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Australia at Concertina Gallery

[Editor’s Note: I’m putting this in “Best of” Because I thought the Australia video installation was the best installation I saw in 2010. Originally published Oct., 2010]

Candice Weber

When director Baz Luhrmann set out to create a motion picture of a “mythologized Australia,” he probably should have thought twice about introducing any more mythology into a country that, from the perspective of this outside observer, seems somewhat confused on how to approach its own history.  The story of Australia cannot be so easily boiled down to “good” white people and “bad” white people, as Australia (2008) seems to do at times.  Luhrmann did have good intentions of addressing charged political issues like the Stolen Generation (young Aborigine and multi-racial children taken from their families by the Australian government well into the 1970s), but yet the film still revolves around the motivations and actions of its white characters.  Since the late 1990s, Australia has, like most settler nations, been grappling with the right balance of expressing regret for the past while wanting to absolve current generations and move forward as much as is possible.  Part of this struggle is what’s known among Australian scholars as the “history wars,” with some academics arguing that whole swaths of nasty stories have been omitted from the history books, while others claim the evidence for things like genocide just isn’t there.

Anthea Behm "Australia"

Anthea Behm "Australia"

That being said, Anthea Behm’s 157 minute Australia (2009) presents itself like official footage from a “history wars” tribunal.  A steady, head-on shot of Behm seated at a wide table with a microphone stand and a glass of water recalls countless images of officials, lobbyists, and analysts testifying in front of Congress.  It becomes apparent that Behm is watching the movie Australia, off screen, and she sits with hands neatly folded, giving a slow monotone play-by-play of the action.  Unfortunately, I was only able to catch a few lines of her narration, but her stamina and concentration were impressive.  She described an “aborigine child” running back and forth around a dusty ranch, in what I did hear.  The stripped down, emotionless nature of her descriptions isn’t quite the humorous actor or director commentaries we’re used to hearing on DVDs, but it does provide a curious perspective on Australia, a film that relies so heavily on grandiose sweeps across broad landscapes and emotional imagery in almost every shot.  I plan on hunkering down for a closer listen as soon as I can.

Aron Gent

Aron Gent

This most recent show at Concertina Gallery seems built entirely on the shoulders of Behm’s latest work, while the three other pieces by Aron Gent appear only loosely connected.  His L.A.-landscape-turned wallpaper is an interesting use of the space (and a good follow-up to Madeleine Bailey’s zipper pieces) and echoes the rough hills of the Australian outback, however a closer look finds strings of power lines and expensive homes dotted amongst the scrub.  Gent supplies two other abstracted impressions of Australia, including one that interprets the epic romance of Nicole Kidman’s and Hugh Jackman’s characters as some kind of cosmic supernova.

Australia was pretty much panned by critics when it was released last year, but as Gent and, more so, Behm show, it’s ripe with opportunities for poking at the symbols and stories of collective national psyches – not an easy task but hopefully one that other artists, in countries with their own complex histories, will take on.  In the meantime, I wonder if Behm would be interested in helping us Americans out by taking on Dances With Wolves…