The Golden State
In Jarrad Martyn's new show of paintings three seemingly separate themes exist alongside one another. At first glance paintings about the dinosaur tracks at Broome's Gantheaume Point, the nuclear testing programme in Montebello in the 1950s and the recent shark cull appear destined to create a pictorial frisson but unlikely to establish any lasting connections. That is until one realises the works represent three interlocking points in the long history of Australia's western third. That history, while it is populated with many moments of individual joy, is also framed by an uneasy relationship between its post 1829 inhabitants and the vast landscape they inhabit, a landscape and its history with which they seem to be reluctant to engage with any intimacy.
For many years the phrase The Golden State, the title of the exhibition, was the strap line on every West Australian's car licence plate. As the artist has said, the slogan was concocted by a PR team – somewhere - to conjure up the picturesque imaginings of a bountiful natural world filled with economically productive resources. Once this idealised notion is placed within the context of the paintings on show, the slogan loses a little of its optimistic shine and the slogan becomes more of a sardonic aside; three words crying out for a question mark at the end of them. The intention in exhibiting these paintings is to evoke a world that is given meaning through the intersection of the past and the present, setting up a dialogue that questions the certainty of slogans, and which wryly challenges the accepted triumphalist narrative of our engagement with the natural landscape. By painting a number of lesser known historical events, the idea of the golden state becomes an ironic starting point for 'that little talk' we all need to have. The paintings show us events which are less concerned with the sparkle of distracting shiny things, and more to do expanding a view of how awkwardly we are positioned with a recent history shared with an ancient culture and an ancient landscape.
Maybe it is easiest to start at the beginning, with the dinosaurs, and their 120 million year old footprints in Broome. The remains of the footprints of these creatures, from the giant sauropods to the smaller winstonopus, were left in the mudflats so long ago it is almost impossible to articulate. It was 1930s before they were noted by European Australians by which time they had already been long incorporated into the local indigenous narrative. The fossilised footprints include the vestiges of stegasaurus steps, the only evidence that stegasaurus were ever in Australia. How we respond to these remains is a measure of our imagination. Do they inspire us as signs of the vastness of time? In the past the footprints have been cut from the rock with chains saws and angle grinders to sell on the black market. That's a sign of how we see the world as an economic resource. The Kimberley coastline, where further ancient traces of dinosaur walks are uncovered every time some looks carefully, is always under threat from off shore gas and oil extraction. Research projects come and go, using new technology like the drones depicted in Gantheaume Point to reveal more and more about a coast line we have known so little about since its European occupation. Our lack of knowledge about prehistory easily stands as a metaphor for so much else we have conveniently chosen to ignore.
The urban community in Perth largely lives in a commodified, perpetual present, undisturbed for the most part by the past occurrences of the state's history. But not all the traces of the past are benign like dinosaur tracks, some like aspects of the act of colonisation are malign. The lingering legacy of nuclear explosions is certainly toxic. Further along the coast, west of Broome and its dinosaur tracks, lies the archipelago known as the Montebello Islands. The islands were one nuclear bomb testing site amongst others in Western and South Australia during the 1950s. On the 3rd of October 1952 Operation Hurricane went into action and a bomb was exploded to test the effects of a nuclear explosion in a harbour. The painting Hurricane shows the explosion after 0.1 seconds. Soldiers witness to the explosion described the blinding electric blue light that was so intense it passed through 'protective' tarpaulins, and their hands in front of their eyes. It wasn't a localised event. Airborne radiation from the Montebello tests was later detected as far away as Townsville, though official fallout details were never compiled. The secrecy of the tests (Menzies endorsed the British tests without any reference to his cabinet, the Australian parliament or public) means it is impossible to determine exactly what the impact on public health, the natural environment and Aboriginal culture was, or given the nature of radiation, may still be. Any attempts at the time of the tests to find out exactly what was going on “was discouraged through official secrecy, censorship, misinformation, and attempts to denigrate critics.” (1)
How does one paint a moment that as it happened was not only denied officially, but which was physiologically impossible to see because the intensity of the light created by the explosion causes blindness? It is a contradiction that is at the heart of Hurricane. Streaks of blue allude to the light, the green to the feeling of those who witnessed the explosion of being underwater as the pressure waves hit their bodies. (2) A number of workers and soldiers are shown in front of the explosion, using a hose to clean a statue. The statue is Kiss István's huge sculpture The Republic of Councils Monument created in 1969 in Hungary. Based on a revolutionary poster from 1919, the image is used here as an index of the wider Cold War, arms race struggle in which the US and USSR fought out their ideological differences through proxy conflicts in smaller client states. Partly through ignorance of the effects of radiation, partly through a cynical disinterest by the authorities, many soldiers and workers involved in the tests suffered the effects of radiation sickness and cancer, many dying early. In addition to massive waves of radiation that penetrated their bodies at the time of explosion, with no warning or understanding of the deadly nature of the now irradiated ocean, many of the workers and soldiers involved in the testing had bathed in it, those blue, once benign waters that until that point had lapped the shore and acted as home to the network of sea life that had slowly evolved since the catastrophe that eradicated the dinosaurs. Moving on in our story, it is in the coastal waters further south that our next scenario unfolds.
