Over time, the agencies of technological innovation and social change that frame and reframe the discourse between history and memory can also work to transform the relationship between the material and conceptual indexes of an established artist’s practice. If the artist is good this process can completely reposition their career, allowing them to surprise and delight us with new works of great originality and inventiveness. For several years now, Joan Ross a very good artist, has been making videos that substantially extend into different, newer media her recognized practice as a painter and author of spatially ambiguous environments
To date there are three “When I grow up I want to be a forger” and ‘Bush Barbie’ both from 2010 and “BBQ this Sunday, BYO”, premiering in 2011. The first and the last of these are based in and around the practice of convict artist, journeyman painter and serial forger Joseph Lycett. Bush Barbie, on the other hand utilizes a text by first fleet and second settlement chronicler Watkin Tench about arthropods, ending with the rumination…perhaps however, what I from ignorance deem wonderful is common.
I propose that any critical engagement with the video art of Joan Ross should commence by inverting Tench’s conclusion; perhaps what some deem common is wonderful, and work back from this towards an understanding of her intentionality and the relationships of her videos to the art and life of our time. If fluidity is an accepted attribute of water than wonder might be one of the defining properties of these videos, if for no other reason than that they are to the conventional artists videos what dreams are to cinema. Consequently, our formal relationship to them is not so much that of spectator as transfixed witness. Situated somewhere between cultural hacking and confabulation Joan Ross’s video works engage with the body of Australia’s late 18th and early 19th century cultural inheritance the way a zombie brings ambulation to a corpse; by reanimation. Allowing us, again by inversion to arrive at the definition of animation, should we wish to move towards a term for describing what we see in the videos within the larger context of what we know of La Ross’s practice thus far.
T.S. Elliot was most probably not thinking about the dawn of the dead when he wrote that no artist has their complete meaning alone, that they must be set, for contrast and comparison among the deceased. He asserted this as part of a wider attempt to articulate a general sense of the simultaneity of all art. Logically, it is within the parameters of what Elliot might have termed the perpetual present that we can identify that which is specific to these video works and to separate this from their ambient elements, localised by the Australia of the here and now. The first category includes but is not limited to - the ambiguous relationship between this country’s first and subsequent peoples and by extension, our collective engagement with the environment as part of the broader consequences of settlement and displacement. Further to this, through their sophisticated and elegant mashing of the sampled scenery of several early colonial works, the videos of Joan Ross present an original and highly refined challenge to prevailing narrative construction of Australia, then and now. Depictions characterised by contrasting harmonies of staccato and meditative passages can be understood as either allegorising the social rigidity of early colonial life or alternatively highlighting the friction between the overlapping worlds of nature and culture. These are the temporal elements of these works or it’s linearity if we are to relate them to the large body of drawings produced by Ross over more than 30 years.
Their formal and conceptual aspects have a greater proximity to the conventions of web based, interactive social fora than the orthodoxies of new media. Essentially then, these are videos by an artist not artist’s videos, more aggregation than collage these animations have gravitas while paradoxically being highly entertaining, effectively reconciling form and content, entertainment and art. Technically sophisticated their narratives are complex and multivalent. If theory is to be applied as illumination to the umbra of their meaning than that is the theory of alternative timelines and parallel universes, where things are the same but different and much better for that fact. Aesthetically, the incrementally greater presence of increasingly complex and detailed high-vis clothing constitutes the elaboration by Ross of both a conflicted sign and complex index. On first glance the day glo of colonisation’s nightmare might seem new but with regard to the larger context of her practice, the accelerating ubiquity of chemically chartreuse clothing reaffirms her personal claim on it as both emblematic of her practice and totemic with regard to her tribal identification – urbanised, questioning and reflexive. La Ross has had a long established and occasionally public affair with fluorescence but it has now moved towards a form of empathic expression, beyond speech and is best evoked by the term and object - fetish.
It is this quality of concurrent similitude and dissimilitude that allows us to understand the singularity of the video works and their connections to the larger accumulation of Joan’s practice. They reminded me above all that the beautifully wrought thing is still an object of profound mystery, resistive of easy explication. All art is political, least we forget but not all video is art. Ladies and laddies, introducing the video art of Joan Ross,
Talking Head. Sydney. 2011