Erewhon is an anagram of nowhere. The story of the group exhibition Erewhon begins in many places: with Samuel Butler’s satirical 1872 novel of the same name; with Gallipoli’s centenary; with our ‘obsession’ with crime, terror and punishment; and most significantly with Neverwhere, an exhibition also curated by Vikki McInnes which travelled to Istanbul in 2015 as part of the Year of Australia in Turkey.
Neverwhere showcased works by eight leading contemporary Australian artists that deal with identity and its presentation or performance to a new international audience. There was an interest in bringing the exhibition home, to tour it around Australia. But McInnes felt that “the local context demanded something different,” something more specific to what she describes as the “contemporary moment” here.
The result is Erewhon, an exhibition informed by history, literature and contemporary anxiety over terror, politics, migration and cultural identity.
It expands on the shadowy, darker threads hinted at in Neverwhere and features the works of Brook Andrew, Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams, Tony Garifalakis, Claire Lambe, and Clare Milledge. Although these artists have disparate practices, McInnes says their interest in the “drives and desires of where our thinking, our reason and unreason, might lead us” is what brings them together in the exhibition.
1872, the year Butler’s Erewhon was published, bears similarities to the present. It was a time of great dissatisfaction and uncertainty in Britain where industrialisation and rapid population growth were challenges to the status quo. In 1872 in Australia, as Molly McPhee outlines in the exhibition catalogue, Aboriginal residents at Coranderrk were losing control of their land, leading to years of violence and dispossession. Brook Andrew reflects on this perilous history with his 2015 works Memory Archive and Harvest. The Hills Have Eyes series, 2014, by Tony Garifalakis, also touches on expressions of power, albeit in a darkly humorous way.
One of the central works in the exhibition is Captain Thunderbolt’s Sisters, 2010, by Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams, the only work that also featured in Neverwhere. It recreates the story of Fred Ward, a bushranger known as Captain Thunderbolt who was imprisoned on Cockatoo Island, and rescued by his Aboriginal girlfriend, Mary Ann Bugg. In the video, the artists (who are dressed in striped prison gear, bushranger masks and high heels) clumsily make their way around the island, which was once the site of a prison and reform school for girls. The work touches on many important aspects of Australian society and history, including colonialism, displacement, women’s voices and feminism. “It’s an intersection of many big ideas, and works on so many levels,” McInnes says.
For McInnes, one of the returns of Erewhon is the opportunity to be able to bring these works to regional centres such a Horsham, Warrnambool, Benalla and Latrobe, and start conversations around the work and our understanding of identity and how we present it.