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
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