Home decor (after Margaret Preston) - Digital prints by Gordon Bennett.
Home decor (after Margaret Preston) - Digital prints by Gordon Bennett.
SourceAustralian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.
Country of context
The medium is the message: Gordon Bennett’s Home Décor
Home Décor (after Margaret Preston) – Digital prints by Gordon Bennett.
by Ian McLean
Technologies might not determine content, but they certainly stage it. This is why Gordon Bennett has never been that interested in printmaking. It is too slow – ‘too much’, he told me, ‘like factory work and reminded me too much of my apprenticeship as a fitter and turner.’ Indeed, it is the very ubiquity of the visual culture of racism, largely produced by print technologies, which his art has railed against.
However, inkjet prints like the ones currently on exhibition from Bennett’s Home Décor series, are clearly something different. Bennett doesn’t feel bound by the technology. When he began using computers to develop paintings during a residency at the Canberra School of Art in 1996, he discovered more than another means with which to make art. Bennett’s basic message may have not have changed much, but suddenly it was both clearer and richer. It produced a new series of images that, in retrospect, mark a significant shift in his art. The series had the generic title Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl) = Citizen. Since then, all his paintings have been largely worked out on PhotoShop files.
The Home Décor series marks a clear stylistic break from his earlier work. Its compositional arrangements and the unusual medley of styles show, perhaps too obviously, the effect of PhotoShop. As well, the shift towards a type of rap art clearly evident in more recent Basquiat series, first began with the Home Décor series. It uses the motifs of Bennett’s earlier work, but it has a very different look – the beat and intonations of rap and the comic book. It allowed him to move beyond the deconstructionist concerns of his earlier work. While rap music might be considered deconstructionist, it also develops rhythms that produce a third discourse in which a type of shifting trickster identity is made for living on the uncertain ground of America’s race inflected urban scenes.
PhotoShop software made possible a way of working that Bennett has long aspired to, but previously not fully realised. While postmodernism was an emergent aesthetic practice at the same time that computers first became widely available, everyday computer technology only developed the capability of the sort of sophisticated image manipulation possible with PhotoShop in the late 1980s. It lent a new dexterity to the traditional print technologies. For the first time images could be quickly and easily transposed, layered and hybridised. While PhotoShop is just another print technology, it has more successfully and widely challenged concepts of authenticity, origin, authorship and power than earlier print technologies ever did. In traditional print technologies the original always retained a nostalgic presence in the copy – eg, limited edition artist’s prints – that reaffirmed the very logic which, according to theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Benjamin, it supposedly subverted. The difference is one of speed, efficiency and promiscuity – not just in the making and editing of images, but in the amount of information PhotoShop files carry and the non-linear interrelationships they can generate.
Bennett, like most postmodernist artists, is acutely aware that the modern and colonial periods are staged by what McLuhan called ‘typographical man’ – or what Benjamin called ‘the age of mechanical reproduction’. The reproducible squared alphabetic page ordered everything. It promised a totality in which the world was seen and made anew. From cartography to the bible, from scientific tables to anthropological research, from learning to read and write to paint on canvas, the places and identities of oral cultures (be they Indigenous or folk) were reorganised according to a new spatiality – the space of the page and its infinite reproduciblity. This space provided a perspective or distance between the subject and the world that made modern identity and the free or transcendental subject both universal and the centre of meaning. The model of this new subjectivity was the reader/writer. Even protest was only effective if it too obeyed this new literate order. The universe was now read like a book, in a linear, rational and quiet way. As Stepahné Mallarmé famously wrote: ‘Everything in the world exists to end up in a book’ – a fate Imants Tillers seems determined to realise in his life’s project, the Book of Power. If Tillers’s art thus seems complicit with this Gutenberg logic, his problem – the problem of the postmodernist artist – has always been to subvert this logic without reaffirming it. Bennett faces the same problem.
Bennett’s art can be considered a critique of the typographical regime of modernity and coloniality. For example, his use of mirrors in earlier works is an ironic upturning of this regime by the more performative practices of oral cultures. In Present Wall 1994, the mirror is not a modernist lens in which to focus identity, but a trickster that exposes the staging of identity. In Bennett’s art the mirror is a performative space, not that tunnel of knowledge it was in the modern period. It remains the magic glass that colonisers bartered with Indigenous peoples. Its magic was to strip the emperor naked; in its glassy surface even the signifying power of written words is exposed. They are shown to have arbitrary and purely self-referential meanings.
