My most recent gripe is with the Sydney Morning Herald publishing articles entirely comprised of tweets. Knee-jerk journalism that side-steps the orderly procedures of trawling through all available data, fact-checking and presenting some form of legible analysis. Also troubling is how little reflection there is—ironic really, as we are now living in an era where almost everything is recorded in some way. How often do we assess sound bites of what was said on certain issues last month, last year, last century?
Nice Dreams was an exhibition of collaborative work by Sumugan Sivanesan and Gustavo Böke that examined two specific events in Australian history and developed a thoughtful and visually engaging dialogue around them. Entering Black and Blue, the viewer was confronted by a white monochrome donkey-cart piled with hundreds of pink and green ice cream cones filled with expandable foam. At the opening the artists told me of their initial plans to blow the cart up, but the two were concerned that the glass-panelled windows of the gallery would pop out and crash to the pavement, many floors below.
The gallery window itself was clad in black cloth tape, forming a Union Jack; a recurring motif in Sivanesan’s collaborative practice. Most recently, a gaffa-tape Union Jack featured in his work Inlaws Outlaws (2009), a collaboration with Melletios Kyriakdis that was installed in the window-boxes of Albion Place in Sydney’s CBD. These works drew comparisons between contemporary bikie gangs and the Kelly Gang, by placing images of a Ned Kelly tin helmet and a motorcycle helmet alongside eachother. The work stipulates that time is, perhaps, the determinate component in which Australian outlaws reside in the notorious-heroic spectrum of Australian recapitulation.
Pinned on the far wall of Nice Dreams was a newspaper article from the Daily Mirror dated 14 May 1962. The article recounted the story that forms the basis of the exhibition’s rubric, describing the events of New Year’s Day, 1915, in Broken Hill. Starting at noon, a procession of approximately 1200 people, comprising of members of Broken Hill’s Manchester Unity Order and their families, headed out for a New Year’s Day picnic. Unbeknown to them, two local men—a Halal butcher and a young ice-cream salesman/part-time hash dealer—were positioned behind a nearby ice cream cart adorned with a Turkish flag.1 In a supposed act of solidarity with the Turkish army at Gallipoli the two fired indiscriminate shots into the crowd, killing three people and wounding fourteen. The crowd—along with two carts full of constables—retaliated, killing both men. At 8pm that night, an angry and confused group assembled at the local police station, demanding answers. The group soon reached a consensus that the Germans of the town had put the two men up to it. The mob then descended on the German club, detaining the local Germans, and burning down the premises before staking an Australian flag in the embers. This series of events was subsequently used as evidence by Attorney General William Morris Hughes to facilitate Australia’s World War 1 internment camps, which held thousands of new immigrants to Australia until 1918. The Daily Mirror article concludes ‘And two Marihuana [sic] be-fuddled Turks had caused it all’. From this article, the viewer ascertained a series of signifiers that linked all components of the exhibition.
Opposite the newspaper article was a collection of contemporary photographs of the Ghan Town Mosque, Broken Hill, a picnic truck and a prayer matt, all of which were hung in vintage, mismatched frames, giving the installation a homely aesthetic. To the right of these was the video work Terror Australia (2009), which featured footage from the G8 Summit overlaid with the audio of an interview with Gordon Dansie of the Broken Hill Historical Society. Here Dansie methodically explains the overwhelmingly successful integration of Turkish and Afghan camel rearers into Broken Hill life, in particular their early incorporation into the unions and attainment of reasonable incomes.
Sumugan Sivanesan & Gustavo Böke, Nice Dreams, (works from left to right): Nice Dreams, 2009, cardboard, MDF, wafer & expandable foam; Black Flag, 2009, cloth tape on glass, installation view, Black & Blue Gallery, Sydney. Photo: Sumugan Sivanesan.
Elsewhere in the exhibition was Dream Island (2009), a video installation comprised in part by two busts draped in T-shirts, from which protruded bicycle handlebars resembling antlers and, for reasons one cannot wholly articulate, an aura of guerrilla-like stoicism. Between these two forms, a television screened footage of an angry mob as it rallied outside a police station—recalling the events described in The Daily Mirror article. This is not 1915 though; watching the video we realise that it is raw footage, from 2004, of the revelation that Palm Island resident Mulrunji Doomadgee died in police custody as result of a ‘fall’. The video shows the crowd being incited by Lex Wotton, a peer of Doomadgee’s, who demands answers. I found out later, that an extensive riot ensued, severely damaging the Palm Island police station. Wotton was subsequently convicted of inciting a crowd to commit violence and sentenced to two years in prison.
We can see here the employment of what one might call historical apposition. Not unlike Sivanesan’s previous pairing of Lebanese Bikie Gangs with Ned Kelly, two disparate events—separated by almost a hundred years and involving different Australian cultural icons—are brought together. The Palm Island riots and the Turkish uprising at Broken Hill provide, for me, a flipside to the events of 1996, when John Howard endorsed historian Geoffrey Blainey’s refute of a ‘black armband view of history’, just before he flew over to speak at the Dawn Service at Gallipoli. These two different accounts of dissent, stir contemplation about the legacies of colonial power in a broader Australian context, and varying strategies that counter it.
Sivanesan and Böke’s particular kind of creative historical exploration adopts an approach that runs counter to convention: a chaotic but nonetheless designed museology, without any obligation towards an orderly string of compressed information. Instead, it’s as though events from the past have become the artist’s media, to assemble, construct and re-present. Here oral history, published records, photo documentation, sculpture, installation, painting, sound design and video all come into play. There is an earnestness to this approach, a wish to pull us all into a specific context and let us float around in it for a while. It runs against a prevalent rule in art to present less, not more, and to leave interpretation to the viewer.
The experience of walking through this exhibition was not unlike trawling over a news website. One could skim over the information and enjoy the pictures, or go further into each work to explore the heavily researched plethora of material. Yes, Nice Dreams was muddled and disparate and confusing. Each of the seven works in the exhibition seemed as though they could have been made by different artists, rather than a single-minded, collaborative duo. But then, history, and our understanding of it, is no more clear cut. In this exhibition I see a model that has enabled the artists to colocate oddities in Australian history, and from which we can arguably reap more insight, experience and meaning than from traditional documentary, literary or museological models.
Sumugan Sivanesan & Gustavo Böke’s exhibition Nice Dreams was held at Black and Blue Gallery, Sydney from 4 to 19 September, 2009.
1. The men were initially presumed to be Turks but were later found to be Indian Muslims.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 15, Lies, Summer 2009-2010, pp 86 – 87.
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