Collection+ Christian Thompson

Art Life , Exhibitions Oct 26, 2015 No Comments

From Stella Rosa McDonald

 In the 1995 documentary Catwalk, which follows model Christy Turlington through one year of spring fashion shows in the 90s, Vogue’s editor-at-large André Leon Talley asks, “Is fashion art?” Talley’s quick answer is “No”, but it’s a question — and a tension — that increasingly pulls at both worlds. When MoMA hosted a Bjork retrospective earlier this year, which included the singer’s infamous Oscars swan dress amongst other items of costume and clothing, critics were almost unanimously damning; Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker wrote an article entitled “MOMA’s Embarrassing Björk Crush”, art critic Jerry Saltz burnt his MoMA press pass. Beyond museum shows, fashion—or “costume” as it is rebranded in art contexts—has enduringly been at the heart of the work of artists questioning the identity politics of class, gender and race. In Collection+ at Sherman Contemporary, a survey of textiles, video, sculpture and photography by Christian Thompson teases out the potential between the two disciplines to question appropriation, repatriation and the self.


Thompson, who has the extraordinary legacy of being the first Australian indigenous student in Oxford University’s 900-year history, is an artist of opposites. As academic research mediated by kitsch aesthetics his work carries great gravity and levity as it responds in new ways to Australian material culture with reworked cultural materials. In photographs from the King Billy series (2010), Thompson wears a pink hoodie printed with an indigenous motif; a waterfall of pearls obscures his face. In other photographs he wears a crown of eucalyptus leaves and his glossed lips shine beneath the foliage. Thompson invites us to reject the notion that fashion and art—when put together—are dirty words. In Kangaroo and boomerang jumper (2002), he employs kitsch as a way to address the appropriation of indigenous art in Western design and fashion. As items of clothing Thompson’s machine-knitted jumpers, with their nearly 4-meter long arms, are impossibly proportioned; they burden and almost strangle the wearer.

Collection+ regularly engages a curator with a single artist from Brian and Gene Sherman’s “almost half a century of collecting”. Alana Kushnir’s curation necessarily reflects upon the nature of collecting itself, using Thompson’s works to ask how and why the meaning of art might change in the context of a collection and how the boundaries and politics of owning a work of art might be being re-drawn in the digital age. Thompson himself addresses collection habits and histories in his practice, this thematic is revisited in the presentation of the self-portrait series We Bury Our Own, in which stones from the Pitt Rivers Museum Collection—which Thompson worked with while undertaking his PhD at Oxford—are used to obscure the artist’s eyes. The photographs perform a spiritual repatriation in place of a physical one, alluding to the coins placed on the bodies of the dead as payment for entering the afterlife. Thompson’s work evidences the stolen and romanticised vernacular of Aboriginal Australia, using the history of turning Indigenous art into fashion, to turn fashion into art.

Until December 12
Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Paddington
Pic: Christian Thompson, Kangaroo and boomerang jumper, 2002. 98 per cent acrylic, 2 per cent wool, machine-knit jumper. 90 x 748.5 cm. Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2000. Image courtesy the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi.

Stella Rosa McDonald

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