Gordon Bennett

Tribal Object (After Lázló Lakner)


In Tate Modern

Level 3: A Year in Art: Australia 1992

Level 3: A Year in Art: Australia 1992
Gordon Bennett 1955–2014
Etching on paper
Image: 195 × 148 mm
Presented by Leanne and Caitlin Bennett in memory of and admiration for Gordon Bennett 2019


This is one of twelve soft-ground etchings on paper that make up the portfolio How to Cross the Void 1993 (Tate P15027P15038). Two of these – Blue Retreat (Tate P15030) and Through the Void (Diving Board) (Tate P15033) – are also hand-tinted with watercolour. In each case, the image is printed on a much larger sheet of paper with wide margins all around. Although the prints are mostly figurative, some elements of geometric abstraction appear in the form of floating shapes. Handwritten annotations which were incorporated in the etching phase of the process suggest that several of the works were intended as studies or proposals for larger paintings, sculptures or installations. This preparatory intent was confirmed by Leanne Bennett, the widow of the artist, who has stated that the portfolio was based on a visual diary of drawings created during a residency in France as part of the Moët & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship, that Bennett carried out between 1991 and 1992. With its programme of artist presentations, debates and international symposia, Gordon Bennett considered this residency a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to observe, reflect, and document a plethora of ideas that would manifest into major artworks on his return to Australia’ (Leanne Bennett, email correspondence with Tate curator Katy Wan, 21 October 2018). The decision to realise and disseminate the initial drawings as a print series indicates the seriousness of Bennett’s undertaking.

Two of the prints correspond with larger, sculptural works by Bennett that were both premiered as part of the ninth Sydney Biennial in 1992: Created by Flux (Tate P15031), with its depiction of a dressing table in which the three drawers are respectively labelled ‘SELF’, HISTORY’ and ‘CULTURE’, was realised as the installation Self Portrait (Ancestor Figures) 1992 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney). I Too Am an Apostle of Silence (Tate P15028), which shows the proposal for a ‘profile of an aboriginal person on paper’ to be shown in a jar and exhibited in a display cabinet, became the sculptural assemblage Self Portrait (Heritage) 1992 (estate of the artist). A third print, Culture Bag (Tate P15032) developed into the sculpture The Real Value of Art (Culture Bag), and was exhibited at the thirteenth Sydney Biennial in 2000.

The series of prints reveals how Bennett’s conceptual practice was informed by his readings of prominent figures of both postcolonial theory and art history. The print Angels includes a quotation from the writer and academic Marianna Torgovnick’s influential book Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1991): ‘a level of abstraction, a discourse of self and other, with which we become familiar in our books and classrooms, but which rarely feel on our pulses’. In the notes on Culture Bag, Bennett quotes the Belgian artist René Magritte (1898–1967): ‘The real value of art is a function of its power of liberating revelation. And nothing confers on the artist any superiority in the order of human work. The artist does not exercise that priesthood that bourgeois duplicity alone tries to confer on him.’ The Hungarian conceptual artist Lázló Lakner (born 1936), who was engaged in questions around the meanings of definitions of art, is referenced in the print Tribal Object (After Lázló Lakner). In invoking these individuals, Bennett gave an indication as to the anti-establishment theories he was engaged with on his residency in France, and the wider framework of interpretation through which he wished his work to be seen.

This set of How to Cross the Void is number twelve in an edition of twenty. Other editions are in the collections of Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide; Griffith Artworks, Griffith University, Brisbane; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane; and several private collections. The original drawings on which the prints are based have remained with the estate of the artist.

Further reading
Gordon Bennett, ‘The Manifest Toe’, in The Art of Gordon Bennett, Sydney 1996, p.58.
Prism: Contemporary Australian Art, exhibition catalogue, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation, Tokyo 2006, pp.44–55.

Katy Wan
November 2018

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Display caption

Bennett depicts an axe with a book in place of the blade. This book-turned-weapon may refer to how British settlers sought to erase the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by imposing their Western customs, including Christianity and the English language: a violence perpetrated through Bibles and dictionaries. Bennett refers to this as ‘the bludgeoning effect of cultural imperialism.’ This sketch is based on a sculpture by László Lakner, a Hungarian conceptual artist who made a series of books closed shut with rope, including one turned into a similar axe sculpture.

Gallery label, July 2021

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