Home and Away
Nathan Beard by Gemma Weston
At the time of writing, Nathan Beard is in Berlin. Two weeks ago he was in London, and for a few days I lost him to Venice, where Internet connectivity is notoriously suspect. It has been difficult to pin Nathan down, although this is perhaps an appropriate analogy for his practice. For a number of years, he has been investigating his Asian-Australian heritage, creating installations and performances in which an authentic sense of place or location is as elusive as Nathan is currently.
Nathan Beard’s international adventure comes off the back of a residency in Thailand that culminated in Obitus, an exhibition of work in progress at Speedy Grandma Gallery in Bangkok. During the residency, Nathan returned with his mother to her childhood home in Nakhon Navok with the intention of collecting ghost stories from relatives and family friends. But the project expanded to explore a different, less supernatural kind of ghost – the haunting melancholy of a nostalgia that makes homecomings bittersweet. Nathan staged a number of photographs of his mother in the now abandoned home; she appears draped in floral tributes and shrouded in an eerie mist lit by the glow of an neon sign made in imitation of her own handwriting reading in Thai ‘Leaving home is like a bird leaving the nest’.
Autobiography has been a consistent engine for Nathan’s practice. In Factotum, an earlier body of work, which saw him included in the Hatched National Graduate exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in 2008, he utilised his job at a Croissant Express franchise to fund a variety of solo exhibitions that explored the relationships between artistic production and structures of capital and labour. Videos filmed on location at the franchise were exhibited with emails between the artist and gallery, structures that replicated store fit out and receipts for their purchase. The project laid the groundwork for the artist’s interest in the intersections of art and life, and the construction of the self in society.
Nathan has since become more directly concerned with his personal history and heritage, resulting in a more poetic and less cynically deconstructive aesthetic, but he remains invested in critiquing popular experience and the constructions of identity that it produces. Family photographs are bedecked with diamantes that reference both traditional costuming and mass-produced iPhone accessories. Nathan and his mother, who is a frequent collaborator, re-enact scenes from American movies or interviews with Thai movie stars. Gold leaf is pervasive. A series of glittering shrines draw directly from the kitsch of commercialised ‘orientalism’, an aesthetic that reached fever pitch in Nathan’s collaboration with Abdul Abdullah and Casey Ayres, The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity, in which the trio posed as ambassadors for a fictional, gaudy pan-Asian embassy housed in Federation Square in Melbourne for the duration of 2012’s Next Wave festival.
Dichotomies of east and west, high and low culture and private and public become fluid and uncertain in this work.
Stereotypes are critiqued, but the tone of Nathan’s work is distinctly celebratory, even when examining the funereal.
Gemma Weston is a freelance writer, sessional academic and member of Oktachoron, an artistic, curatorial and ‘slow business’ collaborative. Oktachoron (Weston, Jamie Macchiusi and Andrew Varano) currently direct OK Gallery, Northbridge.
This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Summer 2013.