‘Mines destroyed and disfigured the living goddess, mountains were toppled and rivers diverted in the scramble for precious stones and metals. Our age is out-of-joint.’
Derek Jarman, Chroma (1994), p. 22
‘A stone is a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time.’
Louise Edrich, ‘The Stone’, The New Yorker (2019)
In the weeks after seeing Joan Ross’ I give you a Mountain (2018), I feel as if the images and objects on the screen have broken out of their enclosure and started following me around. On the road next to my apartment block I discover a shopfront dedicated to selling hi-vis work gear. The owners have capitalised on the construction works tearing up the suburb, making a gaudy window display out of fluoro vests, overcoats, gloves and hats. Further up on the same street, I notice a squat little electrical box with a sellotaped sign that reads Private Pillar. Rounding the corner, I stumble across another sign planted into the nature strip: ‘DON’T WALK ON ME, I’M TRYING TO GROW’. Then there is the newly installed Saint Laurent advert in the bus shelter: a poster depicting a White-faced Capuchin monkey clutching a $5,000 crème handbag. (Is the monkey as much of a prized object as the handbag? Is the real monkey now no different from the stuffed monkey—an object to drape over a luxury item? Is the monkey us?)
‘Trees are always waving to me’, says Joan, when I visit her at the gallery. And so now, whenever I cross the Harbour Bridge in my car, I spot the group of trees just beyond the second pylon out of the corner of my eye, and those trees have begun waving at me, too.
Central to Ross’ practice is the exposure of the Australian colonial lie—Terra Nullius—and the hypocrisy of the British Empire’s claim to ownership. For I give you a mountain, Ross has mined Sarah Stone’s Leverian Museum, cutting into, separating, painting over, and rearranging this nineteenth-century work. In disrupting Stone’s watercolours, Ross is able to zoom in on the operations of power and whiteness (the way a hand points; the way an expensively-shod foot rests on a path). But Ross is also working to make visible the unconscious anxieties of Australia’s colonial forebears. That is, she is able to find what Freud would call slips or aberrations: moments where repressed fears (that the land has been stolen, that it refuses to accommodate settlement, that it is a world turned upside town) find their way onto the canvas.
This mode of repurposing encourages such latent fears to bubble to the surface—Ross removes the heads of birds from the carefully painted botanical studies, and then there is the recurrent use of a hi-vis fluorescent yellow (a colour that suggests danger, alertness, alien invasion, safety and hazard reduction, all at once). Propelling such an excavation is a desire to reiterate the greed and exclusion of nationhood. Because what is a nation if not the drawing of boundaries onto an unwilling landscape: a dividing line demarcating who is and isn’t allowed to occupy this land, who is and isn’t allowed to trespass on the grass.
But as much as Ross is revisiting settler colonialism and its distortion of nature, her work is also a future-thinking contemporary phantasmagoria. I give you a mountain pans through a series of sinking and decaying rooms, rooms peopled as much by cameras and watching eyes as they are by men dressed in the frills and frippery of Empire. It is ahistorical satire writ large: neon-coiffed women rest in glass jars, an advertisement for happy dog pills appears on a slanted TV screen; there are white Kubrick tiles, swooping Cockatoos, coral oozing with fluorescent slime, graffiti dollar signs, and a mountain’s snow-capped peak, possibly for sale. The tropes of Victorian scientific study—the desire to classify, and to keep specimens in jars—morphs into the excesses of 21st century capitalism.
What I give you a mountain creates is an interlocking web between British colonialism, advertising, home ownership, rampant consumerism, environmental collapse, Instagram, and our own individual wants and desires and needs. You can watch this video work from start to finish and think of Boris Johnson and his bloated Rule Britanniarhetoric. You can watch it again and think of Donald J. Trump, who did not want to be given a mountain, but did want to buy a melting mineral-rich nation. Or you can think of the corporations who see the expanding arctic sea as an opportunity for new oil reserves, or you can think of how we worship profit, surplus and exponential growth above all else.
Ross is as suspicious of, and as willing to poke fun at, the incessant greed of our contemporary moment as she is of the colonial botanist, whose love of nature sees him shoot, stuff, and sew the precious bird instead of letting it go free.
