Colonisation, by its very nature, creeps. Its power, decentralized, is always there but so often unseen in its everyday use. We might think about it as something past, in history books that are panopticons, staring secretly back to make sure we are still reading. We can close these books. What though, if instead of thinking colonisation as a separate towered or papered eye, we wore it on our backs? Placed it openly on our mantle pieces, lined our bins with it; made our children play with it, wiped it on our faces and sat on it. Every day. What happens when colonisation escapes from the book shelf, spills out everywhere and gets dragged into the streets and into ‘nature’? Again. Where we can’t really see it anymore.
In “Enter at Your Own Risk” Joan Ross makes re-visible a colour of contemporary colonisation, creeping like skin over objects and bodies; oozing out from lounge rooms into the landscape. Imposing the high pitch of fluoro over and into artefacts of history as they are made and consumed in the present, Ross makes noise pollution. In the cacophony we are forced to look ― at fluoro as a ‘protective’ coating on our disciplined, colonised selves.
It starts with home: four walls, a nation. The material collection of this installation is not so much ephemera that narrate history stories, but trace evidence of the lives of people who bought them and lived with them. Why did they want these things, these stories? Why did they bring such uncomfortable histories into the comfort of their homes? What meanings have been accumulated in their collection? What rules? In deconstructing everyday objects that may have once decorated the good rooms of ordinary homes into a monstrous décor, Ross makes clear the monstrosity of what can seem ordinary. A ceramic monkey wearing a mop-cap and playing a harp, lacy but rigid frills about its leering miserable face; a human size talking Barbie’s head, the whirring of its almost disembodied voice somehow connected to the vacant plastic face; these things are not past eccentricities discarded, they embody strange enactments of collective belief and desire, recycled.
In “Enter at Your Own Risk”, the evidence is everywhere, the ruins of discarded but still kept civilisation streaked with orange yellow and red-almost-pink, screaming for attention in the detail. The sense is in the chaos itself, the disorder that does the work of ordering so that the strange and often sinister juxtapositions that emerge from it seem almost normal. Becomings made of that which protects but bedazzles in the same gesture. Bringing the masculine ‘hi-vis’ colour of risk management into intimate proximities, Ross foregrounds its bacterial propensities that rely on hosts who don’t even know its there, who can’t see it as it’s passed around, just like history.
Ross opens a space for a specifically Australian history of colonisation synthesised in contemporary culture. In the visual litter of the synthetic, remains of the ‘natural’ are not-quite assimilated acting as reminders of that which continues to be damaged by ideologies of protection. Protection that is inextricable from ownership. Amongst the detritus of European industrialisation and trade, ghosts of flora and fauna that have been appropriated as icons of an ‘Australian’ identity appear like foreign objects. Here evidence of Aboriginal history as it has been manufactured and consumed echoes the outrages of its production.
The risk to the viewer of this work is that such detail gets lost, again, in a gaze that is tricked into finding comfort in its insistent humour. The outrage that motivates Ross to re-make the history of colonisation as a fluoro epidemic, results in a humour that is meant to provoke rather than comfort and return that gaze, into fluoro coloured nations, homes, and selves.
Dr Lisa Armitage