Joan Ross

Watch & Act

‘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.

Naomi Riddle