Joan Ross

Colonial Grab

In her video work, Colonial Grab, Ross transports us via a pokie game in and out of a number of scenarios, creating a world of dissonances; of scale, of aesthetics, and of environmental custodianship, in which a very rich metaphorical language is at play. In one sequence, whole trees along with the stylised Aboriginal people painted decoratively in the branches are plucked from a John Glover painting and arranged, Ikebana-style, in a vase by an elaborately-coiffed colonial matron wearing period dress in Ross’ signature hi-vis, lurid yellow green colour. In an earlier scene, a hybrid insect machine buzzes through a Kata Tjuta landscape, observing and recording, while the very land it surveys warps and convulses in response, or perhaps in defence. Each of these worlds is accessed via the play of a poker machine - the Colonial Grab, were you can try your luck, seek your fortune, fluke a windfall, chance a win and gamble on the future. But of course the odds are always in the House’s favour.

Part of Joan Ross’s visual and conceptual genius lies in her aesthetically exciting fusion of the historical and the contemporary. She locates the symbols and desires of Australia’s colonial history firmly in the present in order to remind us of colonialism’s ongoing presence and effects.

In Colonial Grab, Ross takes the complex power relations between indigenous and colonial, country and capital, luck and exploitation, to disorienting, yet politically potent new heights. She makes succinct connections between art history and contemporary Australian culture, between representation and control, between control and colonialism, all through the deceptively simple medium of animation.

Ross presents allegorical, yet sensitively ambiguous, narratives of Australia, where the land, peoples, culture and nature assert, lose, and reassert their dominance over one another.

The precise and violent organisation of indigenous plants and people from a John Glover painting into an ikebana arrangement - a form designed to please a specific cultural sensibility through its highly stylised rigor - echoes Glover’s own colonial, painterly arrangements, not to mention the social and legal foundations of modern Australia. And yet there is nuance and resistance. The colonial couple curtsy in a small show of respect when returning the potted trees to the land, the trees break from their containment, even if it does result in their own destruction, and a dog resists the imperialist perspective of plants and animals being offered as commodities for sale in the poignant and intimate way that dogs are especially good at.

With a subtle political intelligence, Joan Ross’s Colonial Grab reminds us that, as a colonial nation, the lucky country is a deceptively weird mix of fanatical pride in its unique flora and fauna with an equally enthusiastic desire to see nature sacrificed as a saleable resource for profit.

Simon Cooper