Monday, September 08, 2008


When the concept for Te Papa was being fine-tuned in the nineties, one of the surprise consultants was American artist and activist Fred Wilson. His most well-known works show how changes in context cause changes in meaning and have often focused on museums and the institutional protection of racism. At the time of his venture to New Zealand Wilson’s most celebrated work was Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society galleries in Baltimore. Wilson used a number of display techniques that have become more familiar today, but were then physically and emotionally shocking. A good example is his juxtaposition of a circle of ornate Victorian chairs and a whipping post designed for the punishment and humiliation of black slaves. Wilson titled the piece Cabinet Making 1820-1910.

Wilson’s shadow could be seen over the work of Aboriginal artist Gordon Bennett at the Sydney Biennale. Bennett (who exhibited with Peter Robinson in the two-person touring show Three colours in 2005) was represented in the Art Gallery of New South Wales by two models of an unrealized exhibition proposal for the Biennale. Bennett wanted to reconstruct the way the AGNSW showed its collections and to “eliminate distinctions between departments.” In short, Bennett had proposed that he “reposition paintings from the Indigenous collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the colonial painting galleries on the ground level where European painters and Australians of western descent are represented. The paintings they would replace were to be moved down to the Indigenous galleries of Yiribana.” What we saw were the two models for this proposal with his selection of miniature Aboriginal and European-style paintings stuck to the walls. What was quickly apparent was that in the proposed relocation the European paintings were to be hung upside-down. Not a bad idea we thought but the kicker came when we went back for a second look. An Aboriginal woman asked us what we thought Bennett was trying to do. We hedged, she insisted. We gave the version above and she told us we had missed the point. The thing was, she explained, all relocated works were to be hung upside-down. She could tell by looking at the images on the model. We could only tell it of the works of the Western tradition. Bennett 10 – Barr 0.

The AGNSW did not go with the idea for “logistical, curatorial and ethical reasons”. Our guide summed it up in a word. “Mutts.”