camouflage and/or ambiguity

The Australian National University owns the painting Camouflage #7 (2003) by Gordon Bennett. The Australian War Memorial owns the next in the series. Recently the ANU’s version has been hung in the foyer of the Sir Roland Wilson Building, the home of the Research School of the Humanities and the Arts. To hang a work which has as its primary subject a depiction of the late Iraqi dictator has raised a certain degree of controversy amongst the residents of the building. Irrespective of interpretations of subsequent events, Iconophilia was not alone in wondering the purpose in hanging a portrait of a onetime head of state, who many regarded as a brutal war criminal, and the perpetrator of many civilian deaths, or as the Kurds would say, genocide. …

With news of a potential debate brewing in relation to the hanging of the Gordon Bennett, the University provided an exegesis, which had been written for the first exhibition of this work, and the others in the series for their first exhibition in 2003 at Sherman Galleries. Never before had we seen a wall text like it. This turned out to be the text written by Ian McLean (reprinted with permission below) which contextualised the work in relation to the artist’s previous oeuvre, and the historical moment at which it was first exhibited – at a time in which time Saddam Hussein was still in hiding.

But how do we now understand this work, hanging on our wall? Subsequent historical events, his discovery, his trial, his execution, the failure of the invading forces to discover any evidence of weapons of mass destruction, the ongoing occupation, Abu Ghraib, and the ensuing civil war, now creates a very different interpretative context to that of 2003.

So it is interesting, your Iconophile thought, that a painting should require such an extensive exegesis to justify its presence in a context such as the RSHA. Perhaps, I wondered, these paintings had lost their provocative ambiguity through the passage of time and changing political circumstances? It seems some works of art keep getting better and better, and others just lose it. How a painting might seem to have a special kind of potentiality at one moment, which becomes lost in its subsequent historical context, is a perennial problem for works of art. Nevertheless, this is precisely one of those instances when the work of art succeeds or fails by itself, on its own terms, and whether it survives the changing circumstances of its referents.

How would the University community react, I wondered, if I loaned my Turkmen portrait of Stalin to complement this ensemble? I suspect it would require some justification.

Of course, the carpet is a different kind of artefact, without the kind of intention or agency we expect of a painting. It was produced to commemorate Stalin and his regime, while the Soviet Union was still intact. It is best understood as a cynical form of tourist art. It embodies no complex inversions of meaning. But sometimes such contrasts are productive…

In this instance, there is an intriguing textile connection. I was curious as to Bennett’s pictorial strategy of painting a portrait with the face overlaid with a very specific kind of pattern, like a veil, and whether this signals the artist’s intentions, and his position in relation to his subject? Perhaps this lattice pattern (technically, derived from Turkish ogival woven designs, but also related to carpet designs, or wallpaper) could be interpreted as a means to further orientalise the image of Saddam?

Might we have expected some further kind of critical displacement in a portrait of Saddam from the way his political reputation was understood? Bennett’s intent is elusive, at best. So how are we to read his use of camouflage devices, as signalled by the title of the work itself? According to a number of sources (see  Zara Stanhope, and the AWM’s own account), the ogival pattern was “derived from the inside papers of the Koran.” In the same manner as the Prophet’s face is conventionally hidden from view, Saddam’s face is here partially obscured, perhaps as if he is sheltered by one of those camouflage netting sheets used to protect weaponry from surveillance, but this time with a strangely archaic cultural and religious twist.

If so, could this not be read as an auratic device, as an allusion to martyrdom? Is Saddam Hussein here represented as a victim, in the face of an overwhelming invasive force? Alas, the AWM doesn’t contribute very much to this debate when it suggests its very similar work “alludes to the disturbing, unknown and hidden reasons, hence the ‘camouflage’, behind the war in Iraq” – itself an unusually independent position for the AWM to take – plus an unattributed quote: ‘so the whole Iraq war seems a camouflage for secrets that may never be revealed’. Is this the limit of the artist’s own account?

