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Thea Costantino

Galerie Dusseldorf, Perth, Australia


Ancestor V, 2012, archival print on canvas, 82 x 55 cm

‘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

John Mateer


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About this review

Published on 13/12/12
by John Mateer

Other Articles by John Mateer


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