In these cynical postmodern times artists struggle to find a belief, tradition or even school that might mentor, cultivate or test their talents. Not so Darren Siwes. Acutely aware of his own historical origins, and consciously working a field assiduously mapped by an earlier generation of urban Aboriginal artists, he has developed a unique idiom. This is partly why he has the confidence to stay the distance with the particular theme and format he has worked with since graduating from art school, and why he continues to milk so much from it. Elements of Brenda Croft's photography can be glimpsed in Siwes's compositions, but his aesthetic temperament seems most aligned to the work of Gordon Bennett. Siwes's work is, like Bennett's, very studied, very concerned with pictorial and textual language (immediately evident in the titles of his works), and with themes of philosophy, history, colonialism and a type of post-Aboriginal identity that seeks to move beyond the colonialist essentialising of identities and towards more complex and nuanced postcolonial frames of reference.
One's own place, it is often said, is better seen from a distance. Not surprisingly then, Siwes's work made since his recent return to Australia from a year in Europe (undertaking postgraduate study in London), addresses the typical antipodean theme of the relationship between here and there. If generally Australians and the British agree on the stark differences between the two places, Siwes detects uncanny resemblances - a doubling or echoing alluded to in the title of this exhibition.
Siwes is a master of the uncanny. Lit by a haunting metaphysical light, his dark night images of deserted zones are exemplars of the unhomely. This eerie atmosphere, a trademark feature of Siwes's photography, was first perfected by turn of the (previous) century Symbolist painters such as Bocklin (e.g. his immensely popular Isle of the Dead). As if time-travelers from another era, the ghost like figures in Siwes's photographs appear before us like messengers we cannot hear. Indeed, given their persistent Victorian and Edwardian settings, Siwes's photographs recall the spirit photography of these times, in which spirits of the dead called up in sÃ©ances were photographed for their grieving relatives. However Siwes does not photograph the ghosts of relatives, but the shadowy after-life of history â€“ or more accurately, of Siwes's own historical consciousness. Acutely aware of his Aboriginal/Dutch descent and the global migrations and histories it implies, he is burdened by a corrosive (rather than affirmative) history; and this melancholy fate sets the mood of his artworks.
Like Bennett, Siwes is a 'history painter' (in the traditional art historical sense of the term); though unlike Bennett Siwes adheres more strictly to its original neo-classical premise. His work seems preoccupied by the neo-classical legacy of Australian colonialism. Despite the often modern dress of his models, the setting is invariably the turn of the century neo-classical style of Australian Federation architecture, and particularly its more stolid institutional manifestations that still dominate the city of Adelaide where he grew up and lives. The classicism of his images goes beyond the architectural setting. The strong perspectival space, along with the stark dramatic chiaroscuro and stiffly posed figures, recall the more austere traditions of Renaissance classicism. If Bill Henson is the Rubens of contemporary Australian photography, Siwes is its Poussin.
Siwes's neo-classicism extends to the more esoteric symbolism in his work. Deeply interested in the mystical ratios of ancient Greek thought (e.g. the golden mean) and the legacy of Platonic thought in the racism that informed Australia's coming into being, Siwes discovered the same legacy in European thinking and society during his recent study there. Plato's footprints were all over the place; and his relentless march down the ages echoed all the way to the Antipodes. Plato's artless Republic, a Utopian society of heirarchy and sameness that inspired neo-classical thought of the nineteenth century, is directly referred to in the masks worn by the models in Siwes's photographs. Plato proposed three classes or orders: gold (philosophers, priests, kings), silver (aristocracy and military), and bronze (workers and peasants), and warned against the mixing of these orders. That we can't tell if the masks are gold, silver or bronze is enough to tell us that Siwes's neo-classicism and devotion to 'history painting', is deeply ambivalent. It at once displays an authentic historical consciousness and an ironic attitude towards its lessons. Like Bennett, Siwes uses 'history' against itself; his images deconstruct the historical triumphs of colonialism.
Siwes's obsession with the turn of the previous century (one of his photographs is titled '1901') is not difficult to locate. It is the moment of Australia's Federation, when the White Australia policy became law and South Australian Aborigines lost whatever rights they still had. Siwes's work to date, and in particular this body of work, can be considered an interrogation of this historical moment, as if by imagining himself there he might understand its legacy in his own life. In a sense his photographs are self-portraits â€“ he is the suited standing man in all the images. However they tell us little about the man Darren Siwes. As 'history paintings' these are not about individuals but about wider and more universal forces that comprise the ancient genre of tragedy from which 'history painting' derives. Siwes might be the model of this suited man standing erect, but no matter how strongly we may recognize his Aboriginal features in some of the images, it is an image of anonymity â€“ much like Bennett's alter-ego John Citizen.
More correctly, this image of a suited man vainly seeks anonymity. Whatever Australia's multi-cultural ideal, a person with Siwes's facial features (that figure so prominently in his photographs) cannot, in Australia, escape their Aboriginality. Thus the burden of history Siwes's bears, and the uncanny quality of his figure, as if it stands sentinel like for some loss that cannot be recovered. Unlike most of us, Siwes cannot be anonymous, cannot be invisible. He can never feel at home here, in Australia, as if he is the medium of troubled spirits.
Siwes's desire to feel what it is like to be a white Australian, to be invisible for a while, was an important part of his attraction to living in England. This is why he depicts himself in the background of the photographs taken in England, while in the Australian images he is thrust in the foreground. However Siwes found nowhere to hide in Europe. Like other Aboriginal artists who have spent some time there, he was frequently (mis)taken to be of Middle-Eastern origin. For some otherness is difficult to escape no matter where they are. This is because the same alienating relations of otherness are now ubiquitous across the globe. This exhibition of alternating images from England and Australia tellingly shows how similar the two places are, how even one hundred years ago a white mythology had already spread across the globe.
The success of Siwes