Prove your humanity

When I first met contemporary artist Christian Thompson, my expectations of meeting a stereotypical greater-than-thou prestigious artist went out the window. Instead, I was pleasantly introduced to a witty, charming, and down-to-earth individual. For someone who has achieved such success through their artistic career—and certainly has more than one reason to brag—it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. Christian has not only got a phenomenal artistic profile under his belt but an academic career that has taken him around the world.

He kindly and patiently led me through his show Ritual Intimacy, which opened May 17 at the John Curtin Gallery, and displays his art in photography, video and sound design over 15 years. Every gallery that hosts the show presents a slightly different iteration, as the works aren’t shown in chronological order.

History and Language

“There’s a lot of language in my work,” he said, facing The Sixth Mile (2006) and Desert (2006) inside the exhibition. “This is my father and I greeting each other traditionally, in Bidjara.” His father is of Bidjara heritage—the native Australians from the central south-west of Queensland—and his mother is of British heritage. The transference of sweat is a ritual between Bidjara fathers and sons, displayed frankly in a short looping video. The Sixth Mile, which refers to a creek where Thompson’s family used to swim, depicts him and his father combing children’s hair, harkening back to a history of photographic tradition within Christian’s family. His grandparents and family would be lined up by height, and their hair would be parted into formal styles.

“Our hair’s actually quite curly, it’s a metaphor for fitting in, but also about the transferral of knowledge through intimacy, and a representation of Aboriginal masculinity that wasn’t what is often portrayed.”

“Interestingly, I just made my first virtual reality work that’s also based on this creek where we swam as kids, and I was just there last week, swimming in that creek. It was so lovely. It’s been really drought-stricken for a long time, so the fact that it flowed during the making of the work, which was about drought, was kind of amazing.”

In the next room, Australian graffiti (2007) and Heat (2010) were facing one another, the harp from the latter multi-video display providing a serene atmosphere in which to view the former—one of Christian’s more famous artworks. “For me, I’ve always been attracted to the natural world,” he said, on Australian graffiti. “The natural world has been a constant inspiration and influence in my practice.

“We’ve just grown on very traditional ideas about the natural world, and what they represent spiritually to us as Bidjara people, and so that’s always been written very early on in my life and cultural experience.”

When I asked him why he thought American graffiti had struck such a chord, he said it was good timing. “It’s weird because I made this series just after I left Australia and moved to Amsterdam. The year that I made this body of work… sometimes I think it’s about zeitgeist. It’s about what’s in the public consciousness and whether it strikes that chord at that particular time is really a coincidence of different coordinates all meeting at one time.”

Heat at the John Curtin Gallery

“It was very surreal to be living in Holland, but the series took off. It was probably my most successful commercial series at that point, so it was kind of weird to be experiencing that from yonder,” he laughs. “Probably a good thing, too.”

Pointing to Heat, he talks about his childhood as its basis. “My grandmother used to send me on walks into the bush to see desert flowers in bloom, and you would get these gusts of desert wind that would grab my hair and lift it off my head.

“I always thought about that kind of synergy between my own physical DNA and my body, and the natural world; how they were actually designed to be connected to each other. I love the way the heat of the desert and … people try to understand landscape in this kind of Western scientific gaze, where for us there is a lot of mythology and spirituality, and stories that come from the land.

“For me, this work was about re-imbuing that idea of both the seductive nature of the desert landscape but also the potential fatality, and that it can lull you into this false sense of security, and it can also nurture you.”

We both look at the footage glowing orange, with three models haloed in their own floating locks of hair. “I wanted to use the hair like paint, so they appear like sirens in the distance,” he explains.

“It’s always been about reiterating that connection [between human and nature]. We’ve spent thousands of years now separating ourselves from the natural world but, ultimately, we are an intrinsic part of the natural world, and when the natural world fails, we fail. We’re seeing that happening right now.” He laughs when I say that this is timely as well. “We can’t sustain the way that we’re living.”

He leads me into a small resting place between a large theatre room where Refuge (2014) is playing in the central gallery, where a piece called Decent extremist (2010) is placed. Christian explains that he worked with musician Carlos Vaquero to program the Bidjara words nguwal (“bees” or “swarm”) and muna (“bee”) in his own voice into a three-dimensional sonic algorithm replicating a bee swarm for Decent extremist. Sitting on the bench underneath the speaker, you can feel the words nguwal and muna whizzing around you, as though you’re really in a cloud of insects. “You’re hearing what the words mean, what they feel like.”

“It’s pretty cool!” he remarks, sitting under the speaker, giving me time to do the same. “Rather than teaching people language, I thought, well how do I continue to practice my language and speak our language, but present it in ways that are really interesting and dynamic?” His idea was to introduce people to a non-didactic means of learning Bidjara language, which is currently considered extinct.

“I’m not going to speak the same way as my great aunts, so I use contemporary art as a way to archive and practice my culture and speak my language, and do it in a way that’s really challenging and innovative and that’s really connected to my contemporary experience as a gen… what generation am I?” he laughs. “Am I gen Y? I don’t know. I’m gen something. Just call me gen.”

Pointing to Refuge, he talks about how he cross-references his work sometimes, and that occasionally through the process of making art, he realises that he isn’t quite finished with an idea. After arriving at Oxford in 2010 with his friend Paul as the first two Aboriginal people to be admitted to the university, he was put in contact with a keyboardist who, after hearing some of Christian’s music, was interested in doing a studio recording with him should he ever be inclined. “So, we did another iteration of Djagunyilangu, which means ‘brother’, but we titled this piece Refuge. It was really about kinship, and connectedness, brotherhood, and humanity, the connection of everyone to each-other, loosely. Hence the title Refuge, refugees, finding refuge—funny that that got missed by lots of people.”

