Walking into My Fellow Aus-Tra-Aliens at Heide, you are overwhelmed by walls of scribbled “HA HA HA”s lining the entrance to the exhibition. Titled A (VOID) Laughing, these most-amused walls prepare the visitor for the clever “verbal jousting” that is a hallmark of Aleks Danko’s densely filled and intellectually potent survey show.
Language – particularly at its most colloquial – has long been a preoccupation of the Victoria-based artist who, in his nearly five-decade-long career, has used puns and word plays as a way to comment on Australian culture.
Growing up as the son of Ukrainian migrants in Australia, Danko was drawn to the power (and potential) of the English language from an early age. He cites his late-start learning English in primary school, and taking lessons in Russian at his father’s behest, as the catalyst for this obsession.
“I really started from ground zero,” he says.
My Fellow Aus-Tra-Aliens explores Danko’s interrogation of language in his earliest conceptual sculptures, which take their cue from Marcel Duchamp, through to his more recent installations. Included in the exhibition is a series of prints Danko made in 2003 that examine the political language used during the years of the Howard government (the title of the exhibition is taken from a much over-used phrase favoured by the former PM). Other artworks play with the meaning of everyday household products, including Dencorub cream – which inspired a quirky self-portrait.
In one piece called A little morning drizzle, but mainly fine, Danko toys with the meanings offered by an ordinary weather report. Here the “morning drizzle” is literally captured by Danko and stored in a glass jar. He cleverly shows how such phrases, so overused on a daily basis, can take on a very different meaning when they are made physical.
His Log Dog – a wooden log chained up to a floating leash – along with early 1970s works Block Bag and Art Stuffing, also use word play and parody to question notions of artistic taste.
One popular and interactive work in the exhibition is a mirror inscribed with the phrase: “It’s such a thin line between clever and stupid” on its surface. People have been taking photos of themselves in the reflection.
“What this piece does is critique selfie culture,” Danko says. “People are framing themselves – and are framed – by what’s actually in the mirror.”
“But I do always wonder whether they have actually read what it is they have photographed,” Danko adds.
Along with another wall piece called Poetic Suicide – a recreation of an eye chart with a number of letters missing – these works use mundane objects as vehicles for social critique. Poetic Suicide may resemble a poem, but its absent consonants and vowels mean it can also be read portentously, as a warning about the death of language.
Reflecting on the vast amount of work assembled for My Fellow Aus-Tra-Aliens, Danko is sentimental, quite unlike the irony that characterises much of his art.
“The exhibition is like all the children coming back again,” he says. “It’s like a reunion of self, revisiting my 20-year-old self as a 65-year-old.”
MY FELLOW AUS-TRA-ALIENS is at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 21 February 2016.
Broadsheet is a media partner of the Heide Museum of Modern Art.