Christian Thompson: ''Now that I’ve seen the work, I’m like, ‘I only ever want to do VR’.''CREDIT:SIMON SCHLUTER
Christian Thompson had never considered using virtual reality as a medium to make art. Photography, sculpture, performance, sound and video have served him extremely well, allowing him to say all he needed to about race, gender, sexuality and cultural hybridity.
Thompson is often the subject of his work – not out of any narcissistic urge (he is, paradoxically, shy) but as a vehicle for ideas. His intense and transgressive self-portraits mash up elements of his Aboriginal heritage with references to Australia’s colonial past, and play with binaries of city and bush, male and female, the earthly and the supernatural.
He has photographed himself crowned with garlands of native flora; encased in a hoodie patterned with Aboriginal motifs, cascading strands of pearls concealing his face; cone-headed and coated in black paint, his eyes covered with eerie white contact lenses.
He leaves adornment behind in his haunting, stripped-back three-channel video Berceuse (2017), appearing in a simple black top, singing in his traditional language, Bidjara, the camera focusing without compromise on his face, his lips, his piercing brown eyes. Like his photographs, it’s a potent work, and I wonder what virtual reality could possibly give Thompson that other mediums have not.
‘‘It’s funny, I had no interest in VR,’’ he admits. ‘‘And then my friend, Marina, she’s a performance artist … ’’ he says, breaking into a wry laugh. His friend needs no introduction: Marina, as in Abramovic.
‘‘We caught up in London, and she was like, ‘oh, do you work in VR?’ And I said, ‘no, I don’t work in VR’. And she goes, ‘you should work in VR’, and I went, ‘oh, I don’t really work in VR’. And she was like, ‘work in VR’, and I went, ‘OK, I’ll work in VR’.’’
Thompson’s rendition of the exchange is so well timed that I can virtually hear Abramovic’s deep, deadpan voice ordering him to take up the medium. In his self-portraits Thompson seems so serious and aloof that it’s a relief to find him playful and droll. But then, his work has also been spiked with humour – he once mimicked a self-portrait of fellow artist Tracey Moffatt posing with Nikon camera, hair held back by a chic head scarf and wearing diva-large sunglasses. He titled the work In Search of the International Look (2005).
After Abramovic planted the seed about branching into VR, Thompson applied for a Mordant Family VR Commission – a $240,000 benefaction from Sydney art collectors and philanthropists Catriona and Simon Mordant that has helped fund three Australian artists to make their debut in the medium. Thompson was the first to be commissioned and the result is the seven-minute work Bayi Gardiya (Singing Desert), which premieres at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image on May 1.
Virtual reality can be a powerful portal into the lives of others, a means of building empathy and understanding, and Thompson’s work will transport audiences to a place of great significance to him, allowing them to virtually walk around a creek called The Sixth Mile, in Barcaldine, central western Queensland, a spot he has visited since he was a baby.
Christian Thompson's VR work Bayi Gardiya transports audiences to a creek called The Sixth Mile.CREDIT:CHRISTIAN THOMPSON
‘‘My earliest memories are of being dipped in the water in that creek by my great-aunts,’’ Thompson says. ‘‘I’ve got photos of me as a baby being lifted up and plunged in the water, so it almost has a religious connotation, a spiritual, baptismal [connotation], but not in the Christian sense of the word. So for me it’s a very sacred place.’’
Thompson grabs his iPhone and shows me takes from the new work. Light streams through the window of the Collingwood cafe where we meet. Against the glare, I make out tiny dots flickering across the screen. Fireflies, Thompson says. From the darkness a landscape emerges, the sky blushing into dawn. I see a river and on its banks trees shimmer into being. The landscape seems alive, pulsating and undulating, a sweeping panorama of rocky escarpments and riverbed. Day turns into night, night to day, trees appear and disappear. It’s a mesmerising scene, set to the melancholy sound of Thompson singing in Bidjara.
His voice is deep and hypnotic, and it’s not surprising to learn that among his many academic achievements he trained in opera while studying performing arts at DasArts in Amsterdam in the late 2000s. As he enters his 40s, he increasingly feels his duty as a custodian of his culture, particularly the preservation of Bidjara, a language that is considered extinct.
‘‘I’ve taken that on as a kind of cultural responsibility, to use the art world as a space to archive and present language in a way that’s dynamic, futuristic, innovative. If I speak or sing one word in my language, you can’t describe it as a dying language,’’ he says.
‘‘My father grew up speaking Bidjara before he spoke English. So we grew up knowing ‘dukine’ is goanna, ‘bubine’ is echidna, ‘gamu’ is water, ‘muntha’ is bush bread, and ‘wamba’ means crazy,’’ he says, laughing.
Although Thompson’s family has been connected to Barcaldine for more than 100 years, the Bidjara people’s traditional country is around Charleville and the Carnarvon Gorge, which will also be shown in the VR work. The Thompsons’ link to Barcaldine has an astonishing back story.
‘‘My great-great-grandfather [Charles Andrew Thompson] bought a plot of land in Barcaldine by usurping the authorities of the time, by telling them he was an Afghan. This is before political activism, this is before we had any kinds of rights, and before they realised that he was actually Aboriginal, he was like, ‘sorry, please get off my land’,” Thompson explains.
Thompson seems to have inherited his ancestor’s foresight and fortitude. In 2010, he made history when he became one of the first two Indigenous Australians to study at the University of Oxford, gaining a PhD in fine art. He is currently a research affiliate at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum and divides his time between Oxford and Melbourne. And yet his work, he says, resonates most in Australia. He feels he has conquered the international scene and now his responsibility is to family and tradition.
‘‘It’s called becoming an old boiler,’’ he says self-mockingly.
While his status in the international art world is secure, I wonder whether VR might draw a broader and perhaps non-arts audience to his work.
‘‘Well that’s kind of true,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s a very interesting medium. It’s got one foot in two different worlds – the art world and the screen-based technology world, and I love that. It’s a totally different way of working. I’d never worked with such a big team of people before.’’
About 15 people were involved in creating Bayi Gardiya, including teams from Sydney VR firm Nakatomi and Melbourne’s Electric Dreams Studio.
‘‘My job was to stay focused on making sure that it’s a conceptually robust and well-rounded work, and not for the technology to overwhelm the premise of the work,’’ Thompson says.
The team travelled to The Sixth Mile and meticulously photographed the area, using the images as references to create an animated, virtual rendition of the landscape.
‘‘We photographed a 400-metre stretch of the creek, and we just sort of went, click, click, click, step, click, click, click, step, and we did aerial views,’’ Thompson says.
‘‘In the middle of the project after eight trillion meetings and flying out there, and doing all of that, I was like, ‘oh my god, I never want to do another VR project ever again’, and now that I’ve seen the work, I’m like, ‘I only ever want to do VR’. I feel it captures all of the different elements of my practice – the visual, the sculptural, the sonic, the spatial, the conceptual. Everything is there. It’s a very emotional work.’’
Bayi Gardiya is at ACMI, May 1-23, free entry. Thompson talks about the work on May 12 at 2pm. Free, booking required. acmi.net.au