As many a Melbournian can attest, the water wall at the National Gallery of Victoria is something of a sacred cultural site. When its removal was proposed prior to the renovations of that building, by architect Mario Bellini, public outrage was such that the Gallery was forced on this point to back down. It is here, in this most conspicuous of sites, that Indigenous artist Bindi Cole Chocka has installed her latest work, a large-scale video projection, which the artist has called ‘Whitewash’. The work features a lone, tan-skinned man, youngish by most accounts and clearly of Aboriginal extraction. With arms at his side he gazes fixedly at the passing populous, all the while an expression that might be one of equanimity or alternatively a plea for understanding flickers enigmatically across his eyes and brow. Standing this way, not quite impassively, but swaying ever so slightly, black paint drips onto his body, only to be washed and diluted by perpetually falling water. Seemingly it is the water wall itself that bathes, blesses and maintains this ambiguous figure. Is he man or otherwise a being of spirit, waiting as the story goes at the place of eddying waters, where re-birth will soon be his? This we do not know.
It’s a complex work, and clearly its allusions are many. Added to it moreover, the context in which it sits compounds the narrative tension. First up, and this is but one point of contention, the NGV on St Kilda Road is the ‘International’ part of its campus. Given the presence of this Indigenous sentinel one might expect to find something of his cultural production inside. To do so however, one must traipse across the bridge all the way to Federation Square, where the Indigenous collection is permanently housed and displayed. As we pause in the archway pondering this very fact and with it the seeming disavowal of that culture’s ‘international’ status, we notice the background soundtrack. Not always distinguishable from the passing traffic, it carries the innocent voices of children who, in varying notes of excitement tell us what an Aboriginal person might look like. Tall, dark, lives in Alice Springs: general stereotypes that betray a national legacy. Such concerns are consistent too with Bindi Cole’s earlier works. Her investigation of Indigenous ‘otherness’ recently took the form of a documentation of Tiwi Islander ‘lady boys’, whose ambiguous status arose, not as a product of their own culture milieu, but through the enforcement of colonial epistemologies that refused to sanction what it did not identify as its own. In common with many a pale skinned ‘blackfella’, whose existence too is noted by this current video work, and indeed the lingering legacy of the White Australia policy, their experience at times has been one of doubly compounded marginality. This project, like ‘Whitewash’ itself, offers no conclusive answers and hence finds its power in the transient and at times ambiguous nature of identity.
For the time that ‘Whitewash’ is installed, it rises spectrally between two building-length banners, each bearing close-ups of the NGV’s very own 17th Century Dutch portrait paintings. This seems if not appropriate, then certainly ironically posed. Indeed from a purely European perspective, and for many years that was the only view on offer, Australian history was seen as beginning with the Dutch arrival, even before Captain Cook became synonymous with the continent’s so-called discovery. At the same time, but somewhat more obscurely, the work is flanked by Anthony Gormley’s slender metal ‘everyman’ figures, who likewise survey the human terrain, proffering however a message that some might argue extends neither from race nor place. Gormely is indeed a Universalist, just as surely as the Dutch capitalists whose faces adorn those banners were not. On both counts, Cole’s work presents a notable challenge, offering instead a cultural perspective that comes from a place of specificity, and leaves us wondering, not only about the place relegated to Aboriginal culture in our institutions, but also about the value of a universally conceived collection, as the National Gallery purports to be.
One might naturally imagine that Chocka's work will at some point in the future assume a curatorial bent, now that her attention has turned to the institutional frame. This certainly would place her in good creative company as indeed more than a few contemporary artists have worked to critique the places that mediate and preserve our artistic treasures. As for ‘Whitewash’ it is a work whose narrative remains steadfastly unresolved. Haunting in its presence, it is intentionally and rather subversively without punch line, energized instead by a lingering aura of doubt - ours possibly more so than the figure that inhabits its screen. This of course is its strongest dramatic effect.
Damian Smith, 2010