Monday, 17 April 2017

Helen Johnson:The warm ties that bind.

"Beneath our radiant Southern Cross we'll toil with hearts and hands to make this Commonwealth of ours renowned of all the lands. For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share. With courage let us all combine to Advance Australia Fair. In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia Fair" - Peter Dodds McCormick.

Don't get too excited (like some, you'll see soon) but after recent disappointing, and even dispiriting, visits to art galleries around the capital I had wondered if it would even be worth going along to the ICA to see Australian artist Helen Johnson's Warm Ties exhibition. But as it was only £1 to enter (and the ICA has a lovely bar which I didn't avail myself of this time) and near St James's Park I didn't have much to lose.

I'm glad I went. Not because it was brilliant. It wasn't. But because it was, at least, good. Or entertaining. Things need to improve a lot more before I'm fully impressed but this was a step in the right direction at least. The Melbourne based Johnson has, in collaboration with Artspace in Sydney, weaved and overlayed a mix of historical and contemporary signifiers relating to the complex colonial relationship between Australia and Britain. Each one is huge, nearly 4 metres tall, and 2 metres wide, and they're laid out in zig-zag form so you can, quite pleasingly, duck in and out of them, and even go round the back of them (where sometimes you'll find some auxiliary art or even some lengthy prose relating, fairly tangentially, to what's on the front - they're the untitled works towards the end of this blogpost).

Seat of power (2016)
What she's trying to say is unclear, probably intentionally so, and the fact she's used the kind of font you find on cushions in Past Times or on the side of an Estrella pint glass doesn't make it any clearer. There's lots of Latin which doesn't seem to be the most obvious way of making a point about two majority English speaking nations and their relationship with each other either.
There's much made of the ICA's location, very close to the seat of Australia's colonial powers, but nothing that really got me to consider the politics or history of that as much as the steps down to the Thames in Pimlico where convicts would be lead away from Britain for the last time.

A feast of reason and a flow of soul (2016)

Impotent observer (2016)
Is a man with his dick out having a wank while another man whispers the words of the Australian national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, fair political comment or sniggersome smut? It can be both, of course, but I'd wager that the latter will be in most visitor's minds and, if she's honest, that of the artist too.
The anthem, that's not exactly been adhered to, was written by Peter Dodds McCormick, a Scottish born schoolteacher, whose biography before his arrival in Australia is sketchy. In that these sketchy sketches sketch out a sketch of a sketchily sketched national history. Even that considered what have the curled up fox, the curled up cat got to do with it all? I'm left, as ever, with more answers than questions. That's fine. That's something art can do. Personally I'd have preferred it if Johnson's critique of imperialism had been more pointed but, and I'm still learning this, a blunt instrument is not always the best instrument for the job.
She's told a story, symbolically rather than literally, that differs from the colonial take on Australian history. For that she should be encouraged and if she wants to draw an erect cock then who am I to complain? It would've been a good exhibition to see alongside the National Gallery's recent survey of Australian impressionism.

Bad debt (2016)

Worst comes to the worst (2016)

The sack (2016)

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