Laura Murray Cree is quoted by Bennett’s dealers (and others down the line) when she also references such “issues of secrecy” as if that is a motive or justification for his pictorial ambivalence… Drawing a longer bow, McLean suggests that this is “an art of reportage”, motivated by Bennett’s desire not to forget the foundational “terror and trauma” that “still constitutes the Australian nation.” Is either position sufficient, in the current circumstances, for a reading of the painting’s continuing contradictions? Iconophilia thinks not…

So we have an ongoing artistic war of allusions, veiled in secrecy, with little to suggest the artist’s own motivation, or his views on Saddam Hussein, his subject, then or now. Granted, the artist has only given us the three painterly elements to work with: the recognisable drawing of the subject, plus the two patterns, one of which references Islam. With, maybe, just a little post-Pop irony. This doesn’t provide many options for a nuanced reading of the artist’s intention – and thus the effects of the interactions between these elements seem relatively arbitrary, as these differing and ultimately unsatisfactory interpretations suggest.

Such retrospective evaluations as these also behoves us to attempt to understand the moment of a work’s creation. In 2003 McLean wrote the text below, which remains as the most comprehensive interpretation, written to accompany the  work’s first exposure:

“Bennett’s recent reflections on the Iraq war in the Camouflage series continue a prolonged interest in American affairs. It began in the late-1990s with his Notes to Basquiat series that culminated in an exhibition relating to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York. However the terror of colonialism and the trauma of being Australian that had previously preoccupied Bennett have not been forgotten. Rather they have been displaced onto contemporary global events, as if Bennett is developing an art of reportage.

This apparent shift in Bennett’s work is partly due to a long expressed frustration at being pigeon holed as an Indigenous artist. Not only did this elicit a burden of representation that he was unwilling and unable to bear, but it limited and indeed reduced the meaning and range of his art. Bennett’s earlier art consistently addressed the logic of settler desire and Australian national identity, thus situating itself within the traditional concerns of Australian art and history. However Bennett was also acutely aware that the idea of an Australian art or identity has long been an ideological smokescreen for the global aspirations of European Empire. Australia’s wars have always been ones of empire fought away from home; while the local war of settler conquest remains invisible, or when brought to our attention, denied. Thus his work also insisted on the global or even universal structures of this settler desire and its national discourses by showing the ways in which the paradigms of twentieth century Western art were ever-present in the constructions of Australian identity and its Aboriginal other.

The other reason for Bennett’s focus on American subjects is the depressing complacency and colonial mindset of contemporary Australian national life. Recently Australians reconfirmed their allegiance to the British Queen, and re-elected a government campaigning with the familiar racist and xenophobic rhetoric of the white Australia of old, as if there was nothing to be sorry about. If Australians seem unmoved by their own history, maybe events in far away places might shake this national amnesia.

While a xenophobic nationalism remains the limit of the Australian imagination, Bennett will feel on alien territory. However it would be wrong to consider Bennett an exile. If the subject of his art now takes a more international focus, its themes and content remain unchanged. These are the binary structures of thought and especially representation that manufacture identity positions through othering anything or anyone that can be made to appear different.

Bennett’s art of the early to mid-1990s is, amongst other things, a plea for Australian art to shake off its deep complicity in the imagining of the Australian nation. Aboriginal and Australian art, to this day defined against each other by a constitutional difference that stages the mythology of Australian national identity, are both inventions of a settler desire for legitimacy. Bennett’s refusal to participate in this game of representation by rejecting the label of ‘Aboriginal’ is not due to an antipathy towards Indigenous issues, but to his focus on the very language systems that deny Aborigines a place in the constitution of Australian identity. Even though art and artists identified as Aboriginal became fashionable in the 1990s, this status only confirmed their essential (and essentialising) difference that set them apart from Australian art and its history, and allowed them to be colonised and objectified in the institutional discourses of Australian nationhood.

The great taboo in Australian art and criticism in the 1990s and today is not to cross this conceptual divide between Aboriginal and Australian. If this is something of a mystery given the prominence of deconstruction and Queer theory, at stake is the very sense of what it means to be Australian and an Australian artist. Despite or even because of the current ubiquity of globalising forces, we have witnessed in the previous decade an increasing anxiety about national identity that Prime Minister Howard has proved masterful at both fanning and exploiting through a mixture of brutal policies, subtle language and historical amnesia. It is, of course, a well-tried politics, and one that Bennett so effectively pictured and critiqued in his earlier art. However, now Bennett sees in these issues, as well the discourses of Aboriginality around which they circulate, a chance to move beyond the old nationalisms and towards a more global perspective. Because Australian identity has always othered Aboriginality, the promise of Aboriginal art has been to explode not confirm the myths of Australian nationalism. Ironically, Aboriginal art has a global perspective that Australian art rarely achieves.

