Jonathan Jones Aboriginal Identity

If you are prone to online copy-editing, you may be wondering what happened to the punctuation in the headline for this post. I tinkered with apostrophe, colon, and comma, and finally decided that perhaps not deciding and leaving ambiguity in place said something about the subject. The recent, and wonderful, publication from the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), Jonathan Jones: untitled (the tyranny of distance), provides a wealth of information about the young artist, and reinforces the ambiguity that has surrounded his public image since he gained international recognition by winning the first Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award in 2006.At that time, the good old Australian gave more play to questions of the authenticity of his Aboriginality than to analysis of his art (Annabelle McDonald, “Artist fights ‘fake Aborigine’ claims,” April 13, 2006 and Louise Martin-Chew, “Accolade for non-traditional trend,” April 13, 2006). What was certain was that the win came as a surprise to many people in the Aboriginal art world. Even though photographer Nici Cumpston and sculptor Lorraine Connelly-Northey were among other finalists for the award, the awarding of the prize to Jones brought cries of “foul” from quarters who perennially question the wisdom of handing out art prizes to Aboriginal artists who don’t work in acrylic dots or ochre paints.

Complaints about “Aboriginality” aside, Jones presents a highly unconventional profile. In addition to his work as an artist, Jones is among the new generation of Indigenous curators, employed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (He can be seen briefly alongside Ace Bourke leading a tour through the retrospective of Michael Riley’s photographs,sights unseen, in episodes of ABC’s Message Stick broadcast on July 27 and August 3, 2008, and now available for viewing on the ABC Indigenous website.) 

Furthermore, he is best known for his work in light: he uses commercial fluorescent tubes and fixtures to create many of his largest and most dramatic pieces, and industrial incandescents in others. The number of artists who make light their primary medium has always been small worldwide, and most of those work in neon (as Brook Andrew does) rather than fluorescent. Much of the rest of Jones’s output to date often elicits the description “sewing,” surely another rare choice, especially in the medium of thread and paper. The juxtaposition seems strange and unlikely. And yet the patterns sketched by the thread on paper are often reproduced by electrical cables run across walls or floors in his light pieces. The title of his Xstrata-winning installation makes the connection explicit: lumination fall wall weave.

He cites Michael Riley as the artist who has had the most direct impact on his work. Comparisons to American minimalist Dan Flavin are inevitable, if disputed. His next exhibition opens on Cockatoo Island on December 16 under the auspices of Calvin Klein, Inc., hosted by actress Abbie Cornish and DJ Stretch Armstrong. We’ve clearly traveled a long way from Papunya. From Sydney’s Boomalli for that matter.

Most recently, however, Jones’s work has been on view at SCAF, where his interest in industrial materials has taken a new turn. untitled (the tyranny of distance) takes the form of half a dozen box-like constructions, each over three meters tall and easily more than twice that long, built of aluminum frames on which zigzag patterns of fluorescent bulbs are mounted; the whole frame is then wrapped in industrial blue tarpaulins, the material most usually seen stretched across the damaged roof of a house in the aftermath of a storm. (In an interview in the catalog, Jones amplifies his use of blue as an homage to the skies of Michael Riley’s cloud series, which themselves elicit an aftermath of the storms of colonization.) These six big boxes were placed on a diagonal bias in the gallery; between each was space sufficient to peer down the length of the installation, but too narrow to allow passage. The work could be circumnavigated, but not penetrated. In that respect, at least, the sculpture seems to earn the allusion in its title to Australian history and to sum a great deal of the continent’s history of exploration.

An earlier work of Jones’s, which I was fortunate to see at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery when I visited in August and which is reproduced in the catalog, also plays with this notion of circumnavigation–or at least, of Australia seen from the sea.68 Fletcher, Bondi, 20:20, 8.6.03 (2003) is built of a long wall’s worth of incandescent bulbs strung at various heights from the ceiling. At first glance they form a linear cloud of light, an all-white rainbow serpent of light writhing the length of the gallery wall. However, as Michael Desmond explains in his catalog essay for the SCAF show, the lights reproduce the nighttime skyline of Bondi as seen from the water. The historical allusion is to Watkin Tench, the British Marine officer whose chronicles of the First Fleet records an almost inverse view, that of fires burning in the boats of the Eora as they fished the Harbour waters at night. 

