The thesis is submitted!

Over a year of work involved in the 115 pages, 31 684 words, and 190 126 characters.


#1 The summation of force

In preparation for Australia’s bid to reclaim the Ashes from England in 2017, the Australian Test team have employed ‘torpedo technology’; utilising submarine and guided-missile technology to “reduce injury and improve performance in fast-bowling cricketers”. This data can be collected by wearable items such as watches, which measure the intensity of effort of professional bowlers. An elite cricketer can therefore have each minute action of his or her body captured, monitored and analysed, a vastly different experience from one’s formative years in backyard cricket.

Trent Parke and Narelle Autio conflate these environments in their large scale work The Summation of Force (2016), working not just as a duo, but as an entire family to examine the beginnings of cricket in the backyard and the pressure of elite cricket at the international level. Parke and Autio’s multifaceted work centres on a single channel video of their children playing cricket on their backyard pitch. Captured in slow motion, the children are bathed in an eerie light; the dark night filled with tropes of suburban Australia – the Hills Hoist, the backyard pitch and the boundary fence – ‘six and out!’ Threatening to engulf the children are newspaper headlines that seem to reflect a war-like mentality: “another dagger in the heart”, “Aussies step into the firing line”. Religious mythology and dogma are also evoked: “END OF WORLD”, “courage tested”, and “OUR GABBA GOD”.

The involvement of family in this work, set against the extreme pressure of elite sport is a poignant reminder; as a young man Parke chose to pursue a career as a photojournalist over a potential first class career as an Australian cricketer. With its icons of Australian identityThe Summation of Force presents an uncanny tale. The ghostly nightscape, cries of combat and war sees the ‘game’ of sport become an unworldly force; the body, on the brink of perfection is a moment away from collapse.

The End

I can’t believe today is my last day of classes here at The University of Melbourne. Three years have slipped by, countless words written, and a lot of knowledge gained. My Masters of Environmental Science is almost complete. It was a sad moment exiting the campus as a student for the last time, I walked around, looked at the buildings, trying to see something that I may have overlooked. It was raining, quite hard, and I found myself in front of my favourite building, and the faculty of Botany which I have spent most of my time in. Three years had come full circle. It was time to leave.

#2 Modern god

The reverence with which fans regard their sporting heroes can sometimes approach a form of worship, their adoration sustained by a daily diet of news stories about athletes’ professional achievements and private lives. Laith McGregor explores this phenomenon in his work Modern god (2015-16), a year-long project which saw him scour the news every day for articles about professional sports. The artist has compiled his research into a large-scale pen and ink drawing that reads like a visual diary of the year’s sporting headlines.

In the centre of the drawing is a life-sized athlete who the artist characterises as a “modern god, one sports star that represents all sports stars”. Around this deified figure, a finely-drawn constellation of text and images revolves like planets around the sun – a fitting metaphor for the way in which the activities of celebrity athletes both feed and influence the 24-hour news cycle. McGregor admits to becoming ‘obsessive’ about his research, subscribing to a range of news providers and immersing himself in sports he previously paid little attention to: surfing, rowing, badminton, motor racing, tennis, soccer, football, baseball, boxing, cricket, roller derby, rugby, golf, snooker, horseracing, snowboarding, cycling… and on it goes. The artist’s encyclopaedic approach is reflected in the headlines he has reproduced, which run the gamut from inspirational athlete profiles (“Michelle Payne hits back at doubters after making history”) to big picture analysis (“How snooker made its break in sports”). Some hint at controversy (“Police investigate racist chants at Carlisle”; “IAAF scandal is worse than FIFAs”). There are moments of high drama (“Body boarder saves pro surfer”) and low comedy (“Cricket star throws bat at crowd”; “New cycling crisis as motor found on bike”).

Taken as a whole, the texts demonstrate that sport provides all the entertainment of a finely-crafted drama, and in many cases, real life is more compelling than fiction. Laith McGregor’s epic drawing is the outcome of a dedication every bit as focused and sustained as an athlete working towards a major event. The artist describes his gradual, accumulative drawing process as a form of endurance akin to athletic training. At first glance McGregor’s drawing may look like a faithful, if quirky, overview of a year in sport, but reading between the headlines it also represents a sport fan’s attempt to get inside the mind of his heroes, and through the pursuit of his own art practice to understand what it takes to become a modern god.

