Sydney-based artist Jason Wing was the Artist in Residence at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery in July this year, and his exhibition, The Presence of Absence, is a response to the time he spent here exploring the area and researching our historical past.
Jason was struck between the difference in how both Colonial and Aboriginal history are visually represented, and as an artist his aim is to educate and inspire all of us, from government to individuals, to create opportunities for us to question why there is a lack of true and equal representations of our histories …
Hi Jason. How much did you enjoy your residency at the Glasshouse this year?
I think support is critical, and I’ve never felt so supported by an institution before. I’ve had residencies all around the world, so I think this was key. I met the local Aboriginal Lands Council and some significant Aboriginal elders, who took me around and showed me Country … I’m a Biripi man, so this is my Country, but I didn’t grow up in Port Macquarie. I became reacquainted with the community and contributed my skills where I could, and it was really nice to get out of Sydney!
It’s rare for artists to be able to contribute significant chunks of time to their art like this, because most artists have multiple jobs, so it was a luxury for me to come to Port Macquarie and focus on research and artmaking.
You have a mixed ethnic background, with both Biripi and Chinese heritage. How do you weave your cultural beliefs into your art?
There’s a bit of Scottish in there too (laughs). My cultural background is in everything I do; the way I see the world is through all of those lenses. I really focus on my Aboriginal heritage at the moment, because I feel I can actually help implement social change. I’m trying to educate the general public and Aboriginal people, and my ultimate aim is to reach the politicians and hopefully inspire them to change their policies around minority groups.
How did you develop the ideas behind your exhibition, The Presence of Absence?
I had an idea for the show before I arrived in Port Macquarie, but basically when I arrived – I had to throw it all out the window! Residencies are tricky; in one way you can kind of prepare for them, but in another way you can’t. I always like to keep an open mind, and whatever resonates with me is what I focus on. Once I started doing investigative research in Port Macquarie, I realised my preconceived ideas were completely irrelevant – so I started from scratch.
I was fortunate enough to discover that when the Glasshouse building’s foundations were laid, there were a lot of colonial remains found, dating back to two hundred years. This really inspired me, because when I started going through the collection, I began to wonder where all the Aboriginal artefacts were. I came to two conclusions: 1. all the Aboriginal artefacts and remains were removed, or 2. they remain buried.
So basically, I’m trying to tell an Aboriginal history through colonial remains. One thing that stood out to me about Port Macquarie is that colonial history is celebrated in a very significant way, but in terms of a dual history – through graphics, memorials, plaques etc. – there’s a huge disparity between the number of colonial items and Aboriginal items on display in the area. As a Biripi man coming back to Country, it was quite upsetting.
I don’t think this is reflective of the area and the people, because everyone I spoke to was very supportive of Aboriginal culture, and the Lands Council is very active; but it’s government, local and state, who control the purse strings.
A lot of people want to know about the Aboriginal history of a place … the local museum has multiple rooms of colonial artefacts, but one small display of Aboriginal artefacts with no information about where they’re from – no governance, no provenance. When I first saw the Aboriginal display, I was so excited, because it was my ancestors who made these items! But that excitement was quashed when I saw the way we were represented and not really celebrated. The whole show is about celebrating dual histories. The Aboriginal people of Port Macquarie want to celebrate too, but I think there’s a long way to go.
Do you source items used to create your art purposefully, or do you “stumble” across items and decide to incorporate them? In essence, how does your mind work?
(Laughs). You’d have to ask my shrink! To be honest, every single time is radically different. I never really go into something with an idea, but once I go to a place, explore it, meet people, do research, stumble across things … it’s like an artist’s intuition. If it happens, it happens, and you can’t force it. Once I discover an idea, or an idea reveals itself to me, I ask myself what the best medium to convey my message would be. The materiality comes last!
What is the primary message you’ve aimed to convey with The Presence of Absence?
I think what I’d really like people to take away from the show is that while it’s important to celebrate colonial history – and I’m referring to the whole of Australia here, even though this exhibition pertains specifically to Port Macquarie – I really want governments and councils to celebrate Aboriginal culture in an authentic and genuine way. And this also needs to be reflected financially! I want people to walk away thinking that there really is an erasure of Aboriginal culture everywhere, and to wonder what they can do as individuals with their contacts, skills and networks to help celebrate and improve the awareness of Aboriginal culture. It could be as simple as writing an email requesting more public art, or murals … I’d like people to gain a greater understanding of history from an Aboriginal perspective, how this has led to our current situation, and how this can be improved via the “power of one”, whether you’re Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.
Thanks Jason. Interview: Jo Robinson.
See The Presence of Absence at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from 13th Oct – 2nd Dec.