PAINTING AS PERFORMANCE & PERFORMANCE AS PAINTING
NB: The following essay ruminates on a future project by Poulet, forthcoming.
Our lives have never been so crowded with material possessions. Between luxury, sentiment and necessity, there is more and more stuff saturating every nook and cranny. Blended with the rituals and routines of modern living, we do not think of these things as individual entities; they are stitched into the various facets of our lives: work, study and recreation.
There are perhaps three loose material categories to discern here:
- 1)Object: the public thing is identified according to its external properties.
- 2)Possession: the private thing has sentimental value. It can be owned, gifted, exchanged.
- 3)Stuff: the clutter, the mess, the blanket that makes up material living.
Al Poulet explores the crossovers between these categories. The Self (2015) is the product of relocating his belongings to the shores of Botany Bay. In this way, he has made his possessions public. This performative emptying of the self is also a mound of stuff to the outside eye. It is a near indiscernible mass where the hierarchy between necessity and sentimentality is confused. There are clues leading toward relationships, for instance, valuable things are locked to larger things. There is a web of meaningful connections if you are willing to dig for it.
Botany Bay is a historically loaded site – perhaps it always will be. Al Poulet’s mound seems to stake out turf. It evokes ownership claims, land rights, colonialism and conflict. The poet Mary Gilmore personified the place as an old white coloniser, who is “stiff in the joints” and has “little to say.” Ironically, the site speaks volumes.
Looking a little closer, the final verse of her poem Old Botany Bay insists on a denial of the “knotted hands/ that set us high!” Gilmore’s communist politics may have been quelled by her being made a dame of the British Empire. She has been colonially cleansed, often dismissed as an ‘idealist’ rather than a political figure. Her public image is unprovocative, perhaps in the way you would clean up a social media profile in anticipation of potential employers. While her noble face on the blue ten dollar note may retain an affinity with low and middle class workers, she appears as a patriot not a communist. Plucked from a preferred poem, the accompanying illustration is an ode to the Australian stockmen who fashioned the land – the blue collar jackaroo sucked into a jingoistic narrative of nationhood.
This relocation of possessions resembles a kind of abject self, detached from the glossy 21st century tools of identity manufacture. In familiar terms, this might be thought of as the tightly curated Facebook profile, the Twitter account, the Instagram feed. These online versions are continually cleansed of real life authenticity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Poulet withholds nothing. He stamps his life, his body, his identity onto different places. When visiting China, he performed Self for Sale (2011), walking the streets of Shanghai trying to sell himself – to make himself a public commodity. A later work saw him replace the contents of milk containers with his own breath and put them back on the shelves of supermarkets.
Considering this history of place and identity, from Federation through to the 21st century, public identity is a matter of sifting through the mass of stuff in order to recontextualise and polish the preferred possession. Contrary to this, Poulet presents an entire imprint of the self. There is no effort to craft a particular version or offer the viewer a palatable object for consumption.
-by Anastasia Murney