And yet in viewing I give you a mountain it is also important to watch for the watchers—the spy-cams and recorders; the pinprick feel of an all-seeing-eye that looks on off-stage. This eye is a Nature in waiting, one which observes all the palaver, all the trespassing, all the defacement quietly and patiently. The panning motion of Ross’ work, which moves steadily through doorways and rooms, mimics the oncoming increases in temperature: it is a movement that is slow, steady, constant, creeping, and inevitable. It is fitting, then, that the final scene is of a barren landscape, and that it is the human figures that disintegrate, and then vanish.
The Blue Mountains are 470 million years old.
They say the average age of an Empire is 336 years.
There is an advantage in waiting the other out.
The use of fluorescent yellow and high-visibility clothing in Ross’ work symbolises colonisation and fear. Her act of depicting people in this bright clothing and placing fluorescent objects in the landscape does more, however, than simply illustrate colonisation; it also highlights and exaggerates the foreign or alien aspects of her work and its association with the landscape and the cultural and spiritual connection to place.
Ross’ digital animation The Claiming of Things (2012) draws inspiration from the work of colonial painter John Glover. Glover’s landscape painting The bath of Diana, Van Diemen’s Land (1837) is used as the backdrop in the work and is the focal point for Ross’ wry and subversive interventions. An Aboriginal presence is visible in this landscape, along with fluorescent high-vis iconography, an aeroplane, spray cans and other detritus, including a security camera, flat-screen TV, roadside electronic noticeboard, cupcakes and heavy construction machinery.
A colonial couple are shown inspecting the grounds of their new property defined by a fluorescent fence that is built through the centre of the pristine landscape. Fences, by their very nature, let alone luminous fences, are devices that traditionally exclude people from accessing a property or country. The placement of this fence works to lock the Aboriginal people out of their country, in contrast to the work’s earlier scenes showing them enjoying leisure and independence. The woman then vandalises the landscape, using a can of spray paint to tag the word ‘BANK$IA’ on a rock face – a nod to British street artist Banksy and to the colonial botanist Sir Joseph Banks after whom the uniquely Australian banksia tree was named. For the remainder of The Claiming of Things the Aboriginal people sit under a tree in the left foreground, highlighting their ongoing physical presence within this painted colonial landscape and bearing witness to the slow destruction of their country.
The Claiming of Things shows the type of objects collected across both the colonial and modern eras, highlighting the progress of time and the build-up of waste dumped in the river that threatens to overtake the surrounding environment. On a discarded electronic roadside sign the words ‘expect delays’ and ‘prepare to merge’ interchange. A crescendo is reached when a large body of water moves through the valley and takes with it the wealth of material possessions littering the landscape, returning the country to its natural state.
Ross’ animations are full of ironic references and wry puns that mediate the serious themes of dispossession and the environmental destruction of the land underlying her work. Her animations address the impact of colonialism, as well as our disposable culture, questioning the benefits of civilisation and capitalism.
Joan Ross’ works are sharp witted satires, addressing issues of ownership, surveillance, collective anxiety and public and private boundaries. This exhibition focuses on key works from the past decade, reflecting on Ross’ dynamic repertoire of drawing, sculpture, fashion pieces, installation, digital prints and animation. Employing her signature materials of high visibility (hi-vis) fluorescence and Kangaroo fur, Ross reflects the dual and changing nature of culture and community.
The exhibition title, 20-50% off all plants & animals, evokes the degradation of Australia’s natural resources by multinational companies at the expense of Australia’s long term wellbeing. With little regard for the environment or local communities, corporations are being rewarded with “wholesale” prices for what is priceless: water, land, plants and animals are rapidly being destroyed in the name of free enterprise. Ross’ depiction of the all-pervading drone is a symbol of our times and our ever-watchful, paternalistic government.
The reappraisal of, and apology for, colonialism has become sub-genre in contemporary art practice. By highlighting the similarities of the treatment of Australia, then and now, Ross brings an edge to the colonial debate that provokes our consideration. In her unique way Ross takes 19th century paintings of artists such as Glover and Lycett and revitalises them. She transforms static landscapes into modern day satires on our way of life. Using animation she is able to re-script the pictorial imagination and, as in the tradition of the cartoon, defies the logic of things – gravity, mortality and even history.
