essay by Prue Gibson
Australian Centre for Photography.
Lie of the Land.
Sentient, spirited jungle creatures creep out of the shadows in Rodney Pople’s latest series of painted photographs on linen. But there is a dark age of violent horror underlying his work, a malevolence that has been present throughout his substantial career, from which both animals and human creatures are at risk. In this latest exhibition, there is a Madonna and Child, compromised by her slash of carnality. There is indigenous abuse, conducted during colonial Australia’s bleakest penal history. There is an elephant, whose trunk has been violently severed for economic gain. These images assault our collective hubris and churn our stomachs in visceral recoil. They are, however, the realities of a harsh world; a world Pople refuses to gloss. He demands that we see what we have done, though we know not what we do.
If we think of neo-medievalism as being a pre-modern condition of uncivilized disorder and violent social exchange, and as a signifier of an eroded state of sovereignty, then it is an apt framework within which to discuss Pople’s work. This is more than a nostalgic lament for the certainty of a sovereign era. It also alludes to the growth of international relations and digital media’s massive distribution of information and images, via our globalised lives. The disintegration of morality, the violation of innocent animals and the metastasis of political and economic corruption are qualities of neo-medievalism theory…and these concepts loiter in the bloodied corners of Pople’s painted photographs.
Echelons of power have become a mess of mixed allegiances. This problem is the maxim of a neo-medievalist approach. Animal poachers, as non-government agents who collude to illegally export produce via chains of corruption, threaten the animals in Pople’s paintings. But the poachers are victims of economic struggle too. Giraffe, rhino and the princely lion loom at the viewer. In that instance, through their sorrowful eyes which mask a life of defensive assault, we have access to a vulnerability that is eked out across all species, all human cultures, all political systems: the animals are the exploited, those constantly under threat, who must use their aggressive attributes to survive.
Perhaps the least victimized of Pople’s animals, the least idealized as innocent warriors, is the shark. The shark has glided through many a cathedral, in Pople’s body of work. The shark is the attacker, the leg-biting, life-seizing predator of Australian waters whose consciousness we wonder over, whose agency we revolt against. Its glorious power might be used by the artist as a metaphor for the advantage the church or parliamentary figures take on their brethren and constituents, but the shark eludes the voice of the artist, eludes the assessment of the viewer. The shark is the magnificent survivor, scouring for food, defending his territory, denying us knowledge.
The monsters of the future linger in the past. In 2012, Pople created a series of works based on images he captured in Port Arthur, Tasmania, site of a heinous penal settlement during the early nineteenth century and subsequent location of the 1996 Martin Bryant massacres. Here, on the Isle of the Dead or Point Puer, the darkness and dread of human-to-human cruelty has known no bounds. These events in real history, across centuries, illuminate the madness and mania of abusive mentalities. The stories are re-told in Pople’s triptych Manet is Queen 2014 and in the Port Arthur triptych 2012. The uncivilised nature of humanity is in evidence across time. The monsters of the past also linger in the future.
It is a mistake to assume the left-hand panel of the Manet is Queen 2014 triptych has any intended elements of pornographic titillation. It is important to note there is no gratification in Pople’s work, only a sorrowful futility in the face of endemic human self-hatred. The white-washing of abuse of Aboriginal girls in colonial Tasmania, who were incarcerated, sold to sealers and exchanged for dogs, is apparent in this re-enactment of the servicing of soldier-boys. Human degradation and misery are apparent for both characters of the triptych (and subsequently for our mortal collective), in this tableau of desperation and recrimination. During previous research, Pople read of incarcerated indigenous women who were stripped and raped by Port Arthur’s young teenage guards, mutilated and then hung up on trees, in exactly the same manner as Francisco Goya’s 1810-1820 Disasters of War series. The Port Arthur Triptych 2012 work, whilst beautiful in its milky oil washes and archetypal painterly hazes of colour across the manipulated photographic surface, never fails to appall, to arrest and to function as cautionary tale.
The posse mentality of raping penal guards, the posse mentality of poachers mutilating innocent animals, the posse mentality of church men abusing children, the posse mentality of legislative assemblies and parliamentary congresses as sites of dysfunctional corruption, become one. Pople’s paneled works reveal duplicity that figures across politics, throughout economies and over national borders. He identifies the way in which systems of government, once respected and admired, are becoming eroded or made redundant. The theory of neo-medievalism, as being a quality of dark futility, ever-present, fits this painterly prospect. The multiple relations, in between, are to blame. The blood-stained and unreliable authority of leaders are to blame.
Through the animals, with their wide eyes and basic desires, we see what we humans have always been: base, animalistic and violent. Pople’s leopard has soulful eyes, to seduce any viewer, and yet there is a watchful intent; it is a hunter’s view of the world. Pople photographed the animals by day, during a 2013 trip to Samburu and Masai Mara in Kenya, and painted them into the night. Other animals, such as the hippo and a herd of zebra are re-purposed into spaces of ambiguous authority, such as the cathedral and the parliament. The schisms between right and wrong, trust and deviancy, morality and unscrupulousness have been explored by Pople in the past, such as with his series of prostitutes in parliament. These paintings explore perceptions of perversity and the contradictions of conventional morality. Which is worse? Who suffers most? And who represents the voice of the animals?
Despite the harrowing hand of the darker forces lying beneath daily life, these photographs are impeccably painted. Pople has mastered the art of the oily wash, reducing, illuminating, revealing and distorting the unpredictable ‘capture’ of the photographic print. Again, in terms of technique, which is the real? Has the photograph captured the true spirit of animals and compromised individuals, or do Pople’s manipulations manifest the true real, a real that only fiction and fable can comfort? Neo-medievalism leads us to a hyperstition, whereby theory and fiction and the impossible are transmuted. Perhaps this is the only sane method of approaching Pople’s dark reality – by retreating into theory and critique and story. However it is impossible to avoid the true story of the world there, hanging on the walls. Pople expects us to face, with courage, the horrible truth of what we are capable of doing.