10 ways to look at the past

This exhibition considers the role of the past in works by ten Australian contemporary artists. It examines ideas relating to history, memory and the passing of time, exploring a number of ways that artists retell or reframe the past through a varied range of works. Some artists draw on personal histories, while others explore the past through collective or cultural memories. Some test notions of truth and fiction while others delve into the past through imaginary realms.

Significant moments that mark our collective understanding of the past are the focus of a number of artists in the exhibition: the wars, conflicts and catastrophic events that have defined eras and shaped the unfolding of world history. Other artists reflect on smaller episodes that although perhaps less consequential are no less significant: private moments and personal experiences retained in individual memories. A number of artists turn their attention to the complex task of finding ways of connecting personal and collective experiences, tracing relationships between history and memories that span across time and space.  Others work around the edges of official accounts of history, allowing space for fictions and re-imaginings of the past to emerge.

An examination of photography and the archive as the means by which histories and memories are captured and recalled is a common thread that links several works in the exhibition. Brook Andrew and Martyn Jolly both question official representations of the past through their investigations of photographic archives. The idea that art has the potential to open up worlds that extend beyond official accounts of history also finds expression in 10 ways to look at the past. Tom Nicholson and Peter Kennedy each focus on the history of the twentieth century and seek, by different means, ways of connecting the individual to broader political and historical events. Narelle Jubelin addresses a complex network of connections that bring into question dominant accounts of world history, modernism, art history and the role of the museum.

A sampling images and ideas from art history and popular culture are used in different ways by several artists in the exhibition. Emily Floyd looks to the recent past in her graphic reconfiguration of culturally significant texts associated with the 1970s; David Noonan brings together fragments from a personal archive of found images that he calls a ‘library of possibilities’; and Tracey Moffatt adopts techniques from 19th century photography and early cinema in her dramatic series of photographs. Ricky Swallow reinterprets forms from art history such as Baroque wood carving and 17th century Dutch still life painting in his exploration of personal memories. His nostalgic investigations share a poignancy that is also found in Richard Lewer’s hand-drawn animation that reflects on extraordinary events that have taken place in the lives of ordinary people.    

Whether nostalgic, introspective, playful or critical, each of the works presented in the exhibition have in common a powerful connection with the past. Played out through strategies of remembrance and re-enactment, through processes of uncovering hidden histories and narratives, or creative re-imaginings of past events, this exhibition suggests that art can be a powerful way of exploring the near and distant past – one that can provide us with new ways to understand the present and contemplate the future.
Brook Andrew (born Australia 1970. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Brook Andrew examines relationships between photographic archives and official accounts of history in Gun-metal Grey 2007. His ghostly screen-prints bring into question who and what history remembers and forgets, and how photography has become an agent in this process. Seeking to ‘make visible Australian ethnographic photography as social/political imagery’,1 Andrews used 19th century photographs of indigenous Australians from various anthropological and ethnographic collections as the source material for this work. Enlarged and screen-printed onto shimmering metallic surfaces, these monumental portraits draw attention to that which would otherwise be hidden or lost, as a means of encouraging debate about cultural amnesia and the plight of displaced people in a broader global context.2  

Emily Floyd (born Australia 1972. Lives and works in Melbourne)

An interest in the progressive ideas that emerged in Australia with various rights movements in the 1970s forms the conceptual basis of Emily Floyd’s series of prints It’s time (Again) 2008. Adopting an aesthetic inspired by 1970s political poster design in her manipulation of a range of culturally significant texts associated with that decade, Floyd captures a sense of the idealism of the era. Her graphic reconfiguration of texts include excerpts from Permaculture One and Two (1978), a treatise on sustainability by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren; Germaine Greer’s seminal feminist work The Female Eunuch (1970); and Gough Whitlam’s historic policy speech for the Australian Labor Party in 1972.

