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Close Encounters by Nicola Dickson at Canberra Museum and Gallery

Close Encounters. By Nicola Dickson. Canberra Museum and Gallery. Until February 13, 2016.

Close Encounters is an exhibition at Canberra Museum and Gallery by artist Nicola Dickson. The artist has written of her work as a representation of cross-cultural encounters during the d'Entrecasteaux​ expedition to Australia and the Western Pacific in 1792.

Antoine de Bruni d'Entrecasteaux​ (1737-1793) was commissioned in 1791 by the French authorities to command an expedition to search for the French navigator Comte de La Perouse whose two ships had disappeared  after leaving Botany Bay in 1788. Bruni d'Entrecasteaux was to search for La Perouse as well as carry out scientific investigations of the people, and the flora and fauna in the lands where he sailed. Dickson has studied carefully the drawings made by Jean Piron, who among other scientists, naturalists and artists aboard d'Entrecasteaux's two ships, was asked to record all the coastal profiles, the inhabitants, their lives and the products of the earth and sea in the three realms. Labillardiere, a naturalist who was among the party, also contributed detailed sketches of flora and fauna.  These records were recorded in two editions of journals with illustrated plates published in the year 1800 (by  Labillardiere) and in 1807-08 (by de Rossel) much later than the voyage which incidentally also ended in disaster.

Using both the illustrations of Labillardiere (a talented artist) and Jean Piron, Dickson has reinterpreted their images making reference to the context in which they were drawn – the neoclassical aesthetic that was current in France at the time.   It is a truism of history that we see the world through the prism of our own understanding and the culture in which we live. How could it be otherwise?

Dickson's exhibition has all the theatrical flourish of a stage set – the backdrop is formed by panels of 18th-century-style toile de jouy​ wallpaper with monkeys and pineapples ensconced in stylised greenery derived from neoclassical motifs. On this backdrop hang five painted panels by the artist that provide the dramatis personae. The painted images are of an Indigenous man and woman from New Caledonia and a woman from Cape van Diemen in New Zealand. The other two panels depict native birds – a hornbill from the island of Waygiou in the West Papua province of Eastern Indonesia and a magpie from New Caledonia. These images are painted in acrylic and oil on canvas and are beautifully and skilfully rendered with the same care and attention to detail as the originals.   Arranged around these central images in decorative ornamental cartouches are painted spears, botanical specimens, weapons and religious carvings all taken from drawings made by members of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition.

The paintings by Dickson become yet another version of the original drawings – a sort of visual-art Chinese whispers in which the original drawings have been transcribed many times.  Certainly they would have been redrawn from the originals on a printing plate by the printer in order for them to be published.  It was not unknown for the artist's original drawings to be enhanced or even changed during this transition from the immediacy of the drawn original to the printed and published version. In the act of redrawing and painting the images the artist has also  taken part in their metamorphosis.   Somewhere in this multilayered process the flesh and blood of the original drawings have disappeared and they have become transformed into a pastiche of the unknown exotic "other" – strange, no doubt, and interesting but devoid of any meaningful context and relevance.

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In this exhibition Dickson draws our attention to this transformation from closely observed phenomena of a new land to what becomes the exotic decorative vocabulary of another culture – in this case 18th-century Europe.

The five decorative panels are accompanied by rows of polished coconuts mounted on stands in the manner that Europeans once mounted curios such as carved shells and emu eggs. These stands in turn rest on painted plinths. The coconuts are painted by Dickson with images of natives and plants to symbolise the trade that began between the new world and that of Europe. A trade that brought colonisation in its wake as the riches of these lands became apparent.

The installation is in Gallery 4 on Civic Square. The space, with floor to ceiling plate glass windows, is like a large glass box that suits both the ambience and theme of Dickson's work very well. It evokes the 18th-century era of scientific curiosity where specimens of flora and fauna were examined, drawn, pressed and mounted and kept behind glass either in framed pictures, curiosity cabinets or under glass domes. It also has the whiff of dusty rooms in natural history museums where dark cases and display stands held curiosities from across the world – adrift and out of context. The exhibition can be viewed at all times. However viewing the exhibition at night could be rewarding as daytime reflections on the glass can be distracting.

Dickson is a Canberra artist whose continuing interest in interpretations of our native fauna and flora is positioned against a historical perspective of exploration, collecting and appropriation of cultural exotica by dominant cultures. This exhibition is the result of Dickson's award of the ANU Vice-Chancellor's 2014 Visiting Artist's Fellowship in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. She was invited to be part of a project, Collecting in the South Seas, that investigated the collections assembled by the Bruni d'Entrecasteaux expedition and to bring a new interpretation and aesthetic to this historical collection.  In this task she has succeeded very well.