However Bennett’s canvasses never entirely escaped the logic of the printed page. Hence the tendency of some critics to read his pictures as if they are books, with clear linear narratives – as Juan Davila did when he interpreted the Home Decor series as a protest against the framing of Aboriginality by an internationalist modernism.Referring to Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl) The Terrible Story 1997, Davila wrote: “The picture is adamant in saying’ that above all, ‘the aboriginal is in jail in the Western modernist grid.” Bennett “presents the modernist European grid (Mondrian, De Stijl) ‘jailing’ the representation of an aboriginal woman. She is behind the bars of the modernist equation”.
We might wonder why Davila, an artist who uses very similar strategies as Bennett, interprets Bennett’s work as such a simplistic unironically narrative? Why, for instance, does he read Bennett’s appropriations of Preston’s Aboriginal figures as ‘the representation of an aboriginal woman’? Does he think Aboriginal women look like this, or that Bennett thinks they look like this? Does he not get Bennett’s jokes? Does he not see the political moment of these works – that Howard and Hanson were then replaying these same mid-twentieth century grotesque primitivist parodies of Aboriginality by Preston? The Home Décor series is a mirror to its times. There is no simple linear narrative in Bennett’s works, but multiple often contradictory ones.
By the mid-1990s, when Bennett was making the Home Décor series, he was increasingly anxious to clear away misconceptions that had accrued like debris around his practice in the 1990s. These misconceptions, of which Davila’s response is exemplary, were partly due to the conundrums of his own aesthetic practice in the first half of the 1990s – a period in which his career was established and the hallmarks of his art were first set. During this time Bennett was applauded for dealing with issues of Aboriginality through contemporary postmodernist strategies. However, if his art quickly acquired a certain postmodern look that guaranteed him a ready audience, this very look threatened to obscure the ideas he was still struggling towards.
The conundrum of Bennett’s art in the first half of the 1990s was to make from postmodernism a postcolonial practice. Because he had experienced first hand the virtuality of identity and language (as most indigenous peoples do), he was wary of all essentialist discourses, and attracted to postmodernist practices. But unlike such postmodernist painters as Tillers and Davila, Bennett was never prepared to entirely ditch the notion of identity. For him it was not an outmoded idea, because it was a promise never delivered. While identity and subjectivity, an integral part of modernity’s myth of freedom, has always been withheld from Indigenous peoples, it remains a promise difficult to let go, and one for which Indigenous people continue to hold ‘White Australia’ accountable.
Bennett gropes for an identity that has never arrived. His sense of indeterminacy and contingency is motivated by a loss rather than a surplus of identity; and it is this that distinguishes what Homi Bhabha called the ‘postmodern celebrations of pluralistic identities’, from the ‘postcolonial’ ‘vision of social contradiction and cultural difference’. If the ‘constant reconstruction and the reinvention of the self’ is the necessary sign of (post)modern subjectivity, it is grounded in the freedom guaranteed to its citizens. But, asks Bhabha, how do we describe such splitting and reinvention in ‘political situations of “unfreedom” – in the colonial and postcolonial margins of modernity’? For Bennett, it is not just a matter of catch-up, of claiming the promise of identity as if it is a right – as if in winning an identity his fight is won. Rather, he seeks to exploit this ‘time-lag’ of colonialism, to open up from within the terms of this withheld white mythology, the multi-vocal and trickster counter rhythms of ‘postcolonial agency’.This has become particularly apparent since the mid-1990s.
