Essay by Victor Gordon for Installation memorate.com.au – April 17, 2015
Identity is memory — [but] identities forged out of half remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions
— José Zalaquett
By inverting commemorate into memorate.com the emphasis in this installation is on offering an alternative perspective; one that addresses the conflict of 1914–1918, particularly as it affected the local community of Orange and districts, its commitment, opposition and losses during the First World War.
Memorializing Anzac has become a non-negotiable social package, a celebration rather than a commemoration, reiterated annually. It is promoted as the central feature of Australian culture and is considered by many to be the foundational cornerstone of our self-belief as a Nation State. “Their Spirit — Our Pride” is the current official 1914–1918 Anzac theme.
Pride (inordinate self esteem), a “deadly sin” in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a profoundly inappropriate celebratory response to what should always remain a solemn commemoration of Australia’s losses in the First World War. It is the lives of the men from Orange and district, the volunteer soldiers who died on active service during the First World War, whom we are here to remember. Their remains are geographically scattered across war cemeteries in the many overseas theatres where they fought and died.
If we seek to define our individual or community identity in terms of memory, then symbolically bringing them back home is an authentic manner of relocating them in our memory, here, amidst us. And remembering them and their deaths may assist us in re-evaluating our own identity, especially in relation to armed conflict.
By representing, on the one hand, the backdrop of the vast industrial scale of death in the First World War, and on the other focusing on one individual, Ernest Powter from Orange — the youngest to volunteer at 15 and dead by 16 — a somber sense of the futility of war is proffered.
Ernest’s elder brother Claude also served. He not only survived the conflict but was highly decorated, being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for personal bravery. But forever after, when he contemplated his exalted military status, he may also have reflected on whether the cost of losing his young brother was worth it.
The business of war, after all, is about killing and being killed; and many in Orange were then, and are still now, opposed to it. One mother not only lamented the untimely death of her own child, but was further profoundly grieved at the thought that her son had perhaps killed the son of another mother. Today it is easy to overlook or forget the shared humanity and empathy of a century ago.
Memorial Culture into the Future
Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari espouse a theory of desire which claims that “trauma produces a libidinal charge” which needs to be channelled, and that when a memorial (like Anzac) is created it can either take the form of an authoritarian (governmental) paranoia or become manifest in a more open-ended manner where the individual relates to the trauma in his or her own unique way. The resurgence of patriotic zeal in Anzac Day celebrations successfully diverts us from addressing less appealing elements of nationhood, including our guilt in the displacement and attempted destruction of the first nations of Australia. By institutionalizing specific commemorations, as happens with Anzac Day, governments shape historical memory and “all the messiness of trauma is rendered manageable.” 1
In relation to the Anzac experience in the First World War, individual commemorations invariably take place within a managed framework of ritual celebration that perpetuate a valorization of violence and war. The conscious shift from commemoration to celebration of Anzac has created a distinctive nationalistic culture of trauma, dominated by an unhealthy militarism. This intentionally results in the broader community, inter alia, unquestioningly accepting Australian military expeditions in unnecessary overseas wars.
The philosopher Paul Russell postulated that if “truth is the main (or first) casualty of war, ambiguity is another … one of the legacies of war is a habit of simple distinction, simplification and opposition … which continues to do much of our thinking for us.” While quoting this, Antjie Krog extends it to mean “that in the past we had no choice but to live by simple … guidelines. But we shouldn’t continue being dictated to by oversimplified credos during peace time. We must make space for ambiguity.”2 By not doing this we become complicit in escalating a patriotic militarism. The historian Manning Clark reflected on “Australia’s day of glory [which] made her a prisoner of her past, rather than an architect of a new future for humanity.” 3
This commemoration honours the men and women who went to war, it laments those who were lost, and it questions the place of militarism in contemporary society. Questions of value and valour are not answered. Instead, as an alternate perspective on the First World War it asks that we reflect on how we commemorate, and why we sanitize our past.
