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  • Writer's picture烏べん

When State Power Protects Global Capital: the story behind the S11 portraits

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

S11 was a protest that happened over three days in Melbourne in 2000. It was a blockade of the World Economic Forum meeting being held that year at Crown Casino. At dawn on the last day my friends and I were caught up in a massive police action that left us unhurt but definitely shaken.

There was a huge turnout of ordinary citizens who protested by-and-large in a peaceful manner. Sure the anarchists and hard-core revolutionary socialists were there baiting the cops, but mostly it was a spontaneous festival where parents took their kids and everyone drew colourful slogans in chalk on the barricades that surrounded the casino.

For these works the source photos were all shot on film (back then digital was still uncommon). I shot on an Olympus Myu camera, and sometimes on a Pentax SLR. Originally they were not going to become portraits per se. My dis-ease at the experience compelled me to push and distress these images: enlarging, rephotographing and cropping many times. Gradually I started to slice the crowds into individuals. Some only had the ghostly immanence of a face, like spiritualist photographs of the Madame Blavatsky era. In others, background and foreground information started to blend with features. Riot helmet face shields became a shattering of rain drops or a string of bubbles. The photographic noise was as substantial as the object it represented.

Later, when I found I had a large number of these haphazardly curated mugshots I started make indices of them, trying to separate, categorise and order them. I can't deny the influence of Christian Boltanski's work, such as The Reserve of Dead Swiss. But how should the living of S11 be memorialised? How are they siginifcant? Should I separate them into their roles? Or should they be rehabilitated into a single human family? What was the best way to reveal the power that was operating on all these discrete beings?

In the 20 years since I have done both. I label them according to their roles because this often contrasts to the kind of face you see. Many of the police look shy or ashamed. Others look joyful. Some smirk haughtily, and others glare at the camera with faces twisted by years of violence. Bystanders look worried, or excited and curious, or frustrated. Protesters occasionally shout, some beam happily surrounded by the like-minded. More often than not they are pensive, just waiting.

In addition I have named them all after individual kanji in the Heart Sutra. They are assigned at random to one of the characters in the text. In absence of their real names they have been given a new one; a place-holder for a greater significance than whatever their role on this one day condemned them to.

Many of the kanji are homophones (i.e. they sound the same) so when written in Roman letters they also need a number to distinguish which "ko" or which "sho" they are. The number relates to when the character appears in the text.


To draw and paint photographs in this way I find difficult. Perhaps stupid. I call it post-Photography because I am trying to represent the qualities of the photograph as much as the contents of the image. I'm not using the photograph as merely source material. I am trying to render the way a photograph captures light and shade even more than I am trying to render actual light and shade.

I've spent years looking through viewfinders and worrying about exposures and tonal ranges. To my surprise I can tell if the original photo was shot with a flash, or whether it was printed from a colour negative, based on the marks and tones and textures I've used. What this tells me is that when you work from a photograph it is harder than you think to leave behind the its photographic origins.

People's faces

the first and last thing we see in this life perhaps

we read the human face before all other texts

it is the arche-type-face, the original visual language

We see faces in disorded visual fields very easily: clouds

rust, a pile of junk

and a deep sense of satisfaction in finding and revealing them

These are specific people

They have existed

Events fading to memory

the image degrading

my poor handwriting difficult to decipher

existence dissolving into non-existence

their names are not important

when I repaint them they become family

In technical terms, my painting style is similar to flower-arranging. I allow marks and media to be themselves, accumulating until they have the resemblance I require. There is draughtsmanship but it is not imposed on the materials as in a photographically realistic drawing or painting. My need is for a certain balance between resemblance and the rawness of individual marks or collections of marks. I also like to call them passages or communities of marks. Their resemblance is not only to the person in the original, but also to the texture of the source photograph.

The photos I work from don't have a lot of detail. They are somewhat cold and impenetrable. Very often the eyes and other features are just pools of shadow. They become skull-like. The painting and drawing seems to reinvest them with life and detail that is not present in the photo. The detail is not physical information about the person; I am not remembering things about how they look that were lost. The detail is just the process of painting, but it 'fleshes them out' in a new meaning of that phrase. The movement of my hand seems to reinvigorate them. Moreover, each time I redraw/repaint the same face, a slightly different familial likeness is revealed. It seems too that this familial likeness is different and specific for each viewer who sees my work.

The painter Marlene Dumas has said that "second-hand images can generate first-hand emotions." There is something of that ethos at work in these portraits. More than emotions though, I think I'm dealing with decay and renewal; emptiness-and-chaos and then something coming from emptiness-and-chaos.

I look at faces in the street or in the media, and am forever struck by how they remind me of someone. Not themselves but someone else, someone I've known before. No-one is who they are, we are all someone else first.

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