While the difference of Aboriginal and Australian art is undeniable (each has its own institutional frames that are difficult to dismantle), Bennett proposes that this difference is a type of camouflage disguising the language of binary difference and exclusion that stages its everyday institutional realities. Bennett’s earlier work illuminated the binary structures of colonial and national discourse, as if this was enough to show the artificiality and even grotesqueness of its expressions. In his more recent work Bennett seems frustrated at such appeals to human reason and justice. Instead he becomes a trickster player in their language games. Like the fool or clown, he masquerades in his own camouflage as a way to confuse rather than illuminate the rules of the game. In this way he at least feels a player.

If Bennett’s art of the new millennium looks very different to his earlier work, it is also much the same. Bennett has always been engaged in reportage. In the early 1990s Aboriginal issues were the news; and his highly graphic style and talent for creating what might be termed ‘headline’ images, made him a master of reportage. Bennett began making works on the Iraq war not when it formally began, but well before then – when it became news. In this sense the war was, as Saddam Hussein intimated, over before it began, as if he was checkmated in the first move, or caught in a media game that he could not be a player.

The Iraq war paintings follow quite naturally from Bennett’s 911 series. However Bennett’s interest in the Iraq war also has a source closer to home: the Tampa affair and the internment of mostly Arab refugees in Australian camps. Bennett senses in the cynical politics of the Howard government a familiar racist card being played: the game of difference and exclusion that has long shaped what it means to be Australian. Thus the title ‘Camouflage’ resonates well beyond its apparent reference to the familiar military camouflage patterns depicted in the paintings.

Bennett does not, as he did in his earlier paintings, spell out for us the binary logic at work in national discourses of identity. Rather he plays up its decorative artificiality and the elusive tenuousness of its content. Just as Aboriginal dots camouflage secret designs, so the whole Iraq war seems a camouflage for secrets that may never be revealed. This is evident in the two main camouflaged images of the series. The gasmask, itself a type of camouflage, reminds us of the excuse for this war: biological weapons whose whereabouts remain (at the time of writing) unknown. Equally mysterious is the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. His once ubiquitous image has suffered the iconoclastic retribution of defeat, but this dictator had so many doubles and his movements were so furtive and secretive that even the smart bombs and prying eyes of the US military could not locate him. However the greatest secret that this war veils is the origin of these leaders, movements, and weaponry that cannot be found. They are themselves the creation of the very logic and politics that defeated them. Like his earlier works, Bennett’s Camouflage series show up the discursive effects of terror; in this case the putative rhetorical origins of a war fuelled less by genuine security concerns and more by a desire to forget the terror and trauma that founded and still constitutes the Australian nation.

Prof. Ian Mclean is at the University of Western Australia. He has written extensively on the art of Gordon Bennett. His text was written for the exhibition Gordon Bennett Figure/Ground (Zero), at Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 2003.

The thread on art and war continues below…

2 comments ↓

#1 max allen on 05.22.10 at 12:14 pm

It always mystifies me why academics fear to tread where reporters go as a matter of course. Why doesn’t somebody just ASK BENNETT to talk about what he had in mind? Anybody could just pick up the phone and talk to him. Doesn’t the artist’s own opinion count? Or has post-structuralism (or whatever it’s called these days) made the creator’s own views irrelevant?

#2 Nigel on 06.04.10 at 7:57 pm

Strange to relate, today someone has removed Iconophilia’s engagement with this work from the wall alongside the painting! Both the original Ian McLean essay, and Iconophilia’s response have been removed. Who is responsible? To what end? To stifle critical debate? Does the posted debate compromise the work of art? There is a relevant art historical precedent for posting a discussion of this kind: some ten years ago Imants Tillers and Gordon Bennett exhibited a protracted discourse as a work of art in the context of an Imants Tillers exhibition at the ANU School of Art Gallery. Let’s see who wants to take responsibility for this action…

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