisbane
25 October- 19 February 2004

One Square Mile was one of the opening exhibitions in the newly re-branded Museum of Brisbane. Curated by Michele Helm rich and Richard Bell, its theme was exclusion, as evidenced by the many forms of curfew and control that have occurred in Brisbane's history. Although the physical boundaries have gone, leaving only street names as traces, many of the fifteen artists involved in the show, all of whom either come from or have been involved in Brisbane, responded with a temporal metaphor, where the past can represent the present, highlighting the not so obvious forms of ostracism still prevalent in Australia.

Several of the works in the show could be said to literally start with the excluded square itself, such as Gordon Hookey's Outside the square, inside the circle, and Fiona Foley's On the blanket 2. Fiona MacDonald's work Across the square takes the square and re-imagines it. Here we see traditional dilly bags that have been printed with family portraits. The intermingling of the strands of the bags is reminiscent of the genealogy that makes us who we are--woven from our ancestors. The original bags upon which the work is based may have actually crossed the city boundaries, but this piece reminds us that it was not only the physical bag that went across, but also the immaterial nurturing family bonds.' This support was a transaction that the guardians of the boundaries could do nothing about.

Family is another boundary-the primal 'us and them'. However it can also be seen as a site for defending and bolstering identity against an unwelcoming outside world. Destiny Deacon's series, Postcards from Mummy, and Lindy Lee's Simple Greatness; T'saoTung; Between opposites both use images of family members in this context. The myth of the servant as 'part of the family' is examined in the work of Tracey Moffatt. Lip is a montage of film excerpts showing black servants' relationships with their employers. The title, Lip, relates to the servants giving cheek to their bosses. There is a feeling that if this interaction is allowed, it is only with tolerance, not acceptance, but we are never really sure of the topography of the relationships Moffatt is presenting. Equally ambiguous is the Anne Wallace work, Boundary Street. From the interior of a well appointed home we look over a black forearm, clad with crisp white shirt and cufflinks, down into an entry hall. This hand resting on the banister is identified in the didactic as 'proprietor', yet if the work were positioned somewhere other than opposite Lip it might not be so easy to make a judgment as to the hand's owner's role. We always feel the need to categorise marginal or liminal things, to impose order and make ourselves more comfortable with the unknown.

In Wallace's other pieces (Second Avenue, Dark Streets Spring Hill, Vulture Street and High Street) there is a strong contrast between the depiction of actual people and images with only traces of where people have been. In High Street, an outsider, the so-called Toowong bagman, is shown with the plastic bags that serve as his storage and protection. This painting is stylistically different to Wallace's other works, which are preternaturally crisp and loaded with tension. In contrast, the figure in High Street seems busy, cluttered and yet a little lost amidst all that surrounds him. We tend to project the concept of 'the other' onto people living on the boundaries of society; in Wallace's paintings it manifests in homelessness, alcoholism, and boarding houses.

The theme of the homeless or fringe dweller is also evident in Judith Wright's work Morning. A large reclining figure is just discernible through heavy pigments laden on paper. The density of paint only allows us to see the outline of the figure, yet the work still moves in the breeze, ephemeral and transient. Our preexisting ideas and prejudices do not really allow us to actually see these people. In front of the image is an illuminated stand with Samuel Wagon Watson's poem 'Pre-flight'. As you read the poem your shadow is cast onto the image, unintentionally interacting with the work.

A measure of involvement or commitment and its location on the body is also apparent in Gordon Bennett's series Welts. These images, reminiscent of signs demarcating property boundaries such as Trespassers shot on sight', 'Private property', 'Enter at own risk', are formed by simple straight lines as if scratched into wood, or, more uncomfortably, cut vividly into black skin. We might recall the 'black scratch' that proclaims 'DO NOT CROSS' from the Samuel Wagan Watson poem displayed at the start of the exhibition2 The dramatic irony in relation to the issue of actual ownership of the land is unmistakable here.

Although structurally similar to Bennett's Welts, Vernon Ah Kee's austracism is rendered typographically, black and grey text on a white background. A block of text with 'I'm not racist but. .. ' is repeated, followed by different opinions regarding indigenous people that can still be overheard in most parts of Australia. Ah Kee's work demonstrates that moral and political issues still pose barriers for those that society deems outsiders.

We will always be constrained in some ways, but it is in charting these boundaries that One Square Mile allows us the possibility to think outside the square. Necessarily, when dealing with the issue of exclusion, inclusion and belonging are also present.

notes: 

1. Michele Helmrich, One Square Mile: Brisbane Boundaries, catalogue essay, Museum of Brisbane, Brisbane, unpaginated.

2. Samuel Wagan Watson, 'last exit to Brisbane .. .', Itinerant Blues, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2002, p.47.