(Samson & Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton) (2009)
“The Future is Unforgiving” (Photographic Exhibition by Warwick Thornton, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne) (July into August, 2015)
At the Anna Schwartz Gallery, 185 Flinders Lane, The Varnished Culture saw the exhibition by Warwick Thornton, whom we knew only from his film Samson and Delilah (see thumbnail review below). Born and bred in the Alice, Thornton has possibly observed a thing or two about dysfunctional folks and the impact of the excesses of received culture on indigenous perspectives. Here, in a cavernous, concrete-floored space, there are a small series of interrelated images of aboriginal children. There are three large photos on one wall, featuring two girls and a boy, with a complementary smaller image on the opposite wall. Somewhat oddly, each large work with its corresponding miniature is described as a diptych.
The larger stills are overtly social-political: they feature children trapped in the standard badges of establishment consumption, easy targets of western mass banality. One girl, Luka, has soft-drink cans strapped to her torso as if she wore a suicide vest; another, Shanika, wears a similar vest, of beer cans. Sterling has hamburger containers and large fizzy-drink cups strapped to his garment. The point is obvious, technically well-made, but rather a crude and transparent one.
The smaller adjacent pieces are more interesting, with the young ladies holding boomerangs and the lad a slingshot, stretched ready to fire. Again, the juxtaposition is awesomely trite, but the images are nicely constructed.
At the far end of the room, a video displays the same children, posing before the camera. Occasionally things may be muttered but there is no sound, just children reacting, typically, in such a circumstance. “Luka” in particular, is a good natural actress, mugging as most children do. She is also extremely pretty, and gazing at her, in her white lace dress and smiling soundlessly back at him, P began to back away, feeling rather alarmingly foolish and prurient.
Professor Marcia Langton’s concise and thoughtful note to the exhibition, and in particular the video, The Future is Unforgiving, suggests “the innocence, the natural grace, the optimism, innate in the state of childhood, with all its human potential…is also a portrait of the viewer and their social responsibility to allow these young lives to flourish unimpeded by the known destructive elements presented in the photographs.”
It is difficult to unpack this. Professor Langton’s wielding the phrase “Social responsibility” gives rise to two reactions: “why is she looking at me?” and a recollection of the old saw that you can debase any concept by tacking the word “social” on the front of it. For in so tacking-on in this instance, what is implied? That we all bear such a responsibility? If so, in what sense? The Varnished Culture is confused to learn that it takes a village to raise a child, having naively considered this was the job of its parents.
Never mind: the political impact of art can be weak, even negligible: consider the head-on-wall-banging of some reformist novels of Charles Dickens in this regard. The present exhibition should be seen, but it pales, out of comparison with some of the artist’s other work.
Which brings us to the good news. P was simply not in the mood to see Samson & Delilah some years ago, expecting the grim, parochial agitprop so depressingly prevalent in contemporary Australian film. L more wisely suggested it might be worth a look, and so it proved. Following the travails of two doomed aboriginal youths, the film, in unhurried, unforced style, shows the building of their relationship, despite the relentless adversity to which they are subjected (and to which, in some cases, they subject themselves).
Stunningly shot and paced, the film is a directorial triumph, with beautifully natural, stunning performances by the two leads, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, who display considerable charm without a hint of artifice. You are completely drawn to them as people, completely immersed in their parlous state, and on the edge of your seat concerning their hazy future. A discreet, restrained and tasteful masterpiece.