Reviews/Visual Art

Artists reclaim queer history and female bodies

24 September 2020

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery has reopened with two exhibitions exploring themes of undesirable bodies and structures of power. Miranda Johnson takes a look.

‘A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk’, Drew Pettifer; ‘(Un)ladylike Acts: Recent Acquisitions from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art’, curated by Lee Kinsella ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·

“A Sorrowful Act: the Wreck of the Zeewijk” and “Unladylike Acts”, currently at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA, are two exhibitions that deal with undesirable bodies and narratives and the structures of power that attempt to maintain control.

Drew Pettifer’s solo exhibition “A Sorrowful Act” is the product of a period of scholarly research, focusing on the story of two young Dutch sailors who were part of the crew of the Zeewijk, which was wrecked off the coast of WA in 1727. Whilst on the island, two young men were found in the act of sodomy, and by way of punishment were marooned on two separate islands, where they were to die. This act is known (although not widely) as the first recorded act of homophobia in Australian history.

The exhibition uses archival materials including reproductions from the Captain’s log and artefacts from the wreck of the Zeewijk to visually bring the past into the present. Alongside this are Pettifer’s photographic and video works documenting the site of Gun Island and the journey taken, both by Pettifer on research trips as well as the imagined journey by the crew of the Zeewijk – and eventually, the young men on their unimaginable journey to separate islands, where they were left to die.

Pettifer, as quoted in curator Ted Snell’s catalogue essay, remarks that this presentation of artistic practice alongside research, is an act of recuperation, as it “attempts to reclaim this obscure queer history, (re) inserting the past into the present.” This reclamation is most clearly shown through Pettifer’s work Untitled (Flag), hanging as the artist’s own personal standard and a marker of the freedoms that were hard-won and battles that are still being fought in the present-day. This flag is the sign of a departure from historical events and a move towards grasping the possibility of future liberation. Placed alongside timelines and infographics of Australia and the Netherland’s legal approaches to homosexuality, I felt like the work was more a part of this didacticism rather than a step towards future liberation, which may have been due to curatorial decisions rather than the work itself.

The exhibition’s focus felt more weighted towards the research and documentation of the history rather than a reclamation of the story, so I am not sure that, for me, it achieved its aims of reclaiming or rewriting this history. Whilst the pain of the young men is of course unimaginable, any queer person learning this story would have felt a shock of some kind of recognition, an immediate kinship, and the research-based focus and documentation felt like a layer of removal from this emotional spark. However, watching the large-scale video work Untitled (Journey), in which the artist reads from his journal, interspersed with Dutch sea shanties and soundscapes of footsteps across the boys’ hometown streets of Ghent and Sint-Maartensdijk, I felt more of the artist’s emotional investment in the story, a yearning for a connection across time.

Madison Bycroft, ‘(Un)ladylike acts for every lady lacking (Gift to the King)’ 2013, still from single-channel digital video, colour, sound, 3:58 loop, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of Western Australia.

“Unladylike Acts” presents a selection of recent acquisitions from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. The works on display span across decades and media, to affirm the collection as a living one, with the works focusing on the ways in which women as artists can challenge, disrupt and undermine normalising expectations.

Many of the works have a strong element of humour and a wry understanding of the tropes of feminist art. Madison Bycroft’s video work is a montage of the artist emerging from the side of the road, squatting, and urinating on the road, at times having to dash away whilst still tugging her pants back up as a car approaches. It’s a journey of landscapes, as she repeats this act in snow, rocky coastal cliffs, and forests, the act remaining the same but the circumstances changing. It’s surprisingly addictive to keep watching and very easy to laugh at, a childish act repeated that nonetheless speaks to the reclamation of public space and a refusal to allow patriarchal control over the leaky feminine body.

Kate Just’s work also takes the female body as its starting point. In My Skin is a knitted whole-body self-portrait, reclining flat-backed on a plinth. It is immediately recognisable as a human body, the yarn creating bumps and knobbly bits just as the skin on a human body. Made during a residency where Just also encountered the Venus of Willendorf (also conjectured by scholars to be a self-portrait), In My Skin reflects upon the ways in which women’s self-portraiture, and the ways in which they represent their own bodies in their work, is uniquely personal, embracing the vulnerabilities, softness and unique qualities. The artists featured in “Unladylike Acts” similarly focus on these unique, idiosyncratic qualities of women’s experiences to challenge social norms and expand understandings of what it might mean to be a woman.

‘A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk’ and (Un)ladylike Acts: Recent Acquisitions from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art‘ run until 5 December 2020.

Pictured top: Installation view, Drew Pettifer: ‘A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk‘, (lef to right) ‘Untitled (Roel)’, 2019-20, single channel HD video; ‘Untitled (Bram)’, 2019-20, single channel HD video; ‘Untitled (Sand)’ and ‘Untitled (Shale)‘, 2020, installation, collection of the artist. Photo credit: Bo Wong.

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

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