Dr Christian Thompson AO
Dr Christian Thompson AO (born 1978, Gawler, South Australia, Bidjara People) is a leading contemporary Australian photographer whose work explores notions of identity, cultural hybridity and history. In much of Thompson’s work he engages with the process of auto-ethnography. Merging a nuanced dream world and his autobiography, he draws out images that connect his own personal experience to wider social, political, cultural meanings and understandings.
The exhibition is part of EMOP Berlin — EUROPEAN MONTH OF PHOTOGRAPHY 2018.
Christian Thompson: Equinox
Christian Thompson’s digital photographic prints made over the previous decade could be stills from a morality play in which he performs the sole protagonist. Composed as overtly poetic allegories with quixotic themes from the comedic to the mock tragic, they are thick with suggestion and references and ever open to interpretation. Arguably the oldest performance genre, solo story-tellers featured prominently in traditions as different as the tribal oracle and medieval travelling troubadour, and were even extraordinarily popular in Victorian entertainment – all periods that Thompson’s work references.
In his most recent series, Equinox (the equinox is when the sun shines equally on the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres), he plays a spirit figure that in each print is posed with Thompson’s signature baroque regalia. As if the burden of prophecy has left them resigned to the sad fate of humanity, these spirit figures are too lost in melancholic thought to notice us gallery spectators. This transcendental affect transforms the gallery into the pious space of the cathedral where we mortals seek atonement for our sins. One spirit ascends into the clouds, one is beatified in a halo of everlasting daisies that it wears like a large mask and another seemingly drowns in a sea of Australian natives. The other three prints are framed by proteas that blaze from the dark sky like Van Gogh’s stars, their hair tossed (I imagine) by the winds of an approaching storm. Cradled in their hands are the masks of three bearded besuited Victorian gentlemen, cut out from nineteenth-century prints. What, you wonder, is the moral of this play?
The proteas would seem an Australian reference, but since this plant is native to the ancient giant continent of Gondwana the protea is truly cosmopolitan – a native with roots in the three continents that now form the southern hemisphere. The masks, their subjects identified in the title of the work, are of German colonist made good in the British colonies of New South Wales and Victoria. They will be obscure to most contemporary audiences: Bernhardt Otto Holtermann, a colonial politician and sponsor of photography but best known for the Holtermann Nugget, the largest lump of gold embedded in quartz in the world (which is pictured in two of the works); the botanist Baron Sir Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller; and the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Each played a central role in building different aspects of the Australian colonial archive. As in Thompson’s earlier series, Museum of others (2016), the masks have had their eyes cut out, except that the masks are too absurdly doll-like to mask anything. Perhaps they are another type of mask: a votive figure for the guardian angels to nurse as they pray for the three German souls.
These aren’t the only masks as like a seasoned actor Thompson’s scenarios are a series of maskings and unmaskings. What we make of his rich allegory of baroque masquerade, colonial tales, Freudian and other myth, depends on our own imagination. This is even more the case given Thompson’s protean imagination. Adopting disguises seemingly at will and welcoming conundrums and difference as the necessary ingredients of his imagination, you – and I imagine Thompson – can’t predict what’s coming next.
In taking us to our imagination, Thompson also leads us to the contemporary condition in which current imaginaries are nurtured, and it is here that his work begins to make sense. Contemporaneous differences running nonstop into and through each other are, as the art historian Terry Smith argued, characteristic of the contemporary condition and the art that most cogently addresses it. We live at a time in which difference continuously outruns identity, and judging by Thompson’s lucid mining of disguise to creatively occupy this contemporary space of post-identity, he would seem at home in its antinomies. Post-identity, in Thompsonville at least, is not the end or surpassing of identity but a new relational way of managing difference that doesn’t reify a singular centred subject. Rather, it returns identity to the multiple currents of life, to its memories, desires and responsibilities i.e. to the social and to history and myth.
Thompson’s photographic explorations of multiple identities and subjectivities recall Cindy Sherman’s art, so much that her photographs seems an obvious predecessor of Thompson’s despite the very different content of each. Thompson relishes masquerade whereas the roles Sherman perform seem deliberately alienated and forced, as if this is not what she is. This gives her work an undercurrent of existential angst, while Thompson’s disguises are liberating: they have a camp lightness of being.
The angst of Sherman’s art might seem the residue of modernism, but the look of her photographs set the tone for art since 1980, quickly becoming iconic of a new postmodern (or contemporary) consciousness that has now taken hold. This is the consciousness of the simulacrum. The old principles of meaning, which had hinged on matters of originality and authenticity, still matter but in very different ways. Thompson’s photographs frequently reference such things but without an over-determining teleology or obdurate subjectivity framing their meaning. This is why antinomies lack the menace they once had, as if contradictions can run free without resolution.
Smith argues that this acceptance of antinomies means that contemporary art lacks a period style, a dominant tendency. Yet if there is not a dominant style in the strict art historiographical sense of the term, there is a look. This look, perhaps best described as photogenic, pulls difference – including different styles – into the one space so that its thickness melts into the liquid field of an image, and increasingly an image floating in the flickering electric currents of screen worlds.
If Sherman is one of the first artists to convince us of this photogenic universe, Thompson is, generationally speaking, a digital native running ahead with the possibilities of it. In this respect his predecessor is Michael Jackson not Sherman. While all three appear with a vast array of masks, Sherman’s masks seem to be emphatically not about her, as if their function is to rigorously conceal her subjectivity. By contrast, no matter what mask Thompson wears, like Jackson it seemingly reveals more about him. Sherman’s masquerades take us away not only from her person but also from the idea of subjectivity, identity or transcendental truth, whereas Thompson’s photographs exemplify Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’
For Thompson the mask is a means of unconcealing not effacing his origins; it is a window on his Bidjara ancestry but also the global histories of settler colonialism in which he negotiates his other (Irish, English, German and Jewish) ancestries and peripatetic life. For him this rich lode of differences is to be worked and celebrated, rather than a burden to bear. Thus, his masks serve an ontological function of providing an imaginary space or clearing for the showing of his being.
If in this quest the distant echo of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (1952) can be heard, Thompson has also moved beyond it. Fanon’s simultaneous self and collective analysis of the emerging black postcolonial subject in mid-twentieth century modernity is a touchstone for thinking the contemporary subject, not least because of his metaphor of the mask. Its lessons resonate loudly in the work of his contemporary, the Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène – as in his film Black Girl (1966), which is a postcolonial tragedy of black masks haunting white skins and white masks haunting black skins, each trapped in a destiny bound by the hardening of racial binaries in the arrogance of Western racism. By contrast, Thompson deploys the mask to surreptitiously move between the antinomies of not just race and colonialism but the whole mix of inherited legacies that swirl in the contemporary condition.
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