#3 The old nail

For the Basil Sellers Art Prize 5, Melbourne based artist Eamon O’Toole centres his work on the iconic narrative of Sir Jack Brabham and his Formula One winning BT19. Constructed from plastic, steel, enamel paint, gold and silver leaf, “The Old Nail” Repco Brabham BT19 is characteristic of O’Toole’s practice; focusing, as it does, on an icon of motorsport.

Sir Jack Brabham had won two Formula One championships and in 1966, he won his third title with a car of his creation which bore his name; a feat yet to be repeated in motorsport history. The sport’s governing body had doubled the limits of the engine capacity to three litres, but instead of using the 12-cyclinder engine common to fellow F1 cars, Brabham went for a lighter and more reliable V8, which was slightly less powerful. The car’s designer Ron Tauranac designed a chassis to accommodate the new engine, built by Australian company Repco. The car was constructed from “glass-reinforced plastic with a spaceframe-type chassis”; a marked difference from the monocoque design of its competitors, which saw a support of the car that was similar to an egg shell support.

O’Toole speaks of his fascination with the mechanical, extending past the experiments and successes to “creativity and ingenuity… to create an object of beauty and purposeful function, forced by unusual and extreme circumstances”. O’Toole speaks about such an instance in the Brabham narrative, “Sir Jack chose to use a Buick engine block to form the basis of his engine package, which was held together by glue (Araldite) as an inventive solution to a complex problem”. In its tension between the mimetic representation of objects and the crafting of them by hand, Eamon O’Toole’s work reflects a drive for innovation and improvisation, and the determination to solve problems and experiment. It is not without irony that the skills and adaptability of the backyard tinkerer reflected in O’Toole’s work are highly sought after by the very creators and manufacturers that his work in turn emulates.
However, it was his phenomenal Big Bang (Mick Doohan’s GP Bike – Honda NSR500) (2001), which marked a shift in the artist’s practice. In this work O’Toole inverted the production process, creating a series of smaller parts which fit together as a whole. From Big Bang, O’Toole has experimented with this ‘explosive’ design – where the machines are displayed in an exoskeleton fashion – resulting in an intricate and delicate presentation of durable crafted pieces.

#4 Banks, Which one is mine?

In Rew Hanks’ work for the Basil Sellers Art Prize 5 sport is a vehicle for social commentary and post-colonial critique. A patchwork of cultural references, Hanks’ prints combine history and pop culture in incongruous juxtapositions to shed light on Australia’s hidden narratives – in the case of this new body of work, through the lens of the nation’s favourite sporting pastimes. At the centre of the series is Captain James Cook, the symbolic face of British conquest, who is often enlisted by artists to carry the heavy baggage of Australia’s colonial past.

In Banks, which one is mine? we quickly recognise the faces of both Captain Cook and Joseph Banks. Both men wear the unamused-expressions by which we have learned to identify ‘great men’, but what are they doing with golf clubs? And then the details start to register—cane toads abound around their feet, one couple even fornicating; St Andrews clubhouse, mecca of contemporary golf, nestles gracefully in the middle distance; kangaroos forage on the course; and cattle graze near a windmill behind a picket fence. This is bizarre, but as a smile forms on the viewer’s face, so also does a question start to present itself about the story here. Based on a well-known golfing image, L.F. Abbott’s (1790) The Blackheath Golfer which became the first golfing poster produced, it depicts a dandified gentleman out for a game of golf attended by his manservant carrying a bundle of clubs. The original image contains a grand country house, the windmill and the picket fence. Hanks reproduces the composition exactly but maps Cook’s face (the one familiar from our history books, Nathaniel Dance’s 1775 portrait) on to the golfing dandy and the equally recognisable image of Banks’ face (from Joshua Reynolds’ 1773 portrait) on to his manservant. The grand country house becomes St Andrews and other smaller details are added to invite closer inspection—note Cook’s belt-buckle.

