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Leah King- Smith: strategies of ambiguity

Rachel O’Reilly


Leah King-Smith, Buttons (from Beyond Capture series), archival inkjet on cotton rag Leah King-Smith, Buttons (from Beyond Capture series), archival inkjet on cotton rag
When the discourse surrounding archival ethnographic photography came under the control of Indigenous artists and writers in the 1980s and 90s, modes of representing and deconstructing Aboriginality moved out of the hands of white Australia for the first time. In her Patterns of Connection series (1995), Leah King-Smith was one of many contemporary Australian artists to engage with 19th century ethnographic archival photography. This recombinant, ‘Indigenous’ media art, colliding with the visual culture of Australia’s colonial past, did much to reveal the mediated nature of Indigenous oppression and present a cogent visual history of the camera’s constructions of whiteness.

However this late transition in Australian visual cultural discourse aligns the camera itself with a suspect politics; furthermore, the success of these artists in exhibiting and communicating their work to the burgeoning postcolonial consciousness of white Australia has presented new anxieties. Leah King-Smith finds ways around the camera’s historicising functions as a means of liberating herself from the ‘onus of representation.’ Her latest works continue the process of excavating and re-framing colonised visual cultural histories. However, by connecting her practice with visual cultures and colonial histories outside of the Australian imaginary (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), and by increasing the degree of abstraction with which this iconography is treated, the terrain of her inquiry becomes more personal, ambiguous and arguably universal.

King-Smith’s Beyond Capture series (2004) consists of 10 cotton rag prints constructed with the artist’s signature layering technique. Landscapes and native plants are juxtaposed over fragments of nearly imperceptible images of Koori figures painted from photographs. The prints Buttons, Dresses and Ferns employ the same 19th century ethnographic prints used in the aforementioned Patterns of Connection series (1995); they exude a similar ghostly presence here. Interestingly, this is achieved by merely referencing fragments of those earlier photographed figures. Liminal Interstices: The crevice in ambiguous space (2005) is the artist’s most recent work: a 12 minute animation in 9 sequences, composed from drawings, sound, analogue and digital photographs, digital prints, and Super 8 film (and unfortunately drained of much colour by the high light levels of the exhibition space). Nine digital lamda prints from the animation take up the last wall of the exhibition space.

In Liminal Interstices... ghostly, animated photographs of Australian native plants and grasses double over the surface of equally transparent historical images and cultural icons. Kitsch Singaporean tourist pamphlets of colonial era paintings–of urban landscapes, and of Singaporean women in traditional dress (collected by the artist from street stalls on a recent visit)–form the background to many of these juxtapositions.

In the Sand sequence, line drawings made in sand on a beach and captured in colour photographs squiggle playfully over a colonial era painting of HMS Lady Nelson (1879). This ship was captained by John Murray during his celebrated discovery of Port Phillip Bay over the French, who had set out to explore the same coastline during this period. A shadowy figure with a walking stick appears momentarily, looking on–but to which era? Skewed temporal references to events within early colonial paintings are repeated in Sky, where a modern window frames a lithographic depiction of settlement by French artist Deroy, a prolific lithographer and engraver of historic events within the colonies (Singapore, the South Pacific, and even North America). Both of these paintings were sampled by the artist from the online exhibition Why Melbourne?, a quaint, didactic journey through the maritime adventures and settlements of Victoria’s colonial past.

Beyond the disconnected historicity of these references it is possible to detect a tentative narrative interconnecting the notion of chance and the interpenetration of (visual) cultural languages (Indigenous/settler, ‘Pacific’, ‘Singaporean’), with a philosophy of perception in which the past is coexistent with the present. Soundscapes by the artist’s partner, Duncan King-Smith, shift from tranquil environmental ambience–birds, insects, grasses and foraging noises–to more ominous, momentous sounds of church bells, drumming and thunder. The interplay between sound and image constructs a presence beyond the frame, thereby building upon the sense of ambiguity and the experiments with under-representation evident in the artist’s double-exposed digital cotton rag prints. In an interview King-Smith discusses her new engagement with time-based media as a continuation of the conceptual focus of her cotton rag print-making:

The intention is that these digital prints are all moving. We don’t see them as moving, but they are, and my idea here [in the animation] is to have them moving–these are all animated photographs. When people look at my work they have a static sense of time in an aesthetic sense, a formal sense. So the animation has become a psychic enterprise...for the soul, rather than engaging very established terminologies and aesthetics.

King-Smith talks about the trajectory of her practice as an intuitive leap away from the monotheistic drive of Western thought, into a personally constructed poly-cultural aesthetics, using found images and scraped mirror surfaces to explore simultaneity as a philosophy of perception. This emphasis on simultaneity is rooted in the artist’s own double-exposure to Koori (mother) and white Australian (father) cultures, and the irreconcilability of this double-autobiographic experience. The new injection of Singaporean visual culture into Liminal Interstices... further deconstructs the binaries within discussions of King-Smith’s practice, and works against the specificity expected of Indigenous Australian artists in their artistic references to spirituality and place. By consciously constructing a sense of ambiguity the artist intends a conceptual and perhaps political strategy of movement around and through categories of identity, and multiple historical truths, as much as an abstraction away from them. King Smith explains:

The issue is really about the prevalent view that several views can operate at the same time. That is what ambiguity is. Meaning might shift from here to there, depending on whatever psychic framework is operating...and that’s why I’ve called this Liminal Interstices..., because an interstice is a crevice or a place right on the ridge between something which is beyond our threshold of perception, and it only just makes it into our understanding. That’s what I am trying to navigate. And it seems like it is perfectly alright for me to do that. But at the same time it’s very hard for me to claim that ideology–it’s always shifting or I’m always trying to find what those terms are.


Leah King-Smith, Liminal Interstices: The crevice in ambiguous space and Beyond Capture; QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, February 17-May 8

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 38

© Rachel O'Reilly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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