Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Vernon Ah Kee @ KickArts Gallery Cairns

It's worth taking your time with the work of Vernon Ah Kee.

When so much conceptual art opts for predictable shock and the comfortable confrontation it is easy to imagine that anything that has such an immediate impact is similarly shallow. Not so. The two whole room installations at Cairns Kick Arts Gallery, 'Waru' and 'Belief Suspension' have a depth that's warm, angry serious and witty and that doesn't leave us until long after we leave the gallery.

'Waru (Innisfail Waru)' is a three screen video installation that places us in the midst of a day of cricket finals in a deep green Far North Queensland field. The players come from indigenous Australian teams and we observe them in action, posing and at rest. It's shot in a gorgeous honeyed autumnal light, and edited to establish both a langourous rhythm and a sense of immersion. The slow motion cricketing action is as beautiful as and footage you might see of the sport, shot in such a way as to elimimate depth of field it feels incredibly immediate. Some cricketers pose for photographs, proud and manly they stand and echo early anthropological studies, but here they suck in guts and struggle not to laugh.

Ah Kee is doing more than documenting aboriginal sportsmen. Cricket is the sport where Australian national identity is closet to the surface, but aboriginal faces are never seen in its representation. Here we see black men in the rituals of sportsmanship and the gestures of masculinity that are absent from popular culture. The beauty of Waru is that it is so humane, so tender and so funny. It's hard to watch it without smiling which is in itself a triumph in the grim-faced culture wars. The word Waru, the name of the team, means turtle in the indigenous languages of Far North Queensland. Underwater footage of the animal intercut into the cricket makes an analogy with the sense of liberation and pleasure felt on and around the pitch. From the warlike fast bowler who begins the piece through the rituals of pitches and trophies this is a work about people making something of their own, and we share their pleasure in it.

'Belief Suspension' sees a phalanx of six white surfboards hand from the celing. Onto them and the wall beyond is projeted another surfboard. This one is hanging from a tree in a wintry landscape, it is wrapped with barbed wire and swings in the wind whilst ocassionally a gun reports as someone takes pot shots at it. The surfboards cast menacing shadows, their points remind us of the Klu Klux Klan head dress and so a group of anonymous racists appear to loom over the proceedings. Of course the strange fruit of the surf board reminds us of lynchings and the barbed wire grips it in a vicious and inescapable embrace. The work is not subtle, it doesn't mean to be, it is a very direct challenge to the dominant myths of a white Australian culture. The work points at belief in myths of a culturally homogenous Australia as complicity in institutionalizing social and cultural racism. It's a quiet work, its stillness give sit an authority that makes it uncomfortable to view.

These two works sit beautifully together and each benefits from the others presence. Ah Kee is an incredibly accomplished draughtsman too and this aesthetic grounding allows him to capture the humane and vital in a way that so much polemical art on race misses. To describe him as a conceptual artist does him an injustice. His work breathes and bleeds but avoids manipulative clich├ęs through scalpel sharp wit and the light touch of true technique.

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