Rew Hanks’ assemblages of historical periods and subject matter would most easily be achieved via digital mediums that enable seamless collaging of found imagery, but instead the artist chooses to build his compositions painstakingly, line by line and cut by cut, on sheets of lino that form the basis for his richly textured prints. In choosing this labour intensive technique, Hanks taps into a long history of printmaking as political commentary. Block printing is an exacting medium even at a small scale, but these works are ambitious in size; each one taking four months to complete. Their subtle variations in tone and complex patterning reveal Hanks to be a virtuoso printmaker, whose dexterity with his medium is rivalled only by the incisiveness of his observations about the ways that the unresolved legacies of Australia’s past continue to blight its present.

#5 Koonibba Roosters 1906 to 2016

The Basil Sellers Art Prize invites artists to tackle an Australian obsession—sport. Since its inauguration, the Basil Sellers Art Prize has sought to engage with art and sport in the broadest possible sense; artists are not restricted by medium or approach. Over its ten year history, the Prize has borne witness to shifts in the cultural landscape; there is greater discourse on sport and technology, women and sport, the role of the media and increasing access and participation.
In the context of the prize, art and sport are most alike:
The art prize is the art world occurrence that best resembles sport – there’s a triumphant winner, debates about the rules, plenty of media speculation and a spirit of competition. Most importantly, these factors lead to a culture of armchair spectatorship where even those who rarely comment on art have something to say.
I went along to visit today, and was amazed at the wonderful creations that people had come up with when relating sport with their natural world. Even though the $100,000 first prize has been awarded (Richard Lewer’s artwork The Theatre of Sports), a People’s Choice Award of $5,000 will be presented 23 October. So I thought I would count down my top five artworks, starting at number 5……

Grant Hobson is a photographer whose work explores themes of masculinity, sport and cultural identity. In this major work for the Basil Sellers Art Prize 5, Hobson travelled to Ceduna, on the far west coast of South Australia, to create a new work in collaboration with the oldest Aboriginal football club in Australia, the Koonibba Roosters.
In the early 1900s, Lutheran missionaries built a mission at Koonibba, 40 kilometers from Ceduna. Under Australian government policy of the day, the movements of Aboriginal people were restricted to a mission. In 1906, the missionaries at the now Koonibba Mission helped establish a football club. The first Koonibba football team involved everyone living on the mission.
However football became a means of escape from the everyday for the Aboriginal people and a way of earning respect on the only ‘level playing field’ in town. Koonibba Football Club soon had one of the strongest teams in the region. Over the course of its 110-year history it has won many flags and has regularly produced footballers who have participated at many levels within the region, and more broadly in Australia.
For Hobson and the local community, the Koonibba Football Club is a powerful symbol of survival and resistance, the community enduring, over time, a harsh social and political environment. Hobson’s Koonibba Roosters 1906 to 2016 (2016) represents this struggle across generations through an assemblage of photographs of current and past football players, and weekly updates of the scores for the current season.
Placed in a row above the 2016 team, Hobson has reproduced eleven images from the 1939 Harvard–Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition, led by anthropologist and entomologist Norman Tindale. The photos were taken for ethnographic documentation and research, but Hobson noticed that many individuals wore the distinctive guernsey of the Koonibba Football Club under their jackets and coats. He approached the community to see if anyone knew the individuals and discovered that they were predecessors of present players in the community.
By presenting the current team alongside players from 1939, Hobson reveals the long history of the club and challenges “the singular rare ‘otherness’ that is often [the] non-aboriginal cliché employed to understand Indigenous footballers. Often their talents and feats are described as ‘magic or special’ in a manner that suggests that their ability was gifted at birth. The reality is, as Rocky Carbine tells me, ‘At mission since we were kids we played all day every day and we played hard but fair’.
Koonibba Roosters 1906 to 2016 is a work about resilience, about a community holding together despite disadvantage, discrimination and generations-long struggle. “Koonibba’s sheer – continuous – existence becomes a powerful societal expression from which wider Australia can learn.