“it seems that, once introduced into public life, evil perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare, and fragile. And yet possible.” 4
Victor Gordon, April 2015
1. Adrian Parr, Deleuze and Memorial Culture, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008, p6
2. Antjie Krog, The country of My Skull, Vintage, Random House, London, 2008, p150
3. CMH Clarke, A History of Australia, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, V:5. p426
4. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fragility of Goodness, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2001, p40
Also read essay: PRETEXT
The origins of my art -1953 -1983
“What about what if is as or is is”
When asked to describe my objectives as an art practitioner, I have difficulty in locating myself stylistically because of my non-systematic, non-formulaic approach to making art.
If I try to pinpoint the essential connecting strands of my artwork over the years, I am inevitably drawn back to the time of my political awakening; when I became culturally and ideologically alert to myself and to the world around me. My conscious responses to this awareness constitute the driving force in my work and underpin much of what I have expressed.
The process of becoming aware started while I was growing up in the racially charged atmosphere of Apartheid South Africa. I was a product of an inter-faith marriage. My mother was a committed Methodist who preached the dictates of ‘hellfire and brimstone’ of the Old Testament, while my father was a non-practising Jew. The painting depicted on the cover (Mischling, meaning mongrel in German) represents an eloquent statement on the resolution of my dual religious origins. In the board game of life, the heritage of the Christian mother (hot cross bun) dominates that of the Jewish father (matzos), making me not quite (or at all) Jewish. The use of humour as an effective means of communication (derived from my father’s family) has been consciously incorporated in much of my repertory as an effective form of commentary. Mischling itself is both dark commentary and a lighthearted humorous reflection on my genealogical origins.
This strange religious admixture facilitated the development of my questioning nature. As a boy I was also exceptionally myopic and chronically asthmatic. Instead of playing sport, I gravitated to chess to fulfil my adversarial needs, and towards history and reading as a theoretical surrogate for the physical things I was unable to do. My imagination thrived. For a myopic, weedy, asthmatic boy to survive and achieve in (South African) society I needed to develop a cunning. I adopted theoretical subterfuges and often assumed alternating roles. I have always been enthralled by the metaphor of the chameleon and the notion of the layering of meaning has continually featured in my art work. I have also continually experimented with different media and stylistic artistic approaches.
As with most young boys in early adulthood I underwent a crisis of identity and rebelled. As one of the sixties generation who challenged traditional authority, by the age of 15 I had been arrested for attacking a policeman in a riot situation. Two years later at the age of 17, I was conscripted into the armed forces, an experience that was to have a profound effect on me. It was abundantly clear to me that we were no ‘defence force’.
The evolutionary process of my awakening changed pace after my military training. I adopted a politically progressive ideological position, with socialist sympathies. My need to challenge became more of an imperative, but as well as being influenced by progressive thinking, I also sought to challenge and analyse that thinking. My approach to the social issues in South Africa in particular, and to life more generally, was characterised by an intense humanist criticality, an approach that came to influence the form and content of my art.
At the same time, I did not fit in with the dogma of the non-racist Marxist dominated ‘struggle’ against the Apartheid regime. To formally join a cadre of the struggle was too much like adopting a religion, and as with religion, I was more at ease operating alone in the interstices. I preferred to contribute in my own way to the struggle.
I have been exceptionally fortunate in having the opportunity to develop the artistic ability to express and externalise my responses to issues impacting on me. I have always tended to polarize issues, to understand them by framing them in their extreme context or manifestation; after all I was born in the land of ‘black and white’. American activist artist Leon Golub states, “If you want to comprehend a phenomenon, you have to go to the edges or perimeters to where it slips into something else, or where its contradictions or isolation becomes evident.”1 This scrutiny of issues in their extreme form is perhaps the key to accessing my art. Artistic expression has always been a refuge for me, a personal cathartic auto-psychoanalytic tool.
My experience, particularly at undergraduate level, engendered, among other concerns in my art, a preoccupation with my personal sense of alienation. While hard-edged and colour field abstraction dominated the art world, I made illusionistic, non-gratuitous representational images that were easily accessible and which intentionally embodied deeper speculative considerations. (Passages II -1979).
