Jitish Kallat and Julie Gough: AGWA and LWAG: Language and death
Jitish Kallat and Julie Gough: Language and death.
There are, among the incredible things happening around the place, two shows that seem to demand to be written about. The first, at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, is Julie Gough’s Collisions featuring her two works Observance and Bad language. The second is Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice II at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, as part of the sacred and profane. The relationships of both works struck me, while being subsidiary to each of their qualities and interest, as important. They seem appropriate to be put in relations through their mutual interest in language, colonialism, death and memory. The two seemed relevant to each other, while obviously dealing with vastly different contexts and marginalised and less marginalised voices.
Kallat’s installation is a vast recasting of Mahatma Ghandi’s ‘salt march’ speech, in characters of bone, on bright yellow shelves on a bright yellow wall. Julie Gough’s video is a recording of eco-tourists in her ancestral homeland, recorded without their permission, overlayed with Anglicisations of the last new words of her ancestral aboriginal language, and their translations. Her screen-prints relate to the (abusive and retaliatory) use of English against colonisers by the aboriginal people of Tasmania – in reference to the 2007 headline of the Australian Newspaper: ‘aborigines must learn English’.
The words deployed in Gough’s video work range from the mundane to the sinister, there are words such as ‘flour’, but the video ends with the suggestive ‘gunpowder’ and ‘to hang by rope’. These words, in their gradually darkening connotations, indicate the physical and also linguistic violence inflicted upon aboriginal people throughout Australia’s history – and also in a specific space and place. Meanwhile, the video of the eco-tourists that plays beneath these words re-performs something like the initial contact her ancestors had with white settlers – and speaks of the continued antagonistic presence of white settlers in Australia, who still travel through the landscape and invariably inflict themselves, through their very footsteps, on Gough’s ancestral home. Gough speaks of the words that overlay the video as being ‘the last new words of [her] people’, before military action effectively killed off aboriginal people and culture in Tasmania in a localised genocide. Even without the added poignancy of this contextual knowledge, that many people in the audience – due to curricula and cultural narratives that prioritise western histories – may not be aware of, the words remain interpretable as being about the relationship between colonialism and the production of a living language – with the deadly connotations that each innovation in the language speaks of. In this way, the work becomes both a testament to aboriginal cultural development in the face of extreme colonial circumstances, particularly its ability and strength to learn and adapt, and also a witness to the violence and aggression of white invaders. The use of language forms and reforms the world, and Gough draws attention to the violent destruction of the aboriginal world through the adaptation of their language through colonialism.
Gough’s works – the video and screen-prints – are especially interesting for developing a fluid understanding of the powers of language as both oppression and resistance. The oppression of language is well known: the classification of Aboriginal people as ‘fauna’ in Australia allowed vast institutionalised injustice and murder to occur, and it is the legal mechanisms of such language that allow this to occur (albeit a definition fuelled by racist sentiment). This operates similarly to how the reclassification of suicide in Guantanamo bay as ‘self inflicted injury resulting in death’ led to a complete reduction of suicide rates. Yet Gough allows us to see language as an adaptive force as well, and takes a position that exposes the violence as evidenced in the production of new words, but one that also permits a voice that is often unheard to speak to us from the past and through the present. Australia is still making the law and language regarding aboriginal people now – most recently with the ‘recognise’ campaign, and the follow up, grass-roots support for a treaty instead. This context makes Gough’s work particularly timely, and very interesting reading, on the relationship of language to violence, and its relationship to the entitlement of western tourists to her homeland.
I would also, in relation to this work, draw attention to Maddie Leach’s work for Spaced 2: future recall, and its relationship to the still-undealt with legacy of the Pinjarra Massacres here in Western Australia. That project also looked at the very particular language of the plaque that stood as memorial to the site, and the project that was politically silenced by local council forces. New Zealand, from where Leach came from, could perhaps offer us some guidance – with its own treaty already in place.
