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The Bon Scott Project
Dressed in blue uniforms, we schoolboys would taunt each other with the lyrics of AC/DC’s Jailbreak (1974). It was the anthem of our single sex nightmare, one of the few songs that spoke back to the world in which we were trapped. Unlike the parents, teachers and priests that hemmed us in, AC/DC’s singer and lyricist Bon Scott did not lie to us about life on the outside. Many of my schoolmates ended up working on the railways or at the abattoir and, unlike many other bands, AC/DC was able to speak to their reality.
The best of the pieces at the Fremantle Arts Centre in this exhibition to commemorate Bon Scott have something in them of working a shit job, living in the suburbs, and making the best of it. Ian Haig’s Eastland’s Shopping Centre, September 1975 (2008) recalls seeing AC/DC at the local shops before they were shut down for being too loud. This video piece is not projected, like so many, but sits below eye level on an ordinary television. Its blaring strobe of yellow, black, red and white recalls posters seen from a passing car window, or an early morning cartoon after a night out tripping. So it is with Cecilia Fogelberg’s collages of Bon and the band, drawn carefully like a girl’s scrapbook, and populated with flowers and mutant animals. Such fan-like images are the kind of thing we have been seeing pasted to Bon’s grave in Fremantle for many years.
More conceptual are three imaginary record covers by Alex Gawronski who plays with the designs of 1980’s Heavy Metal to evoke the genre’s authentic criticality. These are not ironic pieces. They play hard with the pretences of contemporary art. Der Kurators—Parasite Island—courtesy of Bad Luck Records (2008) features a nuclear explosion on its cover. Pieces of Hate—Blue Blood courtesy of Bad Opening Productions (2008) gives the finger to European art history as it reproduces a cracked Renaissance surface of painted stone, but inverts its aura with an image of arses shitting gold coins. It may well be that contemporary art could learn something from rock-and-roll. While rock music often complains loudly about its own place in the commercial world, contemporary art rarely protests its own place in institutions.
There is no more touching part of this exhibition than a show of letters written by Bon to friends and family while on tour in Europe. They are brief and innocent, bragging about women and drugs, promising to return money loaned and apologising for lapses of concentration. It is easy to read them as relics of good times gone. But Rebecca Dagnall’s photographs of Bon Scott fans shows how much rock-and-roll, like good art, lives on in time. Her photograph Ava and the Boys at Billy Weston Pool Hall (2008) formally poses a group of fans in T-Shirts and jeans, the photograph honouring those who honour the music. Other pieces were more obscurely related to AC/DC, but emulated its spirit. Ryan Nazzari’s paintings of clownish faces splattered like blood stains on a black background resonate powerfully with Bon’s lyrics. Martin Smith’s large photographs are also ghostly, as they are cut into with words, revealing a stark white sheet behind. Smith cuts the confessions of uncertain youth into haunting images of trees and blue sea. The photograph that reads with the lyrics of AC/DC’s Hells’ Bells (2007) is, ironically in this context, the least successful of these interesting works. Instead, the insecure confessions of I then went up and told my ridiculous stories (2008) are more troubling, and perhaps more in Bon’s spirit, as their tale of woe comes straight from the heart.
Thus it was that, like rock-and-roll itself, the works that spoke loudest in this show were those that were true. Some painted portraits of Bon, one hung far above eye level, were less interesting for turning Bon into a sort of icon. Generally, though, the artists avoided such problems of commemoration that could have plagued the exhibition. The respectful air of AC/DC fans who were streaming through the Fremantle Arts Centre testifies to a show that endeared itself to the spirit and not the surfaces of rock-and-roll. This was also Bon’s distinctive contribution to the 1970s, to produce something real in the face of disco and glam, to ‘give the public what they want’, in his own words. Such a real and lived quality is not so far from the best of visual art, which also speaks with heart. This show’s interest lies in the correspondences that it creates between music, culture and art, raising questions about what it is that speaks to us through all of them.