Martyn Jolly (born Australia 1959. Lives and works in Canberra)

Martyn Jolly has referred to his series Nineteen sixty-three: News and information as an ‘idiosyncratic visual archaeology of Australia’s recent past’.3 Jolly sifted through more than one hundred thousand images contained in the Australian News and Information Bureau, seeking ‘sharp visual shards from the past’.4 The photographs he selected to use for this series date exclusively from 1963, a year of personal significance as it marked the time when his earliest memories began to intermingle with a ‘mediatised historical memory’.5 Jolly’s deliberate re-framing draws our attention to small details and partial views of images that were originally intended to promote an official view of the nation. ‘To me these fragments are like stolen glances away from the official object of attention, furtive whisperings at the back of the classroom’ he once commented, ‘Or else they are like eccentric cinematic cut-away shots from the main drama of history’.6

Narelle Jubelin (born Australia 1960. Lives and works in Madrid)

Narelle Jubelin has for many years explored the ways that objects and images are transmitted and exchanged within a global history of travel, trade and tourism. The result of intensive research, Trade delivers people #2 1989-93 mines a rich and complex history within a formal arrangement of hand-stitched petit point embroidered renditions of culturally significant images and objects, a selection of objects from the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of antiquities, and a number of found objects by unknown makers. Notions of authenticity, authorship and exoticism are brought into play in her materially rich installation that threatens to undermine usual taxonomies of display. Jubelin adroitly brings together and re-casts objects, images and materials that have been dislocated from their points of origin to generate new meanings and suggest multiple possible narratives of historical exchange.

Peter Kennedy (born Australia 1945. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Peter Kennedy’s photographic and neon installation One Long Catastrophe 2000-02 draws on the concept of history developed by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Two images contained within the installation are derived from a photograph taken during the Second World War depicting two men reading in the remains of a devastated London library. Others are derived from 1997 news reportage depicting an abandoned church in Kigali in Rwanda - a site of genocide. In each of these photographs an open book is a recurring motif that can be seen as a metaphor for Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’. Benjamin wrote that while ‘we perceive the past as a chain of events’, the angel sees ‘one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage …[at]…his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole that has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned…This storm is what we call modern progress.’7 In a poetic integration of image, text and neon, Kennedy’s installation presents a sombre mediation on history – one that suggests that our future is set to repeat the destructive patterns of 20th century history.

Richard Lewer
(born New Zealand 1970. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Richard Lewer’s paintings, drawings and drawing-based animations have chronicled histories of Australian crime, conveyed narratives relating to his childhood and traumatic events that have occurred in the lives of ordinary people. His hand-drawn animation The sound of your own breathing 2010 follows the recollections of three characters who each recount an unsettling chapter from their past. Lewer’s animation has been inspired in part by his own boxing training whereby the repetitive action of skipping became a time of self-reflection and meditation. Each story is told through animated drawings accompanied by voiceovers that are punctuated by the repetitive sound of a skipping rope. Reflecting the way that memories function, Lewer’s animation combines fleeting images and observations of the everyday intertwined with flashbacks of the tragic events being retold.

Tom Nicholson (born Australia 1973. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Tom Nicholson works with archival material and the visual language of politics and propaganda, often staging performances that focus on the relationship between actions and their traces.  Conceived as a memorial to the legacy of the 20th century, Documents from a banner marching project 2004-07, 2004–07 began as a series of banner marches that took place in various locations in Australia. Despite their outward appearance as protest events or political rallies, the marches had no overt cause or political agenda. Nicholson developed the project alongside a process of collecting instances of national borders that were created since 1901, a selection of which were used to generate lines that provided the routes for each of the marches.

A constellation of residual materials forms the exhibited outcome of Nicholson’s project. One banner used the in marches is displayed in the exhibition unfurled; others lie on the floor beside a group of dismantled frames that were used to parade them. A trio of video projections that reveal the marches in action completes the installation. Loosely based on socialist propaganda and advertising images, the strange faces contained within Nicholson’s banners resist easy interpretation. Referencing the banner’s various uses throughout history as symbols of propaganda, political protest or religious commemoration, their deliberate ambiguity encourages a proliferation of meanings. In a poetic conflation of space, time and memory, Nicholson connects moments in history that would otherwise be disconnected, providing a link between individual and collective consciousness, and global and local perspectives.

