Blood From Stone – Helen Norton 1991
This essay was written by Helen Norton in 2016 on reflection of the works.
Click Here to see the Exhibition
This mini series of works was first shown at the Perth Mint. The opening exhibition was standing room only with the controversial nature of some of the works drawing people into hot debates on the floor. Show alongside these works was the Pidgeon (Jandamarra) Series throwing up an argument in my mind about the white settlers courage verses the ‘rights and indignation’ of the already settled or nomadic land custodians - the Australian Aboriginals. The 'custodianship' was invisible. The vacuum of signs or evidence westerners understood as ownership (buildings, fences, signs) seems to have been mistaken as vacant land by the settlers. To the settlers, no one owned it! There were no fences, boundaries, pegs or flags. The natives ‘floated about’, not even having permanent residences as they followed the seasons and food rather than building permanent homes. One can see the trouble pending. The values and laws of the European settlers were at complete odds to the notion of the Aboriginals and their law, which saw the land as not being a possession to own at all. What could go wrong(sic)?
The content of the exhibition was refreshingly exciting and provocative as it dared to draw up old history safely stored away in the vaults of 'good enough' conclusions and assumptions of things that happened.
Around the time I created these works there was much ado going on in Perth, West Australia around the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as well as the Royal Commission and court cases into the corruption in the WA government involving Brian Bourke and Alan Bond.
I love irony, and portraying that with imagery is my greatest joy. For instance one can easily critique all the bad things 'the white settlers' seemed to have done when they first saw the land of hope and dreams in front of them'. Thus deciding they ought to set about claiming it for good productive purpose such as raising livestock (and later mining the resources). It looks good. It looks like something for the greater good, and it is to a large degree. So then there is the irony of what has to be done to do this, and who benefits, and all these terribly confusing questions when overlain with the losers at the other end if there are some. I have nothing but admiration for the brave, and mad early settlers such as the Duracks who settled the Northwest. What courage and sense of adventure this must have taken. I can truly relate to the quest. And yet as an investigator - I was equally taken aback at the courage of the Australian Aboriginals who tried to fight off this invasion into their once sacred quiet vast land. I do not have the answer, I only wanted to try to put it into imagery in a way that investigates and looks at the tragedy and glory of human nature and its ventures.
I took on the seemingly impossible job of juxtaposing all of these issues into a flowing dark narrative and threw together tangents that made perfect sense to me to be matched up. I knew the risk for me as an artist who had enjoyed a great popular start to my career painting by images of outback beauty, wildlife and very acceptable subject matter. Approaching controversial subjects puts the artist or writer at risk of dividing ones following instantly. Or on the other hand it can set one up as someone who is not scared to make a stand. That was more my style but I always vacillate over the wisdom of it commercially. For an artist to not consider where their next meal is coming from is a delusional position that won't last long. As in they will soon stop painting when they become too hungry, and then the big quest is null and void completely. Perhaps better to be aware of when you need to pull back and when you need to step forward.
I knew I would have to struggle with the ‘pigeon holers’ as many would try to line me up with ‘one side or the other’ – politically or socially. It was a risk I had to take to keep myself interested in painting as a career. Otherwise performing my work as a painter left me numb and even early in my career I began to feel like a process worker. Something was missing, I was not using all of my potential when I was just trying to 'photocopy' nature onto a canvas. We have camera's for that. I am not interested in being 'clever' for its own sake, nor an amazing artisan who can paint every pore on a face.
At school I was known as an excellent analytical thinker who was not frightened of asking and debating the difficult areas of politics, social conditioning; it was my favourite subject and it is my typology, or my nature, not a result of some great caning or beating I had when a child. However even the pigeon hole school tried to place me in because of those talents was against my nature. For instance, I was told that if you are interested in these things then you should be an economist, a lawyer, an economist, financial planner or a politician perhaps. All of these pathways smelt like more factory process to me laced with a level of boring that would render me saw dust.
I left school early, (despite being awarded a scholarship), and I hit the road to gain life experience as my great apprenticeship. I may have missed out on some formal ticketing in early life but I have more than made up for it since in now having the freedom to illustrate and analyse all of these subjects in a medium (art) that offers more freedom than all of the above put together!
To put the ideas together in this show required a long look at history and constantly asking the question, 'what is consistent'. Repeatedly I ask myself this question and the answer is always the same.
Human behaviour never changes, it changes its clothes, it changes its mask, it pretends it’s liberated and makes great banner statements as it marches through the streets, but it will never liberate itself from its own ignorance of itself never changing. Of that I am certain. If this fact was acknowledged, this would be a change, and a real evolution.
There are very few instances of small evolution in human thinking and behaviour, but they are usually short lived and sadly overwhelmed by the usual patterns of greed, fear and then violence to resolve or solve those first two uncomfortable quandaries. We have gone backwards in leaps and bounds in recent decades (or centuries) in regards to being conscious of our own consciousness and its propensity to misuse and abuse the privilege of the very act of thinking by reflection of past acts inaccurately or ignorantly.
In the room on the night of the opening there was a constant buzz and edginess in the crowd as they opened their minds (or refused to) to the idea of someone removing time frames in order to show a bigger picture about human behaviour repeating itself. Many did not get it, but loved the 'crazy perspective'.
I had already begun to explore problematic themes of the early settlers years in Australian history, which I referred to as 'The Contact Period' in the Pidgeon series. I was about to start stirring the pot and join the dots for many more years to come and the next exhibition Beasts and Beauties kept focused in historical context to do so.
My larger intent was to point out the extreme irony of who has what 'rights' to do what - be it to get away with murder, land theft, or other state sanctioned crimes in whatever time era. The important issue for me was to point out hypocrisy and delusion, not necessarily to judge, as I believe humans all revert to similar behaviour when they feel threatened existentially.
That natural rule of falling to a default position of aggression (as an extension of fear) applies to 'ego bound angels' and 'ego bound crooks' by occupation. What sets the 'men aside from the mongrels', is man's (or woman's) ability to moderate themselves when challenged as such, using a code of what is fair and proportionate (to others as well as oneself) when those challenges fall upon them.
The creation of 'Law' and 'Religion' was and is an attempt to unify and socialise this desired behavioural action check, but the problem is these laws and religions are high-jacked over and over by opportunists who fall into 'the mongrel' category. And so everything ends up down the hole once again. And so the cycle goes around and around.
Helen Norton 2016
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