The catalog also includes a long “conversation” among Jones, Hetti Perkins, Victoria Lynn, and John Kean in which the participants try out various stratagems for elucidating the meanings and resonances of Jones’s work. It was this conversation that set me to thinking about Aboriginality and identity in Jones’s work, for the mazes it traces struck me as confusing if not occasionally plain misleading. 

What first troubled me about the conversation was the cascade of artists invoked in its few pages. Among Aboriginal artists summoned are Riley, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Emily Ngwarray, Mervyn Bishop, John Mawurndjul, Wandjuk Marika, Timmy Payungka, Turkey Tolson, Tommy McCrae, Mick Namarari, and Johnny Warangkula. Whitefellas invoked include Jackson Pollack, Ian Burn, Tony Tuckson, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Colin McCahon. That’s an awful lot of weight for a 30-year old artist to bear, even one as obviously savvy as Jones.

Jones, for his part, attempts to distance himself from many of these comparisons: an absolutely understandable position for him to assume, for such juxtapositions are risky to the younger artist under any circumstances. He disavows extensive knowledge of American minimalists (and thus an indebtedness to Flavin). Among Australian artists he explicitly acknowledges Tony Tuckson. This is a most interesting choice; Jones cites White lines (vertical) on ultramarine, a work Jones relates to Tuckson’s encounters with the Tiwi and their burial poles.

Like the reference to Watkin Tench in 68 Fletcher Bondi, the invocation of Tuckson’s work with the Tiwi, and later with the significant, early acquisition of the pukumani poles for the Art Gallery of New South Wales strikes me as primarily an allusion to contact history rather than to the specifics of an artistic tradition. In this vein his interpretation of Pollack, blue poles (2004), a bundle of vertical fluorescents encased in blue-tinted perspex, echoes the encounter of an Australian museum with an alien artistic culture. In a different way, Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay) plays a neat reversal of the customary appropriation of Aboriginal land by settlers. In this piece, Jones has laid out his characteristic pattern of fluorescent tubes (the design recalls Wiradjuri dendroglyphs) on the floor of Sydney’s historic Elizabeth Bay House. The Aboriginal (artist’s) presence overlays and renders unusable and uninhabitable a colonial space.

Seen in this light (sorry, no pun intended), the questions of Jones’s biological heritage, his Aboriginality, become unimportant and irrelevant, smacking as they do of preoccupations with quanta of “blood.” It is the encounter that matters in the end, be that the clash of values at the heart of the controversy over the NGA’s acquisition of Pollack’s Blue Poles; or Jones’s transformation of that imagery into light or, via Tony Tuckson, into white poles (2004) with its minimalist white-on-white aesthetic; or the vision of lights where continent’s edge bleeds into the sea. There is the intimate personal history of Jones’s relationship with his grandmother expressed in the industrial materials ofuntitled (coolamon) (1997) wherein Aboriginal technology collides also with Western.

The Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation’s publication of Jonathan Jones: untitled (the tyranny of distance) is an important contribution to the growing literature on the ways in which Australian art is being enriched by Indigenous traditions and perspectives. It also constitutes a welcome compilation of the works of a significant young artist. By bringing together in a single publication the range of Jones’s decade of art-making, SCAF has contributed greatly to a recognition of the breadth of his achievements. For as intriguing as the essays that introduce this catalog are, it is the forty pages of reproductions that allowed me, for the first time, to appreciate Jones’s work in its architectural and conceptual range, its large-scale minimalism, its delicacy and its magnitude. After hours engaged with this publication, I find I am much more interested in Jones’s originality than his Aboriginality.

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