Rich, Rewarding & Complex : Mark Roberts Reviews Aleks Danko ‘My Fellow Aus-Tra-Aliens’

Aleks Danko My Fellow Aus-Tra-Aliens at the Museum of Contemporary Art until 18th October and the Heide Museum of Modern Art Melbourne 17th November 2015 to 21st February 2016. Curated by Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding.

Detail from Songs of Australia Volume 16 - Shhh, Go Back to Sleep. Photograph Mark Roberts

Detail from Songs of Australia Volume 16 – Shhh, Go Back to Sleep. Photograph Mark Roberts

I’m sitting on a couch in a large hall on level 3 of the MCA in the Aleks Danko exhibition My Fellow Aus-tra-aliens. On the two long walls of the hall there are 220 sheets of paper. Each sheet has a printed image of a red house, a single opening on the bottom level representing a door and two white space window on a second level. A peaked roof points to the next sheet immediately above it. On each sheet there is a short text, many of which are familiar to anyone who has followed Australian politics over the last decade or so. Thiswork, ‘Songs of Australia Volume 16 – SHHH, Go Back To Sleep’, was created in 2004 so many of the quotes are by or about the Howard government, but it depressing just how many of them still resonate to us today:

Anti-
Terror
Fridge
Magnet

Weapons
of
Mass
Seduction

Denial
is a
River
In Egypt

The
Politics
Of Fear

You’re
Either
With Us
or
Against Us

Fearless
Protector
Of The
Borders

Dumbed
Dulled
And
Numbed
Down

While you walk the hall reading the texts you hear each one read aloud by the familiar voice of Robbie McGregor, the former ‘King Wally Otto” on Roy and H. G, This Sporting Life’. On one of the two shorter walls of the hall there is the text of Catherine Deveny’s Australian CItizenship Test on the other wall is Song of Australia Vol 14/2 (Here We Turn Everything Into Fun to Kill Time). In this work Danko’s red houses are once again at the centre, but they are text free in this work and tumble across the sheets – on the last sheet the white doors and windows are replaced by blackness. The effect of the combination of works in the hall is hypnotic and disconcerting – the texts are so familiar, many of them have seemingly become part of our subconscious and reflect a way the country has lurched to the right.

While the creation of this particular space is, of course, unique to the MCA and it may well take on a slightly different perspective when it moves to the Heide Museum of Modern Art, the work in this wall highlights the complexity of much of Danko’s work. There is a strong sense of theatre, of creating a statement by almost overwhelming the viewer – this is, after all, a cathedral like space. There is the visual aspect, the colours and text printed on paper and hung. There are the words that demand the view stands in the front of the work and work their way through the work, and then there is the god like voice booming through the hall.  But Danko’s god is a god of wit and parody and I suspect most viewers leave the hall with a sense of the ‘alienness’ of the Australia that relies on the few word slogan for its sense of who it is.

This work highlights two of Danko’s recurring themes through much of his more recent work, the use of words and the symbolism of the Australian suburbs. I was more than a little surprised to see pages of one of my favourite Australian poetry anthologies, Applestealers (Robert Kenny & Colin Talbot – eds Outback Press 1974) reproduced in the exhibition’s catalogue. The pages reproduced are Robyn Ravlich’s ‘The Path of Poetry’ – a piece that was performed by Ravlich, Danko and Julie Ewington at the Project Show, Contemporary Art Society in Sydney in 1973 and re-performed latter that year at the Watters Gallery for Soft Riots, Danko’s joint exhibition with poet and artist Richard Tipping.

Much of Danko’s work moves backwards and forwards between art and visual or concrete poetry. In an early work from 1970 ‘Poetic Suicide’ he has removed the letters that make up his last name from the alphabet. Jump forward to 2008 and we have It’s such a Thin Line Between Clever and Stupid, a mirror engraved with those lines so that the viewer, standing in front of the work, becomes the object.

Detail of Poetic Suicide 1970. Photograph Mark Roberts

Detail of Poetic Suicide 1970. Photograph Mark Roberts

The house as an image of suburbia also swirls through Danko’s work and a starting point might be another piece of written art Day In Day Out 1991-96. This work is based on a quote from his father: “as you know we are pensioners, day in day out, twenty four hours closer to death”. The enclosed house becomes a symbol of this waiting (for death, for a lottery win for Godot?) and perhaps refers back to his parents experience as post war refugees/migrants at the Woodside Army Camp and Migrant Hostel in South Australia. Indeed a later version of Day In Day Out consists of small uniform silver houses arranged in lines, all perfectly in line. In he MCA installation the work is lit by a revolving light which mimics night and day and throws the shadows of the houses on the wall of the exhibition room. One thinks of the rows of suburban houses at night, quiet and at sleep – but the repetition also provokes an image of prison, and while there is no obvious fence around the houses one begins to feel that it indeed exists, if only in the imagination.

your eyes are dark at night and clear as the day 2006. From the series Some Cultural Meditations 1949-2015

your eyes are dark at night and clear as the day 2006. From the series Some Cultural Meditations 1949-2015

One of the most moving parts of the exhibition relates to images of his mother’s embroidery – much of it done while she was waiting in the migrant hostels. Once again there is a sense of alienness about these images – they are different, Un-Australian images from a distant culture. Danko took these images as central to his work Some Cultural Mediations – working the designs his mother and her friends embroidered onto cushion covers while in the migrant hostel, he translated the designs, rendering them on paper. A motif emerged in the work – that of the centre, the core – a powerful image for Danko which, one senses, has provided a basis for much of his work.

Danko’s retrospective is a rich and rewarding one for the viewer. There is much here that is accessible and playful, but much of the work also questions us. There are difficult questions here for both our culture and the broader society in which that culture operates. In one of the great ironies of anti-art a number of his earliest pieces, which were designed to undermine the establishment by being able to be picked up and manipulated are now important art objects, handled by curators wearing white gloves, with only grainy super 8 footage to remind us of Danko’s original intention.

 – Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the editor of Rochford Street Review.

Exhibition website MCA http://www.mca.com.au/exhibition/aleks-danko-my-fellow-aus-tra-aliens/

Exhibition website Heide Museum of Modern Art https://www.heide.com.au/exhibitions/aleks-danko-my-fellow-aus-tra-aliens

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