For the past decade Jan Nelson has developed a multi-disciplinary art practice that pays specific attention to the tenets and modus operandi of conceptual art and its contemporary manifestations. Nelson’s practice is critically self-reflexive and is founded on her need to situate her project in its rightful international context.
In this regard Nelson is not unlike a number of significant artists of her generation who have sought to resist narrowly defined concepts of nation and a ‘national’ art. Australian artists now defer ideas about the ‘tyranny of distance’, conditioning their relation to the international world to more complex considerations of the decentred and diasporic communities of which they are a part.
Jan Nelson’s images have generally maintained a certain ambivalence to subjects and genres. Nevertheless, the concept of borders and the transgression of them lies at the heart of Nelson’s International behaviour with its striking juxtaposition of modernist signs against a graphic evocation of the social crisis of the refugee. In the face of high anxiety, high style appears the most banal human folly, but between human folly and human frailty lie the disparate conditions and unpredictable evolution of modernity that drive Jan Nelson’s art. International behaviour depicts an enlarged newspaper photograph from the 1980s of a Vietnamese boat in Australian waters, packed with immigrants. This image floats across a modernist, almost psychedelic-patterned ground.
It would be erroneous to consider this work in some way prophetic of the Tampa crisis that focused international attention on the plight of asylum seekers and Australian immigration policies in August 2001. However, International behaviour has an exceptional emotional resonance that provides a sobering reminder of how long and complex the issues surrounding refugees, social crisis and immigration have been lodged in the Australian psyche. Above all, this work asserts that artists are among the great social commentators of their times.
In an artist statement accompanying her work in 2001, Nelson said that her project is
not so much to deal with the world in which we live or conversely the world we desire but to reside in the space between these worlds. Within this space resides the very psychology that makes us human. My work often deals with the struggle between wanting to transcend the everyday and yet knowing true meaning resides in our mundane existence.
In all my work I attempt to create a quiet transient space, although it is always one of struggle. It’s the slippage between fact and fiction, the gap between the cabbage and the basketball, between the boat leaving its country of origin and its destination, between the audience and the art world or, as in my recent work, between another person’s memories and my own.
In International Behaviour my work turned to concerns of culture. I wanted to create a space between the desire for populist culture, as in the modernist pattern, reminiscent of such magazines as Wallpaper and the emotional resonance of the Vietnamese boat. This image not only has personal significance to me but I believe to the essence of our Australian culture. I was very pleased that members of the Vietnamese community found the painting quite moving and felt pleased that someone had given their story significance.
Jason Smith, Curator, Contemporary Art (in 2002).