Luke Willis Thompson’s found objects carry heavy baggage. They are loaded with association, either tracing personal connections or significant events. One such example is Yaw (RM Gallery, 2011) which assembled two objects from within his personal orbit, and with them opened a doorway to big issues of racism, slavery and the holocaust.
Sucu Mate/ Born Dead is made up of nine unmarked gravestones standing in a row, cutting across the gallery floor. The wall text informs us that the anonymous headstones come from a colonial sugar plantation cemetery in Fiji for both the workers and managers. Immediately flags are raised regarding indentured labour, and indeed the value placed on both life and labour. Issues of racism and segregation rear their ugly heads. In the place of slavery came exploitation and the abuse of cheap ‘coolie’ labour: neo-slavery.
We are confronted with a history that we may prefer to forget. Are the stones anonymous because no one bothered to name them? Or have any traces simply worn away with time, and records been lost? David Joselit argues that the title of a readymade is what converts it into a work of art. ‘Sucu/born’ and ‘mate/dead’ suggests the brief summary of a life found on a headstone, but when run together, Sucu Mate/ Born Dead, the words imply a hopeless, futile, and short existence.
I have been told these stones are from the Chinese section of the cemetery. Generally Chinese workers suffered the worst abuse, sometimes abducted into indenture, and frequently deceived regarding living and working conditions. In Peru’s offshore guano-mining islands many Chinese labourers, who survived disease and harsh conditions, committed suicide from sheer desperation.
Thompson has explored racial tensions and white privilege before with his work for Between memory and trace, at Te Tuhi in 2012. That installation, seemingly minimal, of three appropriated garage doors, were sites of trauma from the stabbing of Pihema Cameron in Manurewa.
A large format photograph located in the Hopkinson Mossman office area appears to show the same headstones stacked on a pallet, in transit to their current location. In previous work Thompson has relocated his audience out of the gallery, but with this show, (as with Yaw and Between memory and trace), he has dislocated the objects. The headstones can mark a grave, or be art, depending upon their context.
It is my understanding that the headstones have been borrowed, and will be returned to the cemetery. These particular readymades will not retain their art status, just as the house was reverted back to a house after inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam won the Walter’s Prize in 2014. As Thompson has said, things can become artworks, and then they can be “turned back on” to be things.
I’m in two minds as to whether the gallery should have provided more background information about the objects. Perhaps it’s not important. If, as Duchamp would have us believe, art exists in the interface between object and viewer, then what the viewer brings to the object is as significant as the object itself. This exhibition operates on many different levels, dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge of the history of Fiji and of Thompson himself. The autobiographical nature of much of Thompson’s practice suggests a family connection with this specific cemetery, although the personal does not seem to be as significant here.
Gallery staff have probably been primed by Thompson to share background information with those who ask, as they were with Yaw. Approached cold the work still operates as a minimalist repetition of a module, all be it one that has poignant associations. Being anonymous allows the headstones to commemorate the many.