Before then his art often seemed bound to a politics of loss and protest – which is why it was invariably received as hard-hitting, and ‘in your face’, despite its postmodernist inter-textuality. Postmodernist art is never ‘in your face.’ It is about as scary as Scary Spice. Fred Nile only found Davila’s Stupid as a Painter 1981 ‘in your face’ because he either didn’t get or didn’t like the joke. However, when, in Bounty Hunters 1991, Bennett depicted an orgy of colonial hatred, it is difficult not to feel confronted and deeply unsettled. These and other works, such as Self-Portrait: Interior/Exterior 1993, have been interpreted as indexing the cries of his own body ‘breaking open the text’ of racism and colonial cultures. Nicholas Thomas hopefully suggested that they ‘almost bypass the business of representation,’as if Bennett has been able locate a deeper identity that, in evading the limits of language, is free to speak, to have a way of actually naming his oppressors. But, as I said in a recent essay, if Thomas is impatient for Bennett to name names, Bennett never crossed that threshold. Yet Thomas is right to suggest that Bennett’s art was never just an exercise in inter-textuality. Bennett’s unease with postmodernism is evident in the sense of a deep injustice that always remained like a bitter aftertaste in his deconstructions of the visual cultures of colonial cultures.
Bennett’s struggle to un-name the naming of colonialist discourses has never been towards revealing some authentic stubborn Indigeneity or sense of place, but towards a way of successfully living in the no-places of colonial cultures. Un-naming is never enough. It remains a passive and even bookish commentary, but not a lived praxis. Bennett has always sought a praxis by putting into play multiple rather than singular readings, forcing the viewers’ hands by demanding from them a further interpretation. All good art is performative in this sense. But Bennett’s work is performative in a strong sense in that this demand for interpretation is the actual subject of the art. The multiple texts of his art mobilise a field of ambiguity that the viewer must anxiously negotiate and navigate.With PhotoShop he found a way to ratchet up this anxiety by increasing the speed and density of the discursive traffic.
PhotoShop is still a print-based program. It relies on the importation of images that can be re-arranged digitally on a page. Its structure is alphabetic. However it is so information rich – or what McLuhan calls ‘hot’ – that it is better seen as a hyper-print technology. Bennett has remarked:
I love the capacity for “sampling” images - there is a rap/hip hop relationship with the idea of sampling and remixing. … The PhotoShop program has a “layers” function which I was immediately drawn to, this allows me to slide images under and over each other on various levels, to add or subtract things without waiting for paint to dry. The hardest thing with working this way was deciding when to stop, as changes can be made so quickly and easily ... too many options. It was kind of the same experience as knowing when a painting is finished but really speeded up.
Speed is an increasingly important element in Bennett’s work. It disrupts the slowness and care with which we normally read images. This has been an important element in the recent influence of Basquiat’s work, which is derived from the speed of graffiti and rap music. Like Basquiat, Bennett now unravels words and signs not through a binary interpellation of their forgotten other – which, for example, he did in his 1994 installation Present Wall – but through an excessive cascading and mutating of words. In this way he hopes to move beyond the commentary of his earlier work, and develop a type of praxis, a way of successfully living in colonial cultures. This need has been made more urgent by the changing political landscape of the previous five years. Bennett’s use of PhotoShop is also a response to the Howard/Herron/Hanson years. All the considered commentary, academic analysis and legal opinion did not stop them. These are depressing times; and to combat them Bennett needed more than commentary. He needed the sort of praxis he felt when listening to rap music.
© Ian McLean, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.
 Email, 19 February 2001.
 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy The Making of Typographical Man, Mentor Book, New York, 1969.
 See Wystan Curnow, Imants Tillers and the ‘Book of Power’, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p. 71.
 Davila’s criticism is in a short paper published by the Institutive of Modern Art in Brisbane earlier this year called ‘Friends of the People’. The paper was originally written for and given at the launch in Melbourne earlier this year of a book edited by Nikos Papastergiadis: Mixed Belongings and Unspecified Destinations, UNIVA, London, 1996
 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 1994. See especially pp. 238–242.
 Nicholas Thomas, ‘Gordon Bennett’s Notes to Basquiet’, Drawing Biennale Catalogue, Sydney, 1998, p. 14.
 See Ian McLean, ‘Probability, Rap and Coincidence’, Third Text, 50, Spring 2000, pp. 107–108.
 For a close reading of the Home Décor series that illustrates its complexity and ambiguity, see: Ian McLean, ‘Gordon Bennett’s Home Decor: The Joker in the Pack’, Law Text Culture, 4, 1, Autumn 1998, pp. 286–307.
 Email, 19 February 2001.