Steven Rhall and I first met in 2017 during an opening at the Melbourne artist-run gallery BLINDSIDE. I’d contributed an essay for the exhibition, which Rhall was showing in, and was excited to meet the artist who made THE BIGGEST ABORIGINAL ARTWORK IN MELBOURNE METRO. In this significant work—which began in 2014 and for three years spanned public art, photography and installation—Rhall altered existing commercial signage to read THE BIGGEST ABORIGINAL ARTWORK IN MELBOURNE METRO on the façade of a Footscray supermarket. While he was not exhibiting this artwork that night, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) had shown it for Sovereignty earlier that year to great acclaim.
Four years later, I can still recall Rhall was wearing a denim jacket and a rockabilly hairstyle, complementing the pop cultural sensibility that permeates his practice—we spoke about the television comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Since that night we have crossed paths several times and now sit on Zoom, meeting as artist and writer once again. He aptly begins by sharing that he has been “thinking about connections through time and threads of serendipity.”
Rhall is working on a participatory performance and public artwork called ABORIGINAL LAND (SSID) for the ACCA group exhibition Who’s Afraid of Public Space? Like many of his signature works, he is using text and performance to intervene in the public arena which, in this instance, involves renaming multiple Wi-Fi networks to ABORIGINAL LAND.
Having renamed his own personal Wi-Fi networks as ABORIGINAL LAND, he realised this meant that every time someone looked for an available network on their device, near Rhall’s phone hotspot or home network, they encountered a decolonial prompt by seeing ABORIGINAL LAND in the list of available networks. Rhall replicates this dynamic within the institutional context of ACCA, explaining that “ABORIGINAL LAND (SSID) subverts traditional forms of power, access, authorship, [and] participation, emerging in a fuzziness between public and private, as mediated by the internet and the material form of the connected device.”
With plans to make the network widely available and viewable by inviting homes, offices, urban spaces and institutions near ACCA to change their network name to ABORIGINAL LAND , the work inhabits a space that is intensely public while also remaining decisively personal. The Wi-Fi network makes claim over land, air and sky as individuals encounter and/or connect to its all-encompassing signal. Yet in this sovereign territory, the personal unfolds as users navigate the internet with the increased awareness that they inhabit Aboriginal Land. In a style typical of Rhall’s work, it also hijacks an overlooked form of communication, asking the important questions of “How does one connect to Aboriginal Land? And do they have permission?” to complicate the presence of uninvited guests in unceded Land.
“This artwork obviously has a direct connotation to Aboriginal Land being everywhere, not just an imagined, distant, romanticised space,” explains Rhall. “Appearing on a device, uninvited and unmediated, ABORIGINAL LAND (SSID) asserts the sovereignty that, for the main, has been buried by numerous forms of institutional bureaucracy; cutting through like a stark reminder or, perhaps, a notification.” Rhall consistently uses text as a framing device that complicates our colonised relationships to one another, culture and place. And by asking others to participate, he’s also delivering a delegated performance: the public are tasked with expanding this conceptual intervention, continually setting reminders for the decolonisation of language in this country.
This attention to performance is recurrent in Rhall’s practice, and epitomised by his alter ego Blak Metal where the artist embodies the striking persona of a black metal caricature. He playfully wears corpse paint—the white pancake make-up that typifies this genre—and denim attire evocative of gig culture. In this dress as Blak Metal Rhall has performed durational pieces, such as one performance at Footscray Community Arts Centre where he repeated the gesture of filing hundreds of paper sheets with black ink for two hours. For Rhall, “This performance references part of my cultural heritage by using the term Blak and taking objects with pre-existing meaning to play with them, departing from how the arts ecology often romanticises First Nation artists.” This is a strategy that permeates the artist’s work: he borrows elements from the visual world that surrounds us, hijacking them to create a sharp commentary.
Yet there is another recent work of Rhall’s that lingers in the recesses of my mind: his iconic work Air dancer as black body, 2019, which showed as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial 2020. Here, viewers entered a quiet, dark room before a black air dancer, the kind most commonly seen as a publicity mimic in the outer suburbs, rises into the air with shocking enthusiasm. Yet on this occasion, it’s bearing a sad face. While incredibly playful, it is also a sinister mirage that comments on how institutions display and relate to bodies of colour. This twist is unique to Rhall, who is masterfully able to borrow familiar objects and invert them with cerebral strategies, revealing their dire undertones.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.