Catalogue Essay | POST-WAR: Thousand Mile Stare

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POST-WAR: Thousand Mile Stare |Katy Mutton

ANCA Gallery, 22 April – 10 May 2015

Essay by Jessica Oliver, ANCA critic-in-residence, 2015.

 

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” ― Bertrand Russell

POST-WAR: Thousand Mile Stare, a solo show by Katy Mutton, presents a body of work created as a result of the artist’s Post War Project, a research project investigating the soldier settlement scheme after Word War I. The effect of warfare on cultural identity is a longstanding theme in Mutton’s practice and she is particularly interested in the way war history is crafted into a broader cultural narrative.

The ANZAC centenary ‘celebrations’ are hard to miss, with the Prime Minister encouraging Australians to “show support for our country, our values and our armed forces” by attending ANZAC Day commemorations in the “largest possible
numbers”1 following the thwarting of an alleged terrorist plot- evoking comparisons to the Howard Era utilization of the ANZAC legacy to suit a political agenda.2 POST-WAR: Thousand Mile Stare rejects politicised narratives and instead sheds light on the less frequently told aspects of Australian war history as well as the intergenerational effects of war on a country that suffered extreme losses in WWI yet remained geographically isolated in the decades that followed. Using the settlement at Red Cliffs, near Mildura Victoria, as artistic stimulus, Mutton creatively responds to the history of soldier settlements after WWI, presenting an alternate historical narrative that focuses not on the dead, but on the living.

It’s important to use the context of history in order to better understand contemporary issues…When we reflect on the legacy of war it become tied up with patriotism and related rhetoric about heroism. Actually, the legacy of war is the ongoing cost to lives, families and the effect on our communities.”3

Prompted by a romanticised agrarian ideal, the soldier settlement scheme was established to meet the pressing need to increase agricultural production and establish livelihoods for returned soldiers. Widely seen to be a failure, the scheme involved leasing small blocks of farm land to returned servicemen, resulting in many settlers living in subsistence on blocks that were too small to farm and severely under-resourced. Additionally, resettled soldiers often had little to no farming experience and faced physical and mental hardship that was often compounded by injuries sustained during the war. Suicide, loss of lease and poverty was common. Playing on the phrase ‘a thousand yard stare’ which refers to the despondent, vacant look commonly associated with shell-shock, now called PTSD, Mutton investigates the human cost of a little remembered scheme that effectively placed men from one battle field into another.

The works presented in this exhibition are meticulously put together, showcasing Mutton’s skills as a draughtsman, and utilize media such as acrylic and ink. Whilst evident throughout Mutton’s practice, the use of symbolism is particularly strong in this exhibition and the works operate at a high level of complexity which is furthered by the artist’s clever use of layers and text. Reflecting the history they represent, the works require a level of understanding and knowledge that goes further than face value.

Works such as A Thousand Miles and Rasping Layers (both 2015) are informed by the visual structures of maps and present a birds-eye-view of the Red Cliffs, which was chosen by the artist as one of the largest soldier settlement areas in Australia, as well as a pre-existing family connection to Mildura. Whilst seemingly simple at first glance, the works are made increasingly complex through colour, text, layering and, in the case of A Thousand Miles, more figurative imagery. Whilst arrestingly beautiful in the contrast between the soft, layered background and robust metallic blocks- reminiscent of medals and other military decoration- the works tell a tragic story informed by historical research. Each image provides a non-linear, colour-coded history of Red Cliffs over a particular period, up until 1939. Deep bronze indicates settlers who died on their blocks, copper is for settlers whose lease was cancelled due to outstanding repayments and gold indicates the property was either abandoned or sold by the original settler.

The incorporation of text in the works, with lines running alongside roads, literally and symbolically mar the landscape and directly refer to the lived experience of the soldier settlers. Often running off the edge of the works to suggest that the experience doesn’t end with the frame, the lines are directly lifted from various sources and present a devastating picture:

He lost the block in 1929, then shot himself thr..[ough the head]”.

Rabbits came through like a moving blanket”.

In A Thousand Miles, which directly references the exhibition title, Mutton considers the psychological state of a returned soldier and, in the words of the artist, “the map becomes a merging of the battle front and the dream of living on the land”. Overlaid onto the map imagery is a human head, reminiscent of old medical diagrams, and surrounding the head are elements referencing the rising sun, frequently used to symbolize the spirit of Anzac. By referencing Red Cliffs and areas of Gallipoli and the Western Front, Mutton reminds the viewer of the lasting psychological impacts of war, particularly at a time when understanding of psychological trauma was limited and mental illness was commonly viewed as a lack of moral fibre.

Going on the Land I, Going on the Land II and Tumbled (all 2015) presents a much more figurative exploration of the soldier settler experience, whilst retaining Mutton’s use of symbolism, layering and text. This collection of works investigate returned soldiers’ ongoing health problems. Both Going on the Land I and II present the soldier settler as both body and skeleton, deliberately rejecting any reference to military uniform to emphasise the physicality of the works. Layered over a background of ink on Kozo paper, Going on the Land I represents visible and invisible injuries– enlarged lungs, a missing ear and the lung-spotted background all reference war-related injuries such as mustard gassing, deafness and disfiguration. The gun held by the figure explicitly symbolizes the violence encapsulated within the work.

Unlike the internal body focus of Going on the Land I, Going on the Land II investigates the body in the landscape, both at war and in the settlement blocks. The layered ink background and detailed patterning, also on Kozo paper, references the landscape and the work imagines the fraught relationship with the land soldier settlers often experienced. The gun from Going in the Land I is here replaced with a spade, begging comparison between the two tools which were both essential on the blocks and battlefields.

Contrasting the almost surgically objective view of the body presented in Going on the Land I and II, Tumbled boils with chaotic energy. A partially clothed figure appears suspended, as if thrown by a blast, over a red and green ink stained backdrop. Disappearing over the edge of the paper, a military slouch hat emblazoned with the rising sun is the only reference to his military background. Featuring found text such as “addicted to drink” and “suffering greatly from shock and war injuries”, the work is a dynamic, almost violent, insight into the effects of physical and emotional trauma. The mixing of the green and red represents a merging of blood, dirt, land, disease and the human body.

708 Hardtacks (2015), a collaboration between the artist and Stedman Watts, is the only sculptural work in the exhibition and engages with its subject matter through both symbolism and the use of original historic materials. Comprising of an original sweatbox, used by soldier settlers to store the dried fruit they produced, the box contains of 708 miniature Anzac tiles (hard, long lasting biscuits which were eaten by troops at Gallipoli), each one representing a soldier taking up their initial holding. Encouraging comparisons between with military paraphernalia and Anzac memorabilia, the work presents a piece of physical history that firmly grounds the exhibition within its particular historical narrative.

POST-WAR: Thousand Mile Stare questions the treatment of returning service men after WWI and investigates the lasting effect of war on Australian society. By illuminating this aspect of war history, Mutton draws comparisons between the past and present treatment of returned soldiers and presents a historical narrative that is both sobering and thought provoking. Sometimes stories are left untold because they make us feel uneasy and ashamed, particularly when they are part of a broader narrative of pride and national identity. Often, it is these stories that are the most important to tell.

1 Ireland, J. (2015) ‘Tony Abbott urges Australians to turn up on Anzac Day in wake of terror raids’, www.smh.com.au

2 Brissenden, M. (2013) ‘ANZACs, identity politics and the Howard years’, www.abc.net.au

3 Correspondence with the artist (2015)