Concurrently, works such as the assemblage (Untitled -1979) referenced the art historic (Cubism & Mondrian) as well as deploying a wry humour. The central object of the work is a ‘found’ piece of linoleum, depicting an assortment of timbers in a grid, a cheap imitation of parquet flooring. The decontextualised floor is thus innately illusionistic. I seated the ‘picture’ in an ornate handsome oval wooden frame, which is actually an old toilet seat. In a somewhat subliminal manner I had the expectation that the viewer’s posterior will somehow recognize the shape (the signifier) and associate it with the crappy linoleum it surrounds (the signified).
Another extensive early preoccupation isolated the structure and substructure of painting itself as subject matter (Untitled – 1979 & 1980). These works were concerned with process and tended to be dry commentaries on the formal elements traditionally used in picture manufacture.
Amongst my research preoccupations at that time, I combined disparate elements to create a flag design (ANC/SA/ANC – 1980),which consisted of an incorporation of the African National Congress colours, both within and surrounding the then South African colours. As a strongly loaded political statement, the inclusion of the ANC colours represented a direct threat to the racist republic. In formal art terms, it was typically abstract & hard- edged but its intention clearly superseded this in its signified social commentary. The image of this work appeared on the front page of the Johannessburg Star Newspaper (26th May 1981) in relation to the “20 year anti-republic demonstrations”. I began to understand and value the impact of making activist art.
In the early eighties, I also started to respond to a number of other social issues. In one instance, I participated in a collaborative work with Carol Gordon (my then wife and partner) on the issue of the co-option of Fine Art images by advertising, specifically by the tobacco industry in South Africa. We ran an anti-tobacco advertisement in a local newspaper – (SASPU National, Vol 2. No.6 August 1981) visually associating Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with a contemporary smoking ‘Giaconda’ – Carol Gordon. This image intentionally parodied the Rembrandt Tobacco Group by claiming sponsorship from the Da Vinci Tobacco Company.
Collaboration with other artists led me to participate in a cross- disciplinary art tableau entitled the “Life and times of Apollinaire”. (1984). Functioning almost as a coda to my mainstream interests, this project afforded me the enjoyable opportunity of simply making a series of art historically referenced works, which had no specific political application. Similarly, a decade later, I created a nostalgic series of camouflaged leopard paintings, which superficially don’t seem to ‘fit in’ with my other work either.
But back in 1983, I began responding to Apartheid. I painted a burning bus in traditional landscape form (Azikwele – we will not ride – 1983). To me, this represented a true picture of the South African landscape at that time and was my response to the nationwide bus boycotts. I had begun a long journey, which culminated in a large body of work dealing with the nature of power in Apartheid South Africa.
My interest in naturalistic representation had become fuelled by the needs of pragmatism in the cause of agitprop art. Didactic in form and politically suffused in content, in the late eighties my work culminated academically in a Master’s degree at Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney) and politically in an eight minute documentary which was televised nationwide on SBS. (Vox Populi – June 1990)
September 2003. Victor Gordon
An Installation by Victor Gordon at W.I.N.D.O.W. Gallery. 62 Erskine st, Sydney, CBD. 17-29 Sept 1991
“O yes, detected in his very heart of home: his children’s father and their brother son and husband of his mother; bed rival to his father and assassin.”
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
The intended meaning in this work is alluded to in the title. The component parts of the installation are purposefully configured, proposed and presented as oblique referenceswhich disguise the true purpose of the interrelationship of the objects presented. This visual/virtual image of ‘dissimulation’, is intended to precipitate and provoke discourse around the notion of incest. The installationinterrogates the extent, implication and culpability of eachand every person’s conscious, unconscious or sub-conscious Oedipal guilt.
The marriage of realism and modernism, while constituting the form of the work, adds an independent interrogative dimension. The contradiction and tensioning of the material relationship between the style of realist illusion in concert with the deployment of modernist conceptual devices, reinforces the necessity for a re-evaluation of the efficacy of painting!
