Dr Ian Mclean
Gordon 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 which culminated in an exhibition relating to the September 11 terrorist attack on New York. Yet, 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 been of empire fought abroad; 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 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, among other things, a plea for Australian art to shake off its deep complicity with regard to the national imagination. Aboriginal and Australian art, to this day defined against each other by a constitutional difference that sets the stage for 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 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 the present government has proved masterful at both fanning and exploiting through a mixture of controversial 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 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 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.
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 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 gas mask, 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 United States 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 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 underpinning of the Australian nation.
Dr Ian Mclean is a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia. He has written extensively on the art of Gordon Bennett.
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