Seven Sisters : The Sailing Ones


Neika Lehman

Ghosts [… ] shape both the possibilities for and constraints on the future

Wendy Brown

And the local boys hide on the mound and watch
Reaching for the speech and the word to be heard
And the boys grow hard, hard to be heard

Nick Cave

Growing up around politics is strange – much like the white elephant that takes a while to sense. At first it is a topic of sounds, a float of conversation between adults that your mind doesn’t bother to snatch. Later when better at names you ask who this person is, this stranger discussed but never met. The television answers that for you and in 1990s Australia, there aren’t too many other screens to curdle its view. I remember the Olympics the year after the end, and knew about sport, that patriotism was good for you, that it if you believed in it hard enough you would get to champion heights. Nikki Webster was already flying, and took home all that gold. The TV also told us about safety. When the next year came we should be thankful we were in Australia and not in New York. Australia was safe, but all people needed protecting, the strangers said on a magnet for the fridge. Anti-terrorism was a word and Australia was the Nation where we had school, pets, and played in the yard and the beach. Time fastens up after the beach fights in Sydney. After that, people became responsible for things - because surely the beach alone with its sun and warmth couldn’t cause that much pain.

The ghosts the beach conjures aren’t new. First contact onwards, they have lingered between sun and shirt, often suppressed and only remembered with the next hit of the wave. New histories emerge and with repetition develop fresh myth, adolescent images and narrative seeking to be felt. On the coast, artists have responded and now Australian beach portraiture is a canon of its own. In the settler colonial state, the beach is an ideal guiltless backdrop: unlike a bush-lined landscape, the coast can be polluted but not removed. The tide does a good job of washing things away, or more recently, passing them on to another’s land.

In this exhibition, James confronts the legacy of a white Australia that doesn’t quite know itself. Literal characters on set, Seven Sisters: the Sailing Ones assembles figure tropes that play out their limited scripts. Large-scale tableau-vivants aggregate in loops of sand-crusted Australian mythology. As inter-textual webs unfurl, somewhere, nighttime falls. Seven Sisters: The Sailing Ones’ title reference is to Pleiades, that seven-starred cluster of mass most visible to naked human eye. In both Ancient Greece and for the peoples of Ancient Australia, Pleiades’ nightly display mysteriously evoked the same human interpretation: the seven stars are sisters, who have fled from planet earth. In the many variations across hemispheres, one conclusion remains the same - they are fleeing from the actions of men.

In the eyes of these subjects, for the first time in Liam’s work, I struggle to find the awkward innocence that prevailed before. Seven Sisters presents detachment, dislocation, but little self-awareness. The party (if we can call it that) is happening, actions extend, but the present mind is null. The artist’s second venture to a constructed beachfront set, the water here is mute - and the sky a generous, characterless flirt. A persuasive nature is flattened, the artifice exposed. Left for bleach, break, removal. The poor cloakery of the beachfront doesn’t seem to matter, and was probably never the point. Thus the viewer is positioned back towards the subjects… those who gesture but do not ask, are the vehicles for irresponsible action, unresponsively. These figures seem to have no origin but they are the perpetuators of myth. It’s as though James will only offer that which does not suffice.

James’ contribution to the legacy of colonial beachfront mythology is to show its own wear. In its construction he confronts the limits to this space. Expiration date exposed, have we done all the damage we can? If the eternal beach is no longer enough, its shortcoming lies in the people. It’s a paranoid question of how long things will stay the same – and how long they have already.

If the artist’s portrait is always of self, the irony is that the closest I get to sensing James is in his homage, Ode to Tracey. Here, the artist is reaching out, searching for the exit. If James’ photographs only offer circles, mortality and violence, in the dusky shadow of ‘Something More (no. 3)’, James is content to bask quietly in the romance of art and dream, away from the empty torment of an Australia constructed without consent.