In 2014, after a fatal attack by a shark, the West Australian government instigated a shark cull. The scientific basis of the cull was called into question by environmentalists, as the process seemed to have more in common with the medieval prosecution of rats, who were tried in the ecclesiastical courts (in their absence as none attended the trials) and were punished by death, excommunication or banishment, than with contemporary international oceanographic research. The randomness of the cull, its indiscriminate nature and its practical absurdity is the subject of Spyhopping. In this painting the confusion about the target and purpose of the cull unfolds as the first shark caught by contractors is captured. There is no shortage of bull in the contractor's boat, Orca, (a reference to the boat in Jaws, which suggests how media fictions so often drive real world actions). A great white shark, the intended victim of the watery purge, looks on as a tiger shark is hauled aboard. First identified as a bull shark by the contractors, and then as a black tip reef shark by the Fisheries Department, the ineptitude of naming the dead creature seemed to reinforce the absurdity of a circumstance where death by trampling or goring by a bull in the dairy farms of the State's south west was a more likely occurrence than death by shark attack.
There are no answers provided by this series of paintings, just strings of questions, and the raising of points – just why for example do sharks raise themselves out of the water? A phenomenon known as 'spy hopping' – which in the process of answering should bring us closer and closer to an understanding of who we are and how we mesh with the natural, social and cultural worlds. It had long been the objective of history painters (I am thinking here of Jacques-Louis David and Ilya Repin) to connect an audience to a foundational moment in a shared history. Those moments are usually grand and often fictionalised, a form of pictorial sloganeering that directs certainty and banishes ambivalence. But ambiguity, flux and the constant change in understanding that discovery about the world brings, is a quality that is traditionally lacking in this genre. I think this is where Jarrad Martyn's paintings take us to a new place that had been opened up in their different ways by contemporary history practitioners like Nancy Spero and Mark Tansy.
Martyn's work suggests, as has history painting in the past, that we are formed by material circumstances, but he also suggests, more provocatively, that the legacy of history is difficult to negotiate, that it is local and contingent as well as having its grand narratives. His paintings propose that history, whilst it aspires to objectivity is obviously not objective. History is fractured, and open to interpretation as well as being simultaneously programmatic, dictatorial and frequently metaphorical in its application. This is why his technique is so apposite to his content. Using the principle of bricolage, his bringing together of disparate images from different sources creates conversational meanings where the logic of one reading is contradicted by another. The scraping, smudging and blurring of paint elides conceptual as well as formal boundaries between things and their depiction. At every point, in every aspect, the legitimacy of meaning is contested.
Ultimately, having raised the question of veracity in the way our world and its history is represented for us, these paintings force us to make decisions about the legitimacy of what has framed us, and how complicit we are prepared to be in that framing.
Christopher Crouch 2016
(1) Grabosky, P. N. (1989) Wayward governance : illegality and its control in the public sector Canberra : Australian Institute of Criminology, p. 236