Thompson’s formal training is in sculpture but his practice takes in photography, textiles, video and sound art. (ABC: Teresa Tan)
In his best-known photographic series, artist and Bidjara man Christian Thompson appears in a variety of spangled costumes with his head crowned, or face concealed, by arrangements of Australian native flora.
The series, Australian Graffiti (2007), has an undeniably contemporary feel, referencing Instagram and festival culture. But the artist traces its inspiration to more personal origins: childhood holidays in Barcaldine, Queensland, where his family is from.
“My grandmother used to send me out into the bush and say, ‘the desert flowers are in bloom, go out and look for them’,” Thompson says. “They were very transient and fleeting, they only came out at a particular time of year.”
Two prints from Christian Thompson’s Australian Graffiti (2007): Untitled (Yellow Kangaroo Paw), Untitled (Banksia).
(Supplied: Christian Thompson/Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin)
Born in Gawler in South Australia, Thompson was the son of a military man and, as a result, had a very mobile upbringing.
“I grew up all over Australia, and that’s just in my constitution: I’ve just been going from one place to the next,” he explains.
It’s tempting to trace a line between this upbringing and the artist’s peripatetic practice, which takes in sculpture, textiles, photography, video and sound installations.
More than that, there’s a sense of curiosity, and an interest in the act and subject of exploration, that seems to drive Thompson’s work.
These qualities and interests coalesce in Ritual Intimacy, the “survey-ish” exhibition of Thompson’s work currently at UNSW Galleries, Paddington (following a stint at Monash University Museum of Art).
Take the series Lost Together (2009), in which Thompson poses within moody Netherlandish landscapes. In one image, Thompson stands on a wind-blasted heath in a white singlet emblazoned with the word ‘REALNESS’, holding an orange didgeridoo up to his eye like a telescope.
“I thought of myself as a kind of explorer, in the European context,” Thompson says of this series.
“Historically it was Europeans looking into Australia — and here I am, an Indigenous person, applying that same kind of curiosity to their world.”
When Thompson made Lost Together, he was completing his Masters at DasArts in Amsterdam. In 2010 he transferred to Trinity College in Oxford to complete his doctorate — one of the first two Indigenous Australians to attend the university, under the Charlie Perkins Scholarship.
“It was the first time that I’d left Australia, and it changed my perception of how I envisage my own practice,” Thompson says. “For the first time I was shooting outside of the studio.”
Thompson describes this experiences as “liberating”, emancipating him from “the sometimes very stifling constraints of technical and physical anchoring to [those] sort of places.”
Instead, he says, the world became his studio.
“I tend to seek out experiences that then inform the work,” he explains.
“It’s important to me that I have lived experience and the research aspect of my work, and combine these two things into whatever comes out.”
“I’m a bit of a bowerbird: I tend to just draw from the world around me, but I filter that through my art.”
In his art, Thompson integrates disparate ideas and references with apparent ease.
“He’s just so open, his antennas are out all the time,” says Hetti Perkins, co-curator of Ritual Intimacy with Charlotte Day.
“And that is why he’s so easily able to flip between mediums, countries, methodologies and ideas. … It’s because he has all that training, he can really materialise lots of ideas quickly.”
Thompson’s art also deals with literal exploration as a colonial practice. In Museum of Others (2016), produced while he was at Oxford, he photographed himself holding print portraits of famous explorers and ethnographers (including James Cook), their eyes cut out and his own staring back at the viewer through the holes in the print.
Talking about this work, Thompson poses the question: “Why am I burdened with the responsibility of having to deal with a history that was thrust upon me? … I thought, ‘I’m going to step directly inside the museum and invert that [responsibility] and reflect it back to the audience’.”
The four prints in Museum of Others are closely contrasted with a single photo hanging on the adjacent wall, which was produced at the same time. The photo, titled Equilibrium, shows Thompson with his face covered — but this time by a rippling bowl of water. “It’s based around the idea that the vessel is the equalising artefact; it’s present in every culture around the world,” he explains.
Two prints by Christian Thompson: Othering the Explorer, James Cook (2016) and Equilibrium (2016)
(Supplied: Christian Thompson/Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin)
Much of Thompson’s work features him as a subject, but he’s hesitant to describe this aspect of his practice as self-portraiture. “‘Self-portrait’ implies that it’s about capturing some element of my own self-representation, and that’s not really the case in a lot of my work. … It’s more that I’m an armature to build ideas on top of.”
In this sense, Thompson could be described as an artistic vessel: he fills himself with “lived experiences”, which are then delivered to the viewer like water drawn from a well.
For Perkins, the unifying factor across Thompson’s diverse body of work is country: “His work does defy single trajectories. But it has, at its core, this beating heart that is his country — if you understand country to be something corporeal, linked to your ancestors.”
This beating heart is felt in Berceuse (2017), a three channel video work that was commissioned for Ritual Intimacy. In it Thompson sings in his language, Bidjara, to a swelling and amorphous musical accompaniment. Its stripped back aesthetic — the film features an unadorned Thompson in a plain black top — sits in stark contrast to the theatricality and colour of his earlier works.
“I feel a lot more free when I’m singing in my own language; it’s intertwined with who I am,” says Thompson.
“It’s a simple aesthetic gesture but it has a very profound statement because our language is considered endangered-slash-extinct. … If I’m singing even one word of my language, you can’t say it isn’t living any more.”
Thompson says moving into sound work seemed like the obvious “next step” in his exploration.
“I get bored really easily,” he laughs. “Some artists do the same thing for their entire career. I always have to push myself to the next place and space.”
It seems that this push is a search for the most effective forms of sensory communication.
“I want them [the audience] to experience the innate lyricism of language. … [Berceuse] is not about understanding, or exploring, or de-compartmentalising or going ‘this means that’ and ‘that means this’ — it’s just a purely visceral, immersive experience.”
Berceuse (pictured) and Dead Tongue (2015) feature Bidjara language. (Supplied: Christian Thompson/UNSW Galleries)
Ritual Intimacy celebrates an already extensive body of work (Thompson reckons that a showing of all his pieces would require “an entire floor of the MCA, particularly the top floor”) that has continued to grow since the exhibition’s Melbourne opening last year.
Thompson has since created a new series of installations that is currently showing at the Adelaide Biennial, and is currently in the throes of producing his first virtual reality project, under the Australian Centre for the Moving Image Mordant Family VR Commission.
“We’re going to Barcaldine to recreate this swimming hole that hasn’t flowed in over a decade, because of drought,” says the artist.
The medium will allow visitors to do their own exploring, in a literal sense:
“In the work you will move through the creek bed and you’ll hear language coming from the landscape, so this one is a completely immersive experience.”
Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy runs until July 14 at UNSW Galleries in Sydney.