Illustrious Moderns vs.
Baden-Powell Death Cult
Last year I travelled to Sydney as one of the privileged Western Australian artists who Artsource support annually to undertake studio residencies in far-flung places – away from the pristine beaches, inflated house prices and mining boom of our beloved Perth. As all artists know, particularly those with day jobs, uninterrupted work time is an enticing, elusive thing. So I arrived in Sydney with bold plans for my three months in the Artspace ‘Gunnery’ studio, knowing that I have achieved miraculous quantities of work in less time. I think, somewhere in my optimistic brainpan, I was expecting to walk out with a ready-made solo exhibition. Inevitably, my plans changed.
One of the special things about Artsource’s residency program is that there is no pressure to produce finished outcomes. It’s a space for research, investigation and reflection – a time in which to develop one’s artistic practice, rather than churn out work. Such freedom is intoxicating. It meant that I was able to luxuriate in research and get lost pursuing unexpected trajectories.
My primary interest in travelling to Sydney was to examine traces of colonial history within the city. As the place where the first British penal colony was established, it has a special significance in the national imagination. The heritage sites surrounding Woolloomooloo – Sydney Harbour, the Domain, the Botanic Gardens, the Mitchell Library and so on – are sites where the land was first appropriated from its original owners, where the colony fashioned an identity and where the notion of a national history, even a nation, took root. A leisurely stroll through these areas is littered with stone statues of bewigged sober men in breeches, speckled with bird excrement, and disrobed neoclassical maidens that stand as allegories for something or other. The Hyde Park Barracks, now a museum, are a reminder of the inhumane conditions endured by the convicts, while the Museum of Sydney attempts to chart the overlapping cultural histories of Sydney’s Indigenous people and the colonists on the site of Governor Phillip’s house. In the State Library of New South Wales, a collection of cameos by Josiah Wedgewood commemorating the British ‘discovery’ of this new territory are displayed; he called the series Illustrious Moderns.
I became fascinated by the public face of the colony still evident in Sydney’s urban spaces. Commemorative public sculptures depict idealised colonial bodies of neoclassical proportions, glossing over the horrific realities of the British invasion and the brutality of the penal colony. In the studio, I undertook a series of sculptural investigations that sought to subvert such heroic depictions of the colonial body by working with the metaphor of physical invasion. In this instance, the foreign body attacked itself. I produced an investigative series of ‘neoclassical-ish’ busts which were wracked by buboes, cysts and strange vegetal protrusions. I also produced a number of drawings that depicted a grotesque image of the militarised force of the colony – which, when I hosted an open studio, I described as a ‘Baden-Powell death cult’ to anyone that would listen.
I found the experience of the residency to be both frustrating and intensely rewarding.
Frustrations are inevitable when one discovers such a rich field of interest in a place where one’s time is limited. However, the rewards continue well beyond the period of the residency, and I find myself continuously returning to the discoveries I made in Sydney, both in the city and in the studio. I will be wrestling with this material for some time to come.
Thea Costantino was the recipient of a 2012 Artspace residency.
This article featured in the Artsource Newsletter, Winter 2013.
Artsource supports the practice of professional artists with the Global City Residencies.