The backlash engulfing an Australian arts festival
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
One of Australia’s biggest arts festivals is facing an intense backlash after announcing a work that called for the blood of First Nations people.
The work, by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, was revealed as the headline piece at Tasmania’s Dark Mofo festival.
It purported to be a comment on the bloody history of colonialism, but to many Indigenous artists - it was insulting and reductive.
Today - art critic for The Saturday Paper Tristen Harwood, on the problems with shock jock art, and what this controversy tells us about the way Australia’s cultural institutions are operating.
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Tristan this week, Dark Mofo, which is the arts festival based in Tasmania, announced its first major project for 2021 and it created a huge backlash. First, though, can you tell me a bit about the festival itself and the lead up to the announcement for this specific work?
Yeah, so Dark Mofo is a festival which is attached to the Museum of Old and New Art, which has been described as a subversive adult Disneyland. It's centred around themes of sex and death, and the festival’s known now for often using, like quite a shocking headline performance.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:
“Thousands of people have today shunned protesters and petitions to witness an Australian exclusive as part of Dark Mofo…”
So in 2017, they hosted the Austrian provocateur Hermann Nitsch and the artwork he produced for them was a performance, in which he invited volunteers to smear themselves in the bloody entrails of a slaughtered bull, and this is sort of done for an audience.
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:
“The deceased bull, the centrepiece of the Viennese actionism, involving an orgy of live orchestra, pungent smells, eating and drinking and the removal of the beast’s internal organs.”
You know it’s about creating a bloody scene, a spectacle, and obviously it's going to attract disgust and that's sort of, all part of it. You know, the idea is that it kind of challenges your expectations of art. And I think when that is the premise of your festival, you're already heading into dicey territory, because you constantly are going to need to ‘up the ante’ and so it becomes a question of ‘how far can we go before it's too shocking for our audience?’ And so they're always they're always trying to push the line of, like, what an audience is willing to accept. And, you know, up until 2021 that has kind of worked for them.
Mmm, so what happened this year?
So for about a week Dark Mofo has been running the promotional material, which is a red square, with black text that reads ‘We Want Your Blood’, and it looks like a kind of still from the intro to a horror film or something like an Alice Cooper album cover. Y’know it was the typical kind of thing that you would expect of Dark Mofo, but it was about four days ago the real intentions of this promotional material were revealed to the public.
The promotional material was for an artwork by Santiago Sierra. The artwork is called ‘Union Flag’, and for the artwork, Santiago Sierra is calling on First Nations people whose territories were colonised by the British Empire to donate their blood, which then would be used to drench the British flag.
Ok, and before we unpack the problems with that particular work, can you tell me a bit about the artist behind it, Santiago Sierra?
So Santiago Sierra is an internationally recognised white Spanish artist, and he's well known for his provocative artworks, which typically replicate forms of exploitation. So, for instance, in his work ‘160cm Line Tattooed on Four People’ consisted of the artist paying four sex workers who were living with heroin dependencies the price of a single shot of heroin to allow him to tattoo a straight line across their bodies, and the result of that is, is an editioned photograph and a video that Sierra presents as the artwork.
Other works that Santiago Sierra’s produced are ‘240 Cubic Metres’ in which he travelled to a German town just outside of Cologne and created a gas chamber in a former synagogue; and to do this he got six cars and essentially plugged their exhausts into the synagogue, creating a poisonous atmosphere and, you know, people that defend his work will say that he's kind of showing the banality of the Holocaust to an audience, whereas the Jewish community in Germany were shocked and upset by the work.
So there's this perpetuation of a kind of white supremacist idea in serious work that, he's the knowledge holder and he's the person that that speaks for the vulnerable person who he's representing in his work.
And is that his rationale for this particular work, ‘Union Flag’? What has he said about what the intent of it is?
So this is what I find interesting about ‘Union Flag’ is that some of his rationale for the former works seems to be lost in ‘Union Flag’. You know, the claim there's a kind of confused claim that's happening in his letter calling for donations of blood, where he's saying that he's showing how bloody the history of colonialism is, and he’s educating a broad audience who may not know about this. But at the same time his letter says things like ‘all blood is red’ and ‘all blood has the same consistency’, these kind of, post-racial cliches. But his work, in calling for a racialized subject, the First Nations person, relies on that very racial hierarchy that he's also trying to counter so there’s something a little bit confusing happening in the work.
And so how did people respond to this work?
Understandably; outrage, upset...
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1:
“Consider the difference between claiming freedom of expression for work which is provocative or controversial, versus work or commentary that’s really actually just racist or culturally offensive…”
Archival Tape -- Unidentified Commentator #2:
“They've already taken our blood. The damage has already been done within the Tasmanian community and the art sector, and the trauma and distress that we've had to wear as a community the last couple of days trying to explain why this is so wrong…”
...and I think a really adequate response from First Nations people who are, you know, creatives, artists and curators, and other allies that have been exposed to Dark Mofo. Some of the comments were from performers who had formerly performed at the festival, including the rapper Briggs, who's said that we have already given enough blood.
Kimberly Molton, who's a Yorta Yorta woman and the senior curator of Museums Victoria said that it's an insulting and abhorrent curatorial decision. There has been enough First People's blood spilt across the world because of the English. This is not decolonising. It's not provocative or groundbreaking conceptual practise. It's shock jock art.
