It was a bizarre dummy spit for a major philanthropic organisation, not to mention a self-inflicted PR wound, but this week the Ian Potter Cultural Trust withdrew its support from an artwork it had spent $100,000 on.
Terror Nullius is a 55-minute film by Brisbane-born, New York-based video artists Soda_Jerk (siblings Dominique and Dan Angeloro) that makes a radical critique of Australian masculinity, refugee policy and our treatment of the Indigenous Australians — themes that are par for the course, you’d imagine, in the contemporary art world, but seemingly not to the Ian Potter Cultural Trust’s taste.
On the eve of the Terror Nullius premiere at ACMI on Tuesday, the Trust withdrew its support, providing a written statement that it “no longer wanted to be associated with the marketing and publicity promoting the work”, which it called “very controversial”.
Right from the get go, Terror Nullius does not announce itself as subtle political rhetoric.
As beautifully made as it is, there’s a caustic, irreverent tone running through it that wouldn’t be out of place in a student newspaper.
What the Trust thought it would get from a pair of artists with a long history of radical politics is not clear.
It claims it “does not want to imply that it has a position on the matters raised in the film,” but the inference will no doubt be drawn by some.
Soda_Jerk announced on Facebook that the Trust had used the word “un-Australian”, though it has denied this.
It’s not hard to see why the term might be used to describe the work.
Terror Nullius is an audio-visual collage that uses highly sophisticated techniques to splice together images and sounds from Australian film and television history, often with a palpable anger and even a streak of malicious humour.
At its least interesting the metaphorical richness of this exercise gives way to an earnest literalness.
A scene from Mad Max II is repurposed to see Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson get whacked with lethal force by boomerangs, for example.
But elsewhere, the work’s repurposing or even subversion of narratives is both subtler and more playful.
One section flips the hetero swoon fest of The Man From Snowy River by intercutting between Tom Burlinson and other young men in the bush, including Heath Ledger from Brokeback Mountain.
Then there’s the Queen’s Bicentennial address, which gets a tumbleweed reaction shot, and Skippy chirping a slab of subtitled postmodern jargon about Picnic at Hanging Rock and how mysteries of missing white people take precedence over stories about our Indigenous past.
This kind of audio-visual horseplay recalls the satirical shorthand of internet culture, which in turn springs from late 20th century popular traditions of music sampling, graffiti art and punk.
But subverting narratives for radical ends is not the work’s only aim, or even its most successful, and perhaps that’s because so much of Australia’s iconic film (though less so TV) is already engaged in a critique of the country.
Remixing Walkabout or even Mad Max doesn’t deliver the shock value of flipping the meaning of a 1950s Hollywood epic (it’s no wonder Soda_Jerk have plundered Hollywood imagery already in a previous project).
And while it’s a giddy thrill to watch a group of women from several films and tv shows dish out some impromptu revenge on Mel Gibson’s leather clad road warrior (besmirched here by Soda_Jerk’s strategic sampling of the actor’s hate filled phone call to former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva), Terror Nullius is perhaps even more rewarding when it pushes images and sounds further in the direction they were already heading.
New depths of emotion and linkages between works exploring similar ideas across different tonal registers start to emerge.
Michael James Rowland’s underseen 2007 film Lucky Miles offers a key motif of refugees arriving on a beach — under the hateful glare of young men from Puberty Blues and Romper Stomper — then wandering through the bush.
There are also two melancholy moments in which men listen to audio in cars — one from Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 outback survival film Walkabout, the other from Ray Lawrence’s 2001 suburban drama Lantana — where Soda_Jerk juxtapose Whitlam’s speech post-Dismissal on the steps of Parliament House and John Pilger speaking about Indigenous Australians from his 1986 documentary The Secret Country with great poignancy.
This deepening of emotion in Terror Nullius is what underscores its most affecting moments.
At its best it can make you wonder about the kinds of films and television shows that were never made, in the same way that you might ponder things you should have said in a long-gone conversation.
It’s a work that also inspires reflection on the films and television yet to be made.
In the process, you’re left to wonder about the country depicted.