the fashion, performance and politics in the work of christian thompson

With the launch of his new exhibition, we speak to the artist about making iconic Australian work from London.

by Quentin Sprague
26 October 2015, 3:20am

Untitled #2 from the King Billy series, 2010

London-based, Australian artist Christian Thompson is currently the subject of a major new exhibition at The Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney. Curated by Alana Kushnir, 'Collection+: Christian Thompson' is distinctive in that it draws attention to his enduring preoccupation with fashion. A Bidjarar man of the Kunja Nation of central southwestern Queensland, Thompson recently completed a Doctorate at The University of Oxford, where in 2010 he was one of the first two indigenous Australians to be admitted. He also holds a master of theatre from DasArt, Amsterdam. We spoke to Christian in Sydney in the lead up to his show's opening. 

Congratulations on your new show. How would you describe it?
It's the first time I've seen a curated show around one particular aspect of my work - the use of textiles - so it's pretty cool to see it hand picked and installed at such a high level.

Untitled (Blue Gum), 2007

The selection shows that your practice is quite varied. People are most familiar with your veiled-face self portraits, which have really become iconic in Australian art. 
I think of them more as conceptual anti-portraits than self-portraits. My physical head and shoulders simply provide a template, something that I'm just constantly building on top of. I'm always looking for materials: what I'm reading or listening to, where I am. It's very much connected to that kind of research but it's also connected to whatever is in the ether at that moment.

So when I look back on those works I don't necessarily see myself: I'm disassociated from them because when I see them they remind me of where I might have been living, or a particular album I was listening to, or the people I was collaborating with, so there are lots of different layers to those works. It's also about the fact that the desire to unpack ourselves, and figure out who we are in relation to the world, is a universal thing.

You're based in London and have lived away from Australia for over ten years. How conscious was your decision to leave Australia?
It wasn't really a conscious choice at all. After I came to the end of my doctorate over there, it was really by accident that I stayed. It just seemed that my career had taken me to London and that the next obvious step was to work there. I'd already begun showing there; as well as workshops and academic work.

It's also just really stimulating. Before I left London I saw the Alexander McQueen show at The Victoria and Albert Museum and another great exhibition by Ana Mendieta. There's just amazing exhibitions all the time.

Untitled (Marcia Langton), 2002 

Your new exhibition teases out your relationship to fashion. I think your new work displays not only that there's a political element to what you do, but that your use of fashion is a central part of this.
My background is in textiles and sculpture so there was always a sartorial element to my work. But I also grew up in the 90s, so I was immersed in magazines like The Face and Q - I just basically lived in that world and a lot of that sensibility has been embedded in me from a very early age. There are different kinds of things I touch on: different ideas around objects and race and identity, but I think of this in terms of performativity as much as fashion.

I was always really inspired by the Fluxus movement, and by artists like Joseph Beuys and Eva Hesse and Rebecca Horn. All those artists used soft sculpture as a focal point in their practices. The performativity of that work is something that I respond to: that fluxus idea that the performance is the work and what's left over is simply the residue.

Do you think then that fashion itself has a political function, or is it only when it folds back into an art context, into a practice like yours, that it can perform a function like that?
I think there're different crossovers and references. There are plenty of moments where fashion designers reference artists and artists reference fashion designers. But the art world comes from a different historical canon and historical narrative.

But having said that, I think that's changing as fashion tries to put itself in a different kind of space. I think the Alexander McQueen show was a good example of this. It looked at issues of submission and dominance in his work, as well as its more aggressive aspects. So, I do think fashion can be political, sure. I mean there are definitely moments where it gets under people's skin.

Tree of Knowledge, 2013

On that note, I also wanted to ask you about when Rodarte appropriated Aboriginal designs in their ready-to-wear collection in 2012 and created quite a furore. Instead of looking at it as cultural theft, you said at the time that it was a "convergence of two esteemed forms of high art production". 
There was quite a reaction to the Rodarte collection but they'd actually gone through all the right steps to secure permission. The sort of performativity of those sorts of designs, within the fashion world, at the haute couture level, is considered to be a revered form of high-art production. In some ways it might be a more fitting context for those sorts of designs.

I think Marina Abramović said something recently about the worst thing to happen to Aboriginal art being the introduction of canvasses and acrylic paint. There were negative reactions to her statement but in some ways I can see what she's saying: there's a sort of ritualistic performance quality to Aboriginal art that's more about the ceremonial rites and rituals surrounding those sorts of traditional iconographies. When it's put on a canvas, who ultimately calls the shots? It's white dealers, white galleries: they're the ones determining the values of that work.

I'm not sure it's the artists in the end who have the power.


Text Quentin Sprague

Christian Thompson