Another person, Jam Graham Blair, who's a Trululawei artist wrote that ‘Indigenous bodies are not tools to be used by colonisers, we are not props for your white guilt art’. And that, I think, is a really important insight into Sierra's practise because he requires his “marginalised” participants to not be collaborators, to not have a voice, to not be interlocutors in the work; because the material of his work, what he's showing, what he's using to provoke, is their suffering, is their marginality. So for them to speak, it reduces their marginality and also de-centres him as the kind of creative entrepreneur behind this artwork.
So to see this kind of really intelligent, and thoughtful, and cutting critique shows not that the work was provocative in how it wanted to be, but that there is already an existing critical mass of Indigenous practice in this country and that, for me, that's where radical art practise exists. And if you want to do something radical and unconventional as a festival, why aren't you going to these people in the first place? And that's a big question from me, for Leigh Carmichael, who is the creative director of Dark Mofo.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Tristen, how has Dark Mofo responded to the criticism that they received about Santiago Sierra’s work, ‘Union Flag’?
The initial response from Dark Mofo, or specifically from the festival's creative director, Leigh Carmichael, was to stand by the artwork.
Archival Tape -- Leigh Carmichael:
“The artist is anti colonialism. He's very firm about that. I feel very comfortable standing next to him on that. I believe he has a right, as all people do, to voice their opinions and views, freedom of expression is real and it's a fundamental right of artists, and all of us…”
and he's quoted as saying that he'd been working on this work for two years, which is quite alarming to me. It wasn't okay to take our blood two years ago, a year ago, and it's still not now, so...where was the consultation around that? So Carmichael said that it was like a complex and confronting work, he thinks that this is why it should be shown.
Archival Tape -- Leigh Carmichael:
“As an outsider, he brings a different perspective, potentially an objective perspective, to the table. And I'm interested to see how it plays out. But I'm very passionate about those issues. If this gives some Tasmanian Aboriginal community members a voice they wouldn't have otherwise had, then it will have been worthwhile.”
And after staunchly standing by the work in the morning of Tuesday, he later in the day completely backflipped, and put out an apology saying that he was sorry for the hurt that the work had caused, and that the work would be cancelled. And that was kind of the extent of the apology. There wasn't really any promise for any structural reform within Dark Mofo.
What does all of this say to you about the structures of Dark Mofo and the attitude and approach that it's taking here?
Nala Mansell, who's a campaigner at the Tasmanian Aboriginal centre, gave an interview on ABC Radio saying that she was unaware of any consultation with Aboriginal peoples before the idea was put out there for the work.
Archival Tape -- Nala Mansell:
“We’ve spilled enough blood over the past 220 years, and we’d like to see amends made for the blood shed by Aboriginal people over the past 200 years, rather than asking for more.”
But what it says to me about the processes within Dark Mofo, is that there's a lack of understanding about Indigenous artistic practice, there's a lack of understanding about things that are happening in Australia, there's a lack of understanding about like the implications of colonialism that are continuing in Australia; and that as an organisation there needs to be structural reform where Indigenous peoples are in positions with decision making power. So, to me, it seems like there's a lack of capacity within the organisation to even begin to engage with Indigenous peoples in the local community, and in the broader artistic community.
And is this bigger than just MONA and Dark Mofo? Are these kinds of issues common in the art world, in Australia?
On a structural level, yes. So I would say have a look at the major institutions in Australia: how many Indigenous gallery directors do you see? How many senior curators do you see, even in the positions that are responsible for Indigenous collections? It's not often that you're seeing something as offensive as ‘Union Flag’ in the public sphere, but when you're entering into gallery spaces and museums, there's collections that they are responsible for that have a long history related to this kind of colonial violence: theft of remains, theft of ancestral objects, and the kind of classificatory systems that are used to define indigenous art practise, which render one object an artefact and another object an artwork, without really considering the context and the intentions of the creators of these works.
But I think it's really important to acknowledge that this work was scrapped because of a collective action and Indigenous peoples refusal to engage in the terms of the artwork. And to me, this is one of the most successful critiques of Sierra's practise because it shows that his so-called ‘marginalised subjects’ are not powerless, colonised peoples, and it demonstrates that he's never spoken for the subjects that are in his art, and that he never could.
Tristen, thank you so much for your time.
You can read Tristen Harwood’s story on Dark Mofo and ‘Union Flag’ in this weekend’s edition of The Saturday Paper.
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Also in the news today...
Tasmanian state MP Sue Hickey has used parliamentary privilege to accuse Liberal senator Eric Abetz of "slut-shaming" former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.
Ms Hickey said she had a conversation with Senator Abetz on March 1, in which he said
“anybody so disgustingly drunk, who would sleep with anybody, could have slept with one of our spies and put the security of the nation at risk.”
In a statement, Senator Abetz said he "categorically denied" that he made the comments.
And, the New South Wales government has announced a significant easing of COVID-19 restrictions, putting social distancing rules at almost pre-pandemic levels.
As of March 29 there will be no restrictions on dancing or singing, no caps on numbers at weddings, funerals, and private homes, and 100 percent seated capacity allowed at entertainment venues.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.
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One of Australia’s biggest arts festivals is facing an intense backlash after announcing a work that called for the blood of First Nations people. Today, Tristen Harwood on what this controversy tells us about the way Australia’s cultural institutions are operating.
Guest: Art critic for The Saturday Paper Tristen Harwood
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Elle Marsh, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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