Artist Christian Thompson’s practice – photography, video and performance – frequently takes the form of characters, typically himself, in various forms of dress or decoration; they are, in essence, a still record of form imbued with the multiple layers of cultural, historical and social meanings invoked by the artist. “I tend to build images, rather than take photos or videos, and I use my body as an armature to do that,” he has said. Mr Thompson’s work is arresting for its negation of the self – the images, videos and performances an exploration of identity, sexuality, gender and race.
Since his first exhibition – presented, interestingly, as part of the cultural program of Melbourne Fashion Festival – in 2002, Mr Thompson has shown his work internationally at such institutions as Royal Academy of the Arts, London, Modern Art Oxford, Valencian Institute of Modern Art, Spain, The Sharjah Museum, UAE, Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, Thailand, and the 17th Biennale of Sydney. Much of his body of work is held in major public and private collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of South Australia and National Gallery of Victoria. At the time of writing, Mr Thompson had returned to Australia to undertake a residency with pioneering performance artist Marina Abramovic, organised through Kaldor Public Art Projects, which further evidences the far-ranging nature of his work.
Opening this week, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation [SCAF] will present a major exhibition of Mr Thompson’s work in the fifth iteration of its ongoing Collection+ project series. A non-profit organisation championing research, education and exhibitions of significant contemporary art from Australia, Asia Pacific and the Middle East, Collection+ draws on the private collection of more than 900 works of collectors and philanthropists Brian and Gene Sherman to highlight the work of a single artist, independently curated with complementary work from local and international collections, both public and private. Previous artists selected for the program have included Pinaree Sanpitak, Sopheap Pich and, last year, Shaun Gladwell, whose exhibition ran across both SCAF’s permanent Sydney exhibition space and the UNSW Galleries, demonstrating the cross-pollinating nature of the project.
Organised by freelance curator and art lawyer Alana Kushnir, Collection+: Christian Thompson takes as its conceptual starting point the notion of collection and how the meaning and implication of this notion varies in western law and traditional cultures. “What drew me to this method of working was my own interest in the life of an artwork beyond the point at which it is touched by the artist’s hand, so to speak,” explains Ms Kushnir of the approach, in which she aims to investigate the concepts of ownership, possession and appropriation through Mr Thompson’s photographic, textile, video and installation works. In one of the artist’s most recent series of photographs, We Bury Our Own, Mr Thompson sought new ways of responding to Australian material culture held in the Pitt Rivers Museum Collection at the University of Oxford, aiming to create a spiritual repatriation. “I saw a connection between Christian’s way of working, the Collection+ rationale and my interests in exploring the life of an artwork beyond its creation.”
Ms Kushnir notes in particular the artist’s Forgiveness of Land photograph, in which Mr Thompson depicts himself wearing a silk headscarf with a pattern reminiscent of indigenous Australian dot patterns. “It is a deliberately generic reference to what I would call indigenous kitsch fashion. I had noticed that Christian had reappropriated such garments in numerous other works which he had created over more than a decade. As I researched various collections to identify these works, the question of what it means to truly own or possess something came up over and over again.”
Collection+: Christian Thompson will be on display at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, from 23 October – 12 December 2015, with an essay by Manuscript editors Mitchell Oakley Smith and Alison Kubler in the exhibition’s catalogue. Mr Thompson is represented by Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne, and Future Perfect Gallery, Singapore.