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Destiny Deacon inside out

Sarah K Wise

Originally from New Orleans, Sarah K. Wise is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, School of Media, Film and Theatre working on a thesis about contemporary Indigenous performance.

Destiny Deacon, Adoption (1993/2000), Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney Destiny Deacon, Adoption (1993/2000), Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
The lift deposits visitors to the exhibition on the fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). A printed introduction to the right and lithographed tea-towels to the left are lost on the perimeter, to be read and examined on the next pass or exit. The little fish in the tank filtering the backwash of sunlight draw the visitor to the living/dining room that is modelled after Destiny Deacon’s own. She has, in fact, been living out of boxes since her furniture was exported for the show. The carpet was created to her design and resembles the mess of dolls, Twisties and crayons that might litter her own floor.

The living room seems almost miniature, dwarfed by the bric-a-brac with its vivacious clutter of colours. With so many playthings beckoning it’s like a dollhouse. Most unexpected are the wires at shin level restricting entry. A television set faces the couch, so viewers have to stand uncomfortably against the wires to watch some of Deacon’s earliest film works in soap opera style developing in complexity and quality. The first are shot in the artist’s even more cluttered living room and kitchen, depicting narratives such as a mother’s life in disarray as she drinks through the loss and kidnapping of her child. Later storylines have more developed characters with sets and camera work that mark a sharp increase in budget. The casts include actors and friends like David Page and Lillian Crombie, playing respectively, a transvestite and a grandmother.

On the wall over the television are 2 frames with collages of ideas for films that probably should be made, if only irony sold! On the dining room walls are posters from earlier exhibitions which anticipate the work around the corner, a retrospective of Deacon’s work spanning the last 15 years or so and informed by the activism she was involved in prior to launching her artistic career.

Back past the fish tank, the corridor is hung with blown-up photographs. Deacon blames her unique grainy style on technophobia, and it works to her advantage. The Polaroids, printed on a consumer level bubble jet printer, pull the viewer into the colour, action and emotion of her blurry images, many involving dolls brought to life by their environment. Anyone who knows Deacon’s work will be familiar with the black dolls used throughout her pieces. True, as she claims, they are easy to manipulate and they never complain; even truer is the incredible emotion that she elicits in her use of them.

Marcia Langton, in her 1997 essay "Black humour and the art of Destiny Deacon" (Walk and don’t look blak, MCA, 2004), says that Deacon’s work is "irritating" because of the artist’s ability to push the right buttons, kick-starting "memories, smells and emotions." Langton describes the work as being able to "resurrect the images of our oppression, position her favourite dolls or people in her stage sets, and eke out discomfort." Langton wonders whether the work irritates white people in the same way.

In her art, Deacon has explored her own history as depicted in photographs, matching them with portraits of her young mother as she grew up and moved south. It is a journey in which Deacon has simultaneously gathered a stockpile of insulting paraphernalia, reminding the viewer of the tough history of black Australia. This got under my non-Aboriginal skin and gnawed at me as I came upon pieces in the exhibition that mediate on Indigenous life in Australia now. Is it any easier?

The piece titled Adoption is a photograph of plastic baby dolls inside paper cupcake shells. It’s kitschy and humorous but full of irony in the connections it suggests with "shopping" for black babies at orphanages. "Humour cuts deep", says Deacon in the catalogue. She is not so much baring her own soul as cutting deep into the world around her. From her first photograph, Koori rocks, Gub words (1990), to more recent films projected on a big screen in a dark alcove just past the cupcakes, Deacon’s art seems largely a reaction to what irks her. Both the film, Over d-fence (2004) about nosey neighbours (a pet peeve), and the photographic series depicting graffiti on a sacred site with the striking painted words "My Rock", record and simultaneously reject acts of disrespect.

The jet print from the Polaroid, No need looking (A) (1999/2004), appears to indicate that there is so much for a black woman in Australia to contend with that even a UFO is no distraction. Further along the wall is a flat screen looping a short film from 1999 entitled, No place like home. The film’s eerie soundtrack includes clips from The Wizard of Oz featuring Dorothy whimsically repeating "There’s no place like home", and more urgently "Oh Toto, come back!" This same soundtrack remained audible as I stood at the screen watching the silent Forced Images (2001) on the opposing wall. There it quietly (almost subliminally) increased my awareness of the 2 little 4 year olds resisting and at the same time searching for their own identities as they argued and then tried on masks of Indigenous faces. The soundtrack to No place like home matches the trance-like state of the character whose back we follow through city streets as she searches for safety and home. As Natalie King writes in her catalogue essay, "Episodes: a laugh and a tear in every photo", there are "phantasmagoric apparitions inhabit(ing) Deacon’s funny and unnerving compositions" which match the interests and research that the artist has undertaken on the supernatural, cinema history and popular culture. As Deacon rhetorically asks on the placard explaining her period of work in 1999, "Why be a contemporary artist if you don’t know or care about what is going on?"

Deacon furthers a pointed interaction with the work of other artists by making the historical and the contemporary interact in her portraits series. In a striking self-portrait, Me and Virginia’s doll (1997), Deacon poses like Frida Kahlo except with cigarette in hand and a doll. It’s irreverent. She slouches on the bench comfortably. The photograph is grainy, suggesting that the shadows and light of the composition are more important than any crispness of face or figure. She looks down the barrel of the camera, but the focus is too blurred to imagine that the soul is laid bare. And the cigarette alight in her fingers, glowing and smoking, adds to the feeling that Deacon’s portrait is for herself.

Waiting for the lift and reading the description I missed on the way in, it feels like I know Destiny Deacon well enough from her work to see that these words are not her own. I imagine instead she might have written something like: "Fuck it. I made this. You’re welcome to figure it out for yourself."

Destiny Deacon, Walk & don’t look blak, MCA, Sydney, Nov 26-Jan 30

Originally from New Orleans, Sarah K. Wise is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, School of Media, Film and Theatre working on a thesis about contemporary Indigenous performance.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 8

© Sarah K Wise; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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