Heraclitus’ River, Narcissus’ Pool, Plato’s Cave and Gordon Bennett’s Citizen

Australian artist Gordon Bennett (1955-2014) ends his polemic text ‘The Manifest Toe’ (which I am reading in the brilliant book on the artist Gordon Bennett: Be Polite published by Sternberg Press) by reflecting on the idea of the self as part of the artist’s investigation into his own Aboriginal heritage:

The self remains relative, and cannot escape the absolute. Modern scientific thought, finally, has evolved a composite view of the self as a shifting ripple in the Heraclitean river. I once read a book by Hermann Hesse, in the early 1980s, called Siddhartha; about a man’s search for enlightenment. He eventually found it through his reflection in a river, not a still pond; and he didn’t fall in love with his own reflection as did Narcissus. What he saw was a “panorama” of the past, the present, an the future in a state of ever flowing flux with his “self” but one moment in that cyclic continuum. If we think of Australia as Narcissus-like, obsessed with its self-image, gazing into the mirror surface of a still pond, then perhaps my work may be understood as one of many disruptions sending ripples across its surface.

One way in which Bennett’s work created these ripples was by questioning the racist associations between enlightenment and whiteness. His 1987 work The Coming of the Light is a perverse and disturbing re-working of Plato’s analogy of the cave. A series of white faces peer over a wall as a conveyor belt of boxes proceeds before them.

We see a double-arm mechanism that both holds a torch-light and also grabs a black head from our of one of the boxes with a belt. Like Plato’s original analogy, Bennett is describing the conditions of an education system that is grounded in false images, mere reflections of the true forms of things and ideas. Bennett uses the symbolism of children’s building blocks with the letters ABC, as well as a blackboard backdrop of scrawled words to signify the culturally specific system of education and its intrinsic racism. In other works by Bennett (such as the 1994 Daddy’s Little Girl II), these letters appear as the first letters of a series of racist slurs on Aboriginal people (‘A bo’, ‘B oong’, ‘C oon’; ‘D arkie):

In a variation on the themes of the earlier work, Bennett’s Notes to Basquiat (The coming of the light), 2001 transposes the Platonic cave onto the 9/11 attacks and the explicit engagement with the New York based artist.

 

The two-arm symbol of the earlier painting is repeated, but this time the belt-noose is empty, hanging before a figure that resembles Basquiat’s skeletal, X-ray portraits. Bennett explains his interest in Basquiat in a posthumous letter to the artist:

To some, writing a letter to a person post humously may seem tacky and an attempt to gain some kind of attention, even ‘steal’ your ‘crown’. That is not my intention, I have my own experiences of being crowned in Australia, as an ‘Urban Aboriginal’ artist – underscored as that title is by racism and ‘primitivism’ – and I do not wear it well. My intention is in keeping with the integrity of my work in which appropriation and citation, sampling and remixing are an integral part, as are attempts to communicate a basic underlying humanity to the perception of ‘blackness’ in its philosophical and historical production within western cultural contexts. The works I have produced are ‘notes’, nothing more, to you and your work.

This emphasis on appropriation, citation, sampling and remixing returns us to Bennett’s preference for the Heraclitean river in constant flux as a symbol of his work (and identity) rather than the calm surface of Narcissus’ pool. Bennett identifies with Basquiat in a way transforms the enlightenment image of Plato’s cave into a disturbing, chaotic depiction of cultural contamination. Even the light ‘outside’ has to contend with the fire that spells out the Arabic of the Muslim mantra In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

Bennett’s appropriation of Basquiat is in stark contrast with his invention of an artistic alter ego: John Citizen. Consider one of Citizen’s Interior works: Interior (Digital Art), 13 March 2005.

In his 2006 essay on this invented artist (‘Who is John Citizen?’), art historian Ian McLean (who also contributed an essay to Be Polite) interprets Citizen’s work in terms of ideas of the self, mirroring and Plato’s cave:

Art is a type of disguise, mask or mirror rather than a window onto the soul…a disguise by which the artist can be something more than himself, and a mirror that reflects back to the audience their own selves and the world they live in. John Citizen exists in the artistic landscape as an invention of Gordon Bennett’s, not an identity or alter ego, but transparently a type of disguise. John Citizen’s first body of work in 1995, exhibited at Sutton Gallery, commented on Gordon Bennett’s art, through the appropriation of his powerful body of “welt” works (1992/93). There is constant reflection between the two practices, with one not disengaged from the other. Though, as Ian McLean goes on to suggest, in the recent Interiors series, John Citizen has become his own artist as if he no longer needs the inspiration of Gordon Bennett. Gordon Bennett has made paintings of the interior, but their deconstructions of the myths of Australia’s colonial history were altogether different. The interior, a metaphor for both John Citizen and Gordon Bennett of Plato’s cave and other myths of the psyche, is the proverbial stage of identity. However John Citizen’s contemporary Interiors, modernist utopias, placeless rooms with monochrome paintings, have completely foreclosed on Gordon Bennett’s maps of contested colonial identities.

Through his work as Citizen, Bennett therefore finds a way to include the reflective Narcissistic pool alongside his disruptive Heraclitean river, both of which act as topographical markers within the interior of Plato’s cave.

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