This is an important moment in Australian history. As Australian politicians walk the world stage rehearsing new ways to undermine global climate change cooperation, Danie Mellor’s work extends a patient hand. The landscape prefigures its own changes as the artist reconfigures our Australian perspectives.
Exotic Lies Sacred Ties is an exhibition of overwhelming scope, detail and proportion. The size and the intricacy of the works and their sustained exploration of complex themes is at odds with what curator Maudie Palmer AO, in her characteristically understated way, calls “Australia’s ongoing complacency” towards Indigenous Australia and the impacts of colonisation on the land.
Working with pencil, glitter, gold, Spode china, Swarovski crystals, taxidermy and found objects, Mellor composes a series of landscapes framed in the visual language of effected perspective. Floral borders, selective colour and ornate frames lend a displaced cultural authority to the disruptive worlds that Mellor composes.
“The compositions draw heavily on historical traditions and narrative,” says Mellor in a post-installation interview published by TarraWarra Museum of Art, “that become part of the experience of people as they experience that change.” Mellor unsettles our perspective as carefully as he creates it.
Dominating the exhibition, Mellor’s large-format drawings are complex blue-and-white landscapes interrupted by full-colour local animals and people. The contrast is striking, emphasising the plays on perspective that abound in the work.
In New Visions of Beauty (2010), animals appear throughout the work at the same size despite their perspectival scale, confusing the viewer when we see them perched with monstrous patience atop a house. Mellor’s Postcards from the Edge (in search of living curiosities) (2011) presents an aperspectival rainforest, with contradictory roots and branches growing across foreground and background, while a European photographer’s head remains shrouded within his machine. Et in arcadia ego (of landscape and memory) (2011) depicts a thriving, teeming mass of blue-and-white nature, with massive trees being strangled by parasitic rainforest vines, and all entirely out of the gaze of the well-dressed European hunter, whose focus down the barrel of his rifle is as fixed as the photographer’s. In An all-encompassing spectacle of nature’s wonders (2009), each of these techniques is employed along with the exaggerated framing, referencing Hogarth’s Satire on False Perspective (1754). These are no mathematical tricks, however; Mellor is not playing Escher’s game. The spatial shift that Mellor provokes for the viewer is a cultural one and a political one.
“Blue and white represents the transformed or the changed landscape,” says Mellor in the post-installation interview. His full-colour Indigenous people and animals are thus highlighted, rather than vanishing into the overwhelming landscape. Invisible difference is rendered visible through Mellor’s vibrant use of colour against that blue-and-white landscape. With this technique, Mellor deliberately references and uses Spode china, original creators of the blue on white underglaze in the late 1700s, the period of Mellor’s interest. For the Australian land mass, this was the period of the discovery of the set of lies that a European gaze could engender for an entire continent. Terra nullius, exoticism, Western science: each of these become a lie to expose, a tie to unbind.
Mellor explores what he calls “the scientific eye” through a series of works depicting the study of the body, the initiation into cults of practice, and the shapes and forms of bones. Several works such as Piccaninny paradise (2010) present skulls at varying scales. In Welcome to the lucky country (2009), koalas hug a skull submerged in the decorative border-edge flora. Memento Mori (2009) references Visscher’s Vera anatomiae Lugduno-Batavae cum sceletis et reliquis quae ibi extant delineation (1644) with its agile skeletons, its uncovered cadaver and its peaceful picture-book puppy dog wagging its tail in the lower left corner. Mellor’s representation replaces the Latin banners – for example, NOSCE TE IPSUM (the Latin for the Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’) becomes MEUS CAPUT CAPITIS VULNERO (‘my head hurts’, a reference to a Roman style of execution). And the human form that focuses the study remains shrouded, with a message stick indicating the possibility of dialogue and exchange.
Central to the exhibition is the installation Exotic lies and sacred ties (the heart that conceals, the tongue that never reveals) (2008). This diorama created around a large gilt-framed drawing focuses the viewer in confusion, complicity and delight. The Indigenous animals and people settling onto the built remnants of the destruction of Greek, Egyptian and Roman civilisations past, whose heyday they predate; the taxidermy parrot blinded by its bell; the china-mosaic’d kangaroo shushing us from voicing our discoveries, encouraging us to believe in each of the contradictions just a little longer.
As an Australian artist whose family reconnected with their Indigenous heritage later in life, it is Mellor’s own perspective as well as ours that he consciously problematises as deliberately European. His sustained engagement with a complex exploration of place necessitates a discipline and a focused determination. The patience of the hand sketching, applying glitter and crystals. The shifting perspective of the artist himself, not only across a creative lifetime, but through the lifetime of each work itself in its creation, standing now close and now far to appreciate the effect of fine detail on overall composition. Prefiguring thus the work of the viewer, each with our own Australian cultural trajectory of reconstructed or unreflected post-colonialism.
At this pivotal time, this exhibition declares Danie Mellor one of Australia’s important artists.
Danie Mellor: Exotic Ties Sacred Lies
Curated by Maudie Palmer AO
Coordinating curator: Samantha Littley
A UQ Art Museum touring exhibition
TarraWarra Museum of Art
10 May – 27 July 2014
Image: Catalogue cover: ‘Daine Mellor: Exotic Ties Sacred Lies’ (detail)