To bend the boundaries is the almost uncontested singular objective of today’s contemporary artists. As such, it seems fitting that the MCA would engage one such contemporary artist to tackle the slippery consensus towards the most sensitive cultural subjects in this new exhibition.
Taboo, by definition is a subject difficult to raise and even more tricky to sustain in dialogue. To deal with the notion of taboo head-on, one must consider the motivations of those tackling such subjects.
Taboo subjects can easily fall into the hands of shock merchants, conspiracists, spin doctors and sensationalists. Acknowledging the commercial and press value of sensation, walking into this exhibition it’s hard not to wonder which of these we may encounter. Brook Andrew, a notable Australian artist of Wiradjuri and Scottish decent – with close ties to the MCA, including a permanent work installed on the harbour facing façade – often investigates difficult positions on subjects of identity, race and consumerism within his own practice.
Andrew was invited to return to curate this exhibition on the back of a series of successful talks and performances in 2005 titled blakatak. These events became a lively debate on often controversial topics for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists alike.
It’s not to suggest the works in this exhibition are not shocking. Indeed, several of the pieces will surely ruffle the feathers of even the most unshakeable of audiences, but there is not a sense of hysteria about this exhibition. The works are carefully chosen from a wide rage of international and Australian artists, along with a selection of archival material, which acts to, as Andrew puts it, “trigger new stories” dealing with the deceased, religious beliefs, racism, nudity (and nudity of young people), incarceration, political correctness, gender inequality, sexual content, body fluids, categorisation, genocide, slavery, exploitation, guilt and shame.
A highlight of the exhibition is the successfully positioned works of Cape Town artist Anton Kannemeyer, which return at different points through the show. These comic paintings expound our knee-jerk reactions to difficult topics, in particular racism, via a kind of guilty humour. By engaging the audience in a joke, Kannemeyer deftly reminds us of how we perpetuate racial stereotypes, all the while claiming humour as harmless, using ‘post-racism’ (the ‘I hate everyone equally’ stance) as an excuse.
The 1974 video Untitled (Ocean Bird Washup), by Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, who died in 1985, is another haunting, poetic cue to consider our impact upon the earth and its inhabitants as we witness the artist floating face down in the ocean shallows as a part-feathered avian adrift, at once both human and animal.
A particularly fascinating part of the exhibition are the deliberately unstable looking vitrines, packed full of rare books, objective photojournalism, letters, films, cassettes and other cultural memorabilia depicting the fringes of what is comfortably accepted. They include photographs of people gambling on the outcome of Indigenous children fighting, literature titled Voodoo – EROS, decks of Bin Laden and Gaddafi playing cards and exploitative advertising. Hanging above, two detailed Afghan tapestries aggrandise the atrocities of September 11 and of famous Russian firepower including a loving depiction of the AK47 assault rifle.
Leah Gordon’s video documents of voodoo, such as cross-dressing in Haiti, complement her bewitching series of nine black and white photographic portraits titled Caste (2012), which read like a monochromatic gradient, listing all the skin tone classifications (including ‘Quarteronée’, ‘Mulâtre’ and ‘Noir’) for African natives formulated in the 1700s by French colonialist Moreau de Saint Méry.
The exhibition design works well for the small, pokey galleries that the works inhabit. Andrew evokes an environment between anthropological museum and funhouse with curious and functional purpose-built viewing furniture.
Obviously close to the artist’s own interests, there is a strong Australian identity to the exhibition and a persistent focus on colonialism and miscegenation. Investigating the out-of-bounds topics of the globe by relating international concerns alongside those of Australians, Andrew achieves an, if not comprehensive, then composed and focused exhibition that speaks much about our own place, present and past boundaries.
Taboo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art until February 24, 2013.