Din Q. Lê: Erasure, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2011

August 27, 2011
Dinh Q. Lê Erasure, 2011 digital video (still) Courtesy the artist and Sàn Art Independent Artist Space, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Dinh Q. Lê Erasure, 2011 digital video (still) Courtesy the artist and Sàn Art Independent Artist Space, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It was astonishing to learn that in a recent opinion poll Australians rated border protection as a more important issue than health, education, transport or housing. This is one of those statistical miracles that testify to our growing sense of social paranoia and the power of political scare campaigns. The facts are well known but easily ignored: the numbers of refugees arriving on boats are negligible compared to those who arrive legally and overstay their visas. They are dwarfed by the numbers of boat people that came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, to be swiftly processed and accepted by the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser.

As we have grown more prosperous over the past three decades we have also grown fearful. Nothing could be more ‘un-Australian’ than the widespread hostility to refugees. Our lack of empathy diminishes our claims to decency and humanity.

This is the unspoken theme of Din Q. Lê’s impressive installation, Erasure, at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. This show has been running for weeks, and almost got away from me, but it needs to be acknowledged as one of the very rare works of contemporary art that make a political point in a non-didactic manner.

Lê was once a boat person. He left Vietnam as a child, pursued by a scatter of machine gun fire, and ended up in California where he was raised and educated. In 1993 he made his first return visit to Vietnam, and has since gone back to live in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA. Saigon). Even though he is not able to exhibit freely in Vietnam, Lê contributes to shows around the world, and has helped found Sàn Art, a venue for new work.

Making extensive use of multi-media, Erasure is one of Lê’s most ambitious pieces. The viewer enters the SCAF gallery to be confronted with the projected image of an old-fashioned sailing boat, burning on a beach. The space is crossed by means of a wooden walkway over a sea of debris, seemingly the result of a shipwreck. Many thousands of old photographs are scattered across the floor, the remnants of everyday lives hastily abandoned when families fled the communist takeover. Visitors are invited to pick up a photo and bring it over to a scanner, where it will be entered on an internet site: www.erasurearchive.net . The hope is that former refugees will log on and recognise friends and family. This has already begun to happen.

Dinh Q. Lê Erasure (installation view), 2011 single channel video, boat, found photographs, rocks, online archive. dimensions variable Photo: Aaron de Souza.

Lê’s installation is simultaneously dramatic and intimate. It takes a vessel formerly associated with European colonisation, and sets it on fire, like one of the fishing vessels destroyed by the authorities for trespassing in Australian waters. The photographs are a way of putting faces and lives to the statistics of the refugee experience. Beyond this, there is no propagandistic intent, no political brow-beating or preaching. The use of images acts as a silent protest to the aggressive, ugly language used by the anti-immigration advocates.

Erasure is an immersive environment, and needs to be experienced at first-hand. The issues it raises are universal ones, and should make us wary of dwelling too obsessively on our own small part of the planet.

I received a dramatic reminder of the deep-seated nature of local anxieties about refugees last weekend at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. This is the third time Cairns has hosted this event, which focuses on indigenous art in Queensland but attracts a broad cross-section of artists, dealers and collectors from across the country. As part of the CIAF events there is program of satellite shows, dance and musical performances, public lectures and forums.

One of these events, associated with a show at the KickArts Contemporary Arts centre, called The Black See, was a forum with members of the proppaNOW collective, which includes the artists Tony Albert, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Bianca Beeston, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and Laurie Nilson.

The most extraordinary statement, in a very unpleasant performance, was Richard Bell’s claim that every new wave of boat people is slotted into Australian society “over the black fellers”. To say this was insensitive is no revelation. To say it in the context of a forum that was simultaneously a massive ego trip and a whinge fest about how hard it is to be a black man, was mind-boggling. Bell, who describes himself as anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, showed that he shares the same insular attitudes as the most outspoken xenophobes.

The title of the show relates to abusive comments once uttered by footballer, Andrew Johns that are all-too-common on Australian sporting fields. It may be no fun to be called “a black C,” but it provides a very good excuse for a show of militant art. If Vernon Ah Kee’s performance was any indication, it also seems to justify the most appalling display of bad manners I’ve ever seen on a public forum. I won’t go into detail, as it would be long story, but it was a piece of provocation that added nothing but spite to any discussion of race relations.

Ironically, the real enemy did not seem to be the hated whities, but those black fellas who question the Aboriginality of the artists. Ah Kee said he tells such people: “You’re not more of a black fella than me. You’re just the most documented. You’re the favourites of the white man.” This was reminiscent of those radical left-wing groups who reserve their greatest scorn for other radical left-wing groups.

One of the most incredible statements in this self-regarding blather was when Richard Bell said we need more criticism of Aboriginal art, and suggested that white critics are afraid of being called racists if they speak out. Well, there was hardly a moment on this forum that was not riddled with racist assumptions. For instance, if you’ve had the misfortune to be born white “you should be so ashamed that you’d want to leave this country.”

It’s fortunate for the Aboriginal art industry in far north Queensland that white printmaker, Theo Tremblay, didn’t wake up one morning and decide to emigrate. Tremblay has trained a generation of talented artists from Queensland and the Torres Strait, who are producing work of a very high standard. These prints dominated the art fair and sold in great numbers.

When Ah Kee said: “If there are blackfellas that aren’t angry then I’m suspicious of them”, he was declaring his own distance from the greatest Aboriginal artists. What is truly impressive about so many of these artists is their sense of dignity and self-possession; their air of being grounded in a culture that remains impervious to the insults and traumas inflicted on indigenous people.

One recognises this attitude in a comparatively young artist such as Alick Tipoti, who is one of the rising stars of Australian art. At Canopy Artspace, Tipoti was showing a range of Sorcerer Masks, and an amazing eight-metre lino-cut. At CIAF, the works of Torres Strait artists such as Tipoti, Denis Nona and Ken Thaiday Snr., stood out from the crowd, along with one spectacular painting by Sally Gabori, shown by Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery. Tony Albert’s Be Deadly installation was a huge hit with young people.

Alick Tipoti, Sorerer's Mask

For the most part there was lack of quality work, largely because of a preponderance of art centres, obliged to show pieces by all their members, no matter how untalented. This is where art meets welfare, an encounter that has some value if it improves the quality of life for people in remote communities, but not good for the overall look of the show. The most consistent displays belonged to established galleries such as Alcaston, Vivien Anderson and the Australian Art Network. As for the rest, it was a mixed bag, even though business was brisk.

The liveliness and good atmosphere of the Fair tended to disguise the fact that much of the art was ordinary. Avril Quaill, in her first year as CIAF director, put together a busy program and an excellent indigenous survey exhibition at the Cairns Regional Gallery, but the challenge for next time is to encourage greater participation from regional galleries and private dealers, and to jettison some of the political grandstanding that leant such a toxic note to proceedings. The politics of art, like the politics of race, are more convincing when they proceed by means of positive examples rather than angry, opportunistic posing. The fair is both an economic opportunity and a way of bringing people together. Times are not so tough that audiences would prefer to attend a rally instead of a festival.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 27, 2011

John McDonald visited Cairns with assistance from Arts Queensland

Din Q. Lê: Erasure, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, until 10 September.

Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, 19-21 August.