The screen-prints outside the video work relate to the use of language in a colonial context as well – they are taken from archives that show Aboriginal people using English to insult and threaten and retaliate to their oppressors. This is presented beside the Australian’s headline ‘Aborigines must learn English’. Perhaps we are, with NSW offering aboriginal languages as an option to study, seeing a turn in the tide of sentiment towards aboriginal languages – but which is, for many of these languages, much too late. Genocide and forcible removal and relocation have effectively ripped many of languages out at their roots. Yet against this, Gough presents the parallel history of innovation and appropriation – having learnt English, aboriginal people incorporate it with their own syntax and words, creating a hybrid form for their expression. Language is revealed as something of a double-edged sword. It can be used for unjust purposes, and often to oppress, but it bears no allegiance, and can be developed upon, and used to fight this same injustice, and to insult it. Yet Gough’s work secondarily gives us a vision of a voice that is silenced not only politically, but also literally, by the necessity to learn a second language to be heard. To have ‘justice’ in Australia, it seems you have to speak the language of the powerful invaders. We can see this sentiment still runs deeply. An example that somehow popped up on my Facebook feed recently being Pauline Hanson’s somehow continued political career, and an advert that stated that 'you don't have to be white to be Australian... we only ask you learn to read and write english, respect our flag, abide by our laws and constitution and join in with the rest of us'.
Words fighting injustice provides an appropriate place to move to Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice II. Ghandi’s words are transformed into a monumental scale, and are cast of letters jointed to appear to be bones. The artificial materiality is reminiscent of his other works that use the shape of burnt out vehicles to create skeletal sculptures (the Aquasaurus series). Like those works, the appearance of the bones here seems kitsch, somewhat illustrative. The simplicity of its devices, however, leads it to some success. The political motivations behind his work, coupled with its immensity and strange honesty, allow them a space beyond looking like the design of a bad tattoo. It is the particular speech and its context, though, which make these works at all poignant. Kallat’s recasting of the language, particularly on such a monumental scale, seems to position us to admire the magnitude of someone as influential in world history as Ghandi, whilst undermining the idea that we can live up to their ideals. Like most monuments, Kallat’s work seems to speak of something that has passed. Having said this, it is worth our time to read the texts of the past, written and spoken language is there to allow us access to a cultural memory. Kallat’s gesture in response to this is a challenging one – a suggestion that we have forgotten the hopes of the past, and to remind us what they were. In the face of double-speaking political rhetoric and a 24-hour news cycle, it is extremely helpful to witness the wisdom of someone like Ghandi. Words coupled with acts can free us from our present moment – and also free people from oppression.
What do we make of the fact that it was said in English? That a colonial language was used as the weapon of the deconstruction of colonialism? Is used for a fight against oppression? It is undoubtedly part of this that both these works are presented in institutions where the principle demographic is a Western, English speaking audience. There is also another issue that I wanted to raise in relationship to Gough’s work, and the role of video and cinema in colonialism, and its reappropriation by marginalised groups. It is summarized in a fascinating conversation between Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young for aperture, wherein Young states:
“[Film] is not like jazz or hip-hop—art forms that started as expressions of dissonance and resistance. Filmmaking isn’t part of our organic narrative as black people in America. We’re asking people who were very much interested in making sure film communicated white supremacist values, like the founding fathers of the film experience—D. W. Griffith, Thomas Edison, these people who were very interested in white supremacy—we’re asking the sort of grandchildren of those people to allow us into the filmmaking experience with a whole counterpoint to why they started it. You know what I mean? It didn’t start off as an art form of resistance. Actually what you said earlier is the real purpose of why we do this. It’s like trying to etch in real time our mind’s camera, our mind’s image-making capacity. It generates images so that we can deal with life. So the way I navigate it, I think, is that I’ve just got to stay focused on the possibility that one day it could be completely turned over on its head and transformed.”
This I have quoted at length as it summarizes much more clearly the ideas that I reflect upon while watching Gough’s work. This is an attempt to carve back a space – a space of resistance, a space in the land, and a space in language and discourse. The use of the particular form, and its representation to a predominantly privileged audience is part of its mechanism. It is part of a mechanism towards transformation. To transform law and language and form is something that can be done from outside or inside, and this work, by operating inside institutional structures, continues the work of transforming them. It is particularly poignant next to the Berndt Museum’s Mowaljarlai: vision and voice : legacy of a bush professor, where a small wall text repeats Mowaljarlai’s statement that he is no longer the future nor the past, just the present. Gough’s works could perhaps be seen as attempts to take back some of that time in a different form.
Kittish’s work also aims at transformation, yet it feels more retrospective and to compound its death in its own bone-like form – it is finally a gesture that feels at odds with the continued power Ghandi’s words can exert over us, though this dissonance is crucial to the artwork’s eventual success. It does not have the urgency or conceptually concise finalisation of Gough’s. It is too monumental and ornamental in appearance. However, this work is important for its bold attempt to bring the artful and potent language of Ghandi back into the realm of visibility, and back into the realm of contemporary discourse. It reminds us that the invoking of language from the past, of using its spectre, can be a tool in the ongoing fight against injustice and oppression.