In satirising Australian colonial culture, Ross spotlights the predicament of consumer society and inadvertently, challenges contemporary art practice itself. These quasi-outdoor frolics are not some innocent, happy family gathering, nor a quaint recollection of the Australian bucolic-pastoral that will perform as passive décor. These are stories that expose the cruelty and self-centred, destructive nature of colonisation.
At first glance her works are aesthetically pleasing, quirky and satirical, easing the viewer with the familiarity of hybrid appropriations. We enjoy the visual parody, the colourful palate, the baroque excess and the discreet soundtracks. Critics have acknowledged her seamless marriage of the art historical and the contemporary. However, on closer inspection the works are confronting, provocative and disarming. Layered with meaning, criss-crossed with conceptual tangents, Ross reminds us of our colonial history and the ongoing repercussions of that history.
These themes are not limited to her animations. Ross’ intentional excessive use of fluoro throughout her practice creates an overwhelming experience that is simultaneously like a dance party and a council work zone. Used as a metaphor for colonisation the hi-vis insists on a stance of authority and yet in its excess there is a sense of celebration that causes a disruption to our typical viewing experience. Ross’ deliberate use of fluoro is a direct comment on our societal values around power, control and authority. We are conditioned to unquestioningly trust the authority of hi-vis fluoro.
Another recurring element in Ross’ practice is her use of Kangaroo fur. The Kangaroo is an internationally recognised symbol of Australia – it is on our coat of arms and was intrinsic to Aboriginal life and culture. This culturally charged material is at once alluring and repelling. There is a sensual attraction to the feel of fur: soft, warm, enticing, and yet we cannot escape the animal’s death that allows us to come in such close contact with its pelt. Ross re-purposes discarded animal skins, breathing new life into these once prized but now unwanted objects. She expertly incorporates these layers of meaning in her works creating fur wearables in the form of underwear, a gown and a suit. She has fashioned oversized replicas of luxury designer handbags and creates incongruous domestic objects with sexual overtones. Fur protrudes from her collages in a kinky depiction of intimate body parts. Here the divergent qualities of extravagance and degradation sit side-by-side making the viewer extremely uncomfortable, particularly with regard to our own ethical choices.
Ross’ installations pay tribute to the baroque. She creates pseudo-domestic interiors with fluoro wallpaper, Kangaroo fur flowers in kitsch vases, human hair sculptures, inflatable fluoro ornaments and reclaimed mundane objects charged with meaning. Ross’ brilliance lies in her knack for deftly juxtaposing contradictory themes while embracing these contradictions. This flamboyant style is apparent throughout her practice. Her approach is theatrical, sometimes ostentatious and has a sting.
This is evident in Ross’ drawings. They provide an outlet for an emotional understanding of everyday events – curious reflections of personal experiences, with some clues to the artist’s feelings in the titles: I thought they were all laughing at me, I only wanted to kiss him, I brushed your door handle or Fighting for crumbs. As with most of Ross’ oeuvre there is a sardonic tone to her drawings, however they are accessible and stirring as they reference individual yet universal concerns.
In researching Ross’ practice and working with her on this exhibition I have come across certain complexities that lie in the multiple layers of meaning inherent in her work. This is partly because the territory she covers is contentious or problematic in one way or another. But mainly it is because of the way she goes about it, her mode of operating is so intensely personal it is often mistaken for mockery, when in fact she is deadly serious. Her experience of the world is acutely emotive and she intuitively channels this directly into her art practice.
Rilka Oakley, curator Blue Mountains City Art Gallery
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.
The work confronts us with colonial references made strange through historical juxtaposition, in order that we may recognise the underlying and ongoing power relations of imperial occupation within our own motivations and presumptions.
The desire to act upon someone else’s property/space/person/culture is all too familiar; a desire perhaps as banal as touching someone else’s shopping or as controlling and organised as the power of a yellow fluorescent hi-vis uniform. The work of Joan Ross recognises a secret desire to trespass upon another’s private territory and identifies the increasing presence of day glow fluorescence in our landscape as an alien invasion of control and possession, not that dis-similar to planting a flag in foreign soil.
For an Australian, the subject of colonialism is emotionally charged, highly sensitive and lived everyday. Joan’s open narratives, disruptive chronologies, playful collaging and her re-visioning of nineteenth century European aesthetics is a measured response to the multi-layered, often paradoxical mix of the brutal, the beautiful, the emotional and the institutional that is colonialism’s legacy.
Simon Cooper 2013