The tactile substance of the work is intended as a communication, an invitation to re-examine the applicability of pioneering psychoanalytical theory. The viewer is encouraged to engage and respond ideologically and otherwise, to the centrally positioned nude, which embodies the notions of desire through voyeurism, suppression and denial by access only to the back view. Responses by the viewer to the painting are established at a remove from [their] reality, as the representation remains in the realm of two-dimensional illusion. A twin dimensionality is referenced by the placement of the real rug, depicted in the painting, on the floor and up the stairs under the table. This acts as an invitation to enter or participate in dialogue within the frame[work].
‘Access’ to the work is gained via the carpet to the stairs, but this is denied by the unnatural relationship between the table’s positioning and its architecture. The wall of drapes, define the limited boundary within which the installation is to be read. The partially stretched canvasses flanking the painted reclining nude situated within the elaborate iconic superstructure, function as a metaphor for the structure and sub-structure of societal mores. All of the elements combine to create a projected micro-unit or family, an enforced normative paradigm, within which incestuousness festers.
The intention was to create an harmony of disjunction. The physically abnormal table supports the centrally placed crucible, the wooden drawer, which contains the heart of the work: my late mother’s ‘mummified’ caul.¹
The cultural cross referencing in the luxurient carpet reflects [our] concerns with appropriation of the exotic, a status symbol indicative of our social mores, as well as a projection of [newly acquired] material wealth. As the viewer reflects on the recurrence of the rug, both as illusion and by its actual presence, the comodification of the carpet offers a similar reading of the nude as commodity and by implication, the nude could well be on offer in the real world! Questions arise which refer to the notion of innate and malevolent male voyeurism in general and the extent of the specific culpability of the male manufacturer/artist
The ancient Greek notion of KAIROS, personified opportunity – or what Michel Foucault refers to as, “the strategy of timeliness”³ is textually referred to in the work. An altogether separate source, Ion of Chios refers to Kairos as being a God – the youngest son of Zeus. Hence: opportunity is God-sent!
The importance of the ‘right time’ in sexual ethics appears rather clearly in a passage of the Memorabilia (4) dealing with incest. Socrates states unequivocally that the precept that parents shall not have sexual intercourse with their children nor children with their parents constitutes a universal dictum, laid out by the gods. He sees the proof of this in the fact that those who break the rule receive a punishment. Now the punishment consists in this: regardless of the intrinsic qualities that the incestuous parents may possess, their offspring will come to no good. And why is this? Because the parents failed to respect the principle of the ‘right time’, mixing their seed unseasonably, since one of them was necessarily much older than the other: for people to procreate when they are no longer ‘in full vigor’ was always ‘to beget badly’.
Xenophon and Socrates do not say that incest is reprehensible only in the form of an ‘inopportune’ action; but Access to inner knowledge via beliefs in predestination, synchronicity or even fatalism, hold attraction to many. Most people at some stage toy with systems of divination and the notion of fortune (itself a goddess personified) and its relationship to success, has a strong hold in people’s internal self governance.²
It is my assumption that in seeking this power in people’s affairs there exists a link to the establishment of confidence [to proceed] and spirations [to succeed] which implies in capitalist societal terms, fundamentally, product-ability and its resultant reward. Associated with the interests of state and family control mechanisms, and in seeking to introduce an associative signifier of behavioural compliance [which is often and intelligently rejected] I have introduced a powerful neo-Christio icon-like cross symbol.
I have often ruminated on the meaning of the passage from revelations inscribed on the flyleaf of my late mother’s bible:
“Be thou faithful unto death
and I shall give thee a crown of life”.
Victor Gordon, September 1991
- The occurrence of a human membranous caul at birth was considered to relate to itsrecipient being blessed with occult insight. It was commonly dried out and kept as a talisman for protection, specifically against drowning. A metaphor perhaps?
- The Australian Historian manning Clarke refers repeatedly to the “bitch goddess of success” in his autobiography.
- The History of Sexuality. Vol 2 – The use Of Pleasure by Michel Foucault. P59. Viking Penguin. 1986
- The Memorabilia of Xenophon. iv, 4, 21-23