Tracey Moffatt
(born Australia 1960. Lives and works in Sydney)

In her nineteen-part series Laudanum 1998, Tracey Moffatt employs visual strategies derived from the history of photography and early cinema. Shot on location in historic houses, these staged photographs appear like a series of film stills in which an unsettling narrative unfolds between a maid and her mistress. Presented as a series of vignettes, the disjointed and fractured imagery has a dream-like quality that reflects the unordered nature of the subconscious. Moffatt’s use of photogravure, an early photographic technique, and the formats of ovals and arches popular during the 19th century, accentuates an overall historical mood. Important references that influenced her when making this series include the films of F.W. Murnau, D.W.Griffith and Fritz Lang; Pauline Réage’s 1954 erotic novel The Story of O; and the work of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. As with much of Moffatt’s art, a range of contemporary social and political issues relating to gender, sexuality, race and power are introduced through a re-imagining of the past. 

David Noonan (born Australia 1969. Lives and works in London)

David Noonan’s works often combine a layering of images redolent of past eras. Sampling from a personal archive of images gleaned from films, photographs, magazines and books that he has amassed over time, his works often bring together fragments of the past to generate new and expressive scenarios. His five part sculptural installation in this exhibition evokes a strange procession of mysterious characters that appear to be travelling through space. Reminiscent of stage sets or theatrical props, they raise questions relating to ritual and role-play. Borrowing ideas and imagery from experimental theatre, folk culture and alternative education, Noonan’s installation presents an ambiguous space that can be potentially read in a number of ways. Is this a pageant, a parade, a protest event or a ceremony?8 Screen-printed in black ink onto jute and linen and supported by timber frames, the combination of materials, techniques, forms and imagery creates an historical atmosphere. Noonan once commented ‘I think of the content of my work as time travel to some extent, taking things from different eras and bringing them together to form new temporal scenarios’.9

Ricky Swallow (born Australia 1974. Lives and works in Los Angeles)

References to art history and popular culture are often fused with personal memories in Ricky Swallow’s art.  Conceived as a sculptural inventory of all the things he can remember hunting during his youth, his meticulously hand carved sculpture Salad Days 2005 could be understood as a kind of catalogue of memories. The composition of deceased animals – among them a rabbit, duck and a fox’s skull – recall seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting. Merging art historical references with imagery charged with nostalgia for a youth spent in coastal and rural Australia, Swallow brings an autobiographical and contemporary perspective to the vanitas tradition.10 An accompanying group of watercolours, One nation underground 2007, triggers similar ideas, reflecting on mortality and the transience of life. Faithfully copied from album covers and posters, these intimate portraits memorialise ten rock and folk musicians, many of whom died at an early age.

Jane Devery
Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art


  1. Brook Andrew, artist statement , 2009
  2. For further discussion see Marica Langton ‘Brook Andrew: ethical portraits and ghost-scapes’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, Vol 48, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2008, p 59
  3. Martin Jolly, ‘Nineteen sixty-three: News and information, Photofile, vol. 52, 1997, p38
  4. The Australian News and Information Bureau was established during the Second World War and existed until the late 20th century. It employed photographers and journalists to document and promote Australia overseas. The photographs taken by Australian News and Information  Bureau photographers now form part of the Australian Archives. See Jolly, op. cit p38
  5. ibid
  6. Ibid, p39
  7. Walter Benjamin, in Hannah Arendt (ed), Illuminations, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 2007, p 257, (First published New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968)
  8. David Noonan, email to author, April 2011
  9. David Noonan, artist statement, in Bourriaud, Nicolas (ed), Altermodern, Tate Triennial, Tate Publishing,London, 2009, p156
  10. vanitas [Lat.: ‘emptiness’]. type of painting concerned with the fragility of humankind and  ... pleasures in the face of the inevitability and finality of death. Hans J. Van Miegroet. "Vanitas." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 29 Jun 2011 <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T087870>.