We pass by Healing circle (2013), a piece like Decent extremist which brackets the other side of the central gallery. In Healing circle, a similar algorithm replicates the sound of a bullroarer with the word djuldibah (“to send messages on the wind”). “I love these things,” he says, sitting under it, “am I yelling?” he laughs.

He tells me he’s been doing sound design since the ‘90s and that, as an undergrad student in fine arts, he worked with video and recording himself speaking in Bidjara language. “That combination of sound and video footage, I was doing that when I was seventeen,” he says, and then the 41-year-old jokingly adds, “and now that I’m eighteen it’s really weird.”

Ideas and Boundaries

With Christian, it’s all about pushing boundaries and making a memorable, thought-provoking experience with his audience. He finds that the most successful works are those that stay with you for months and years and transform you as a person. “I think with Indigenous artists, there’s always this thing of wanting to put people into a box, and I’m like, well, I’ll just incarnate myself as something you can’t categorise. It’s funny how people respond to those works.”

When it comes to the artistic process, Christian tells me that there’s usually an immediacy to his ideas, which makes sound (rather than music) the perfect medium with which to work. “Sound, for me, has always been a very organic place to work in.

“Ideas come to me very quickly and it’s almost like there’s an urgency to get them out. So, recording my own voice and being in a recording studio is a very immediate way to transfer those ideas, it’s a great vehicle to share them as well.”

What’s interesting about Christian’s work is that it intends to stir its audience, and push boundaries. Christian works to cross the borders of race, gender, sexuality and nature, and to get in front of a camera was never a completely comfortable experience, he says. There’s an intriguing mirroring between Christian’s intention of provocativeness, and the need to overcome discomfort in the process. There’s a fatigue with appearing in your own work, he says, but it was something he pushed himself into.

“I’ve moved from sculpture to photography, to video, to sound, to live performance, to virtual reality, to screen-based immersive sound environments, so there’s always been this kind of… As my practice has evolved, there’s always been this coming together of between the performer and performance and my own physical body as a performative device. But it’s nothing new … the list goes on and on of artists who are in their own work.”

“For me, I see this kind of format, as, for someone who’s had a very transient life, that’s how I began to see the world, through this kind of composition, and that allowed me to move quite freely but also to be able to sustain my practice, so my body became my studio,” he smiles, “Ooh, that’s a good name for a book: ‘My body is my Studio’.”

Polari at the John Curtin Gallery

He doesn’t distinguish between “high or low” medium and influence in his work either, having bought crystals and other objects online, which serve the unique visuals of works like Polari (2014). Christian’s focus was more on objects “with almost votive qualities, hair (wigs), flowers, body paint, crystals, smoke, so just using things that are quite ritualistic and votive, but are also tapped into … not human, not male, not female, they belong to something else, and somewhere else.”

When it comes to inspiration, he draws from a multitude of spaces around him. There was a strong desire to create a space for himself and people like him, where he had never seen other Aboriginal people like him represented before. “I need to create that space, for myself and for other Aboriginal people who are just dorks like me. So firstly, it was that kind of frustration with, why is all we ever see are boring clichés, horrible stereotypes,” he says, and adds with affect, “and that, my dear, is unforgivable.

Process, Time and Ritual

Christian shows me Berceuse—meaning “lullaby”—a 2017 three-channel piece inspired by the remixing of Bidjara language with Spanish musicality and landscape imagery. It was the most captivating and intoxicating piece of them all, with calming vocals filling the dark room surrounding it. Videos cannot do this piece justice—if you have time for a break between classes, take it in front of Berceuse.

“We had a bunch of kids come from Melbourne Indigenous transition schools,” he recalls, “so they come from all over the country. They came to see the work, and they were the rowdiest kids, and they came in to see this work and went dead quiet.”

“Graded footage—l love it. I wish my skin looked like that in real life.”

“Don’t we all,” I reply, and he laughs.

“Isn’t it so weird when you look at a picture of yourself and you think, oh my god that’s so disgusting, don’t ever show anyone that picture, and then you look back on it and you’re like, ‘God I was hard on myself’. … Now I’ve become much more chill about that. Who cares?”

We then move to his piece Museum of Others (2016). I’m struck by the eerie faces of John Ruskin (Othering the Art Critic), James Cook (Othering the Explorer), Augustus Pitt Rivers (Othering the Ethnologist) and Walter Baldwin Spencer (Othering the Anthropologist). Christian has cut the eyes out of blown-up photographs of these men and looked through them into the camera lens. When making these works, the act of cutting out the eyes of these famous colonial figures and looking through them was more important to Christian than the final product.

“This body of work was very much about, how do I emancipate the subjects of those colonial images from the shackles of colonial representation, ethnography and anthropology?” he says. “Then I thought, no one ever draws any attention to the guys who basically built their careers out of creating those collections of nameless figures, of othered people. So, I thought, no, I will.

“I was inside the museum, trying to find a way out, and now I’m stepping outside the museum and wondering what it was like to look in. That’s why I decided to turn their faces into masks. To quite haunting effect,” he laughs.

“And people are like, how are you going to reconcile this history? Well, it’s not my history. It’s yours, how are you gonna reconcile it for yourself? … For me, it was about returning that back.”


Ritual Intimacy by Christian Thompson will be in the John Curtin Gallery until July 21.