Galerie Dusseldorf, Perth, Australia
‘Belatedness’ is the word that occurred to me on seeing Thea Costantino’s recent work, but as an affirmative quality of her curiously disparate aesthetics. Costantino is an artist who works across forms – drawing, sculpting, writing, photography and video – which is obviously not unusual today, although in her case she retains a respect for – even a fetishizing of – the historicity of the various genres and media, playing with their interdependence.
In her series from 2012 ‘Ancestor Headdress’ (mask-like objects made from wax and synthetic hair) and ‘The Ancestors’ (photographs of people wearing the headdresses while attired in various ways), there is an implied relation to ‘Primitive’ art. In a Euro-American context such a link would evoke the influence of the African mask on certain early modernist movements, as well as the dialogue initiated by the Surrealists’ interest in the art of Oceania and elsewhere. The latter is schematically represented in the anonymous 1929 Surrealist Map of the World, which shows the size of the world’s land masses corresponding to their importance to the Surrealists.
In Australia such evocations are not straightforward, and not only because modernism largely left indigenous Australian culture out of its process of assimilation of ‘the Primitive’. (The exception is the modernism exemplified by the work of the artist Margaret Preston.) It was only much later, in the second half of the 20th century, that Aboriginal art was taken seriously as a representative of both an indigenous and a contemporary culture, a conjunction that is usually not well understood outside Australia.
Costantino’s work derives its power from a questioning of the disparity between the historical milieus evoked by the technologies of her works and the assumptions made about what she has chosen to depict: the head-dresses are eyeless, Dadaesque masks; the audience in her monochrome museums are headless, and a stuffed animal might have a human face; drawings of apparently normal, passport-like portraits have a fold across where the eyes should be.
These are not uncommon strategies of de-familiarization; some are
easily recognizable as early-modern techniques. They recall one of the
illusions of modernity – apt in this period of hyper-modernity –
namely, that the global simultaneity we recognize as the contemporary
is not equally distributed. Certain parts of the world would appear to
remain more contemporary than others. According to this logic, Berlin,
Tokyo and New York are more contemporary than Perth or Yogyakarta.
Costantino’s interest in the belatedness of the appropriation of the implied history of a technique or genre, or, for instance, in the nostalgia that emanates from a hand-drawn picture of a 19th century photograph, reveals the pretence that all parts of the world can participate in the contemporary and its perpetual present.
Along with her equally interesting local peers, Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont (with whom Costantino collaborates under the name Hold Your Horses), she has found that what might be seen in Europe or the US as anachronistic – in her case Victorian-period photography, primitive funerary masks, the atmosphere of antiquated museums and their taxidermy – are instances of an historicity that might allow the viewer to contemplate the nature of the present, its images and what they represent. (Next year Hold Your Horses will be in residence at London’s Freud Museum, after participating in ‘Wagner 2013: Kunstler Positionen’ at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.)
That such work has emerged from Perth, in the far west of Australia – a city seldom included even in its nation’s art histories – makes perfect sense. Every attempt to make serious work there requires assertion against received chronology and heritage. That in the Surrealist Map of the World Australia is a tiny island under ‘New Guinea’, and that the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is now is the principal lender of Papuan art to that relatively new nation, a fact usually elided, are two instances of Costantino’s strange, chronographic world – and both wonderful examples of the temporal irony of art.
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