There are lots of ideas burbling away in Liang Luscombe’s current exhibition, Sailors Three (at Sutton Projects until 15 November), but let’s start with the two central ones.
“I guess the show has two parts,” says Luscombe, “the first part is working with imagery around the ocean and thinking about the politics around this imagery now and about situating that kind of imagery within my own very mild, day-to-day life.”
Dolphins, coral, Popeye, the St Kilda foreshore, frothy seascapes painted un plein air and other jaunty, nautical motifs feature throughout the exhibition. These are the visual representations of the ocean that Luscombe lives with and knows best. The sailors of her imagination wear old-timey, bell bottomed sailorsuits and Breton stripes.
Needless to say, the images of the ‘high seas’ that Luscombe references sit in stark contrast with the images we’ve come to associate with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers: massive grey navy vessels, refugees crowded on rickety boats and squalid tropical detention centres. Even worse is the increasing absence of imagery, as more and more often those politically fraught scenes play out off-camera and hidden from public scrutiny.
Sailors Three is a show about when politics isn’t directly personal, when – in fact – your personal experience is radically, almost comically removed from a political situation. “I feel like politics needs to be situated within the personal,” says Luscombe, “but I also feel like it needs to acknowledge one’s own intensely privileged position. It’s not heroic. The show is not heroic in any way. It’s self-consciously not, because there’s a sense of guilt, I guess, that sits within the show.”
Not only is Luscombe’s everyday life far-removed from contemporary asylum seeker politics, so is her art practice. “I have a real difficulty – and I think a lot of artists have a real difficulty – thinking about how to navigate that imagery while still being true to how one makes work.”
And that brings us to the other main thematic thread in Sailors Three. As Luscombe explains, “the second part of the show thinks about the different figures one associates with art; be that the amateur artist, the artist that conducts plein air, or maybe the artist at work in their studio.”
The show pokes fun at the emphasis on professionalism in contemporary art, and what Luscombe sees as largely arbitrary, socially constructed distinctions between the amateur (who makes art for the love of it) and the professional (who makes art as part of a creative career).
“I went to St Kilda and tried to do some plein air there… I haven’t actually gone out into the world to make work in a long time. So it was quite a strange experience, and quite confronting to realise how embarrassed I was to make work outside.”
The two approaches initially seem like strange companions. On the one hand, the show is asking, how do you reflect on politics in your art practice when you’re not (and perhaps don’t want to be, and in all seriousness couldn’t be) a capital P Political artist? And on the other hand, what kind of art should you make (or not make) if you want to be taken seriously.
And materially the two ideas are juxtaposed in striking ways in the show, sometimes literally making up the two halves of a sculpture. In one work, a painting of the Amateur Night sign from New York’s Apollo Theater is mounted to a slender piece of curved timber that resembles a wave or the steam-bent wood of a boat’s hull. In another, Luscombe’s awkward St Kilda seascape hangs on one side of a wooden sculpture and on the flip-side the blue and yellow maritime flag that means ‘I want to communicate’.
But really, the two conceits are not that different. They’re both about the same fundamental questions: what kind of artist do I want to be, what kind of artist am I expected to be, what kind of artist am I allowed to be?
So, as an artist, what do you do when you’re concerned about a political issue but heavy-handed agitprop is not your style? Do you say nothing? Or do you say something small in your own personal, quiet style (Luscombe repeatedly describes the show as quiet, subtle, apologetic, unheroic)? But if what you say is so small and subtle that few will even hear you, what are you really doing apart from self-soothing?
The issues that Luscombe raises in this show aren’t just relevant to artists. They’re relevant to an entire intellectual class deeply ambivalent about the aesthetics of protest (unless rendered palatable by satire or meta-sincerity), who find it harder and harder to reconcile their taste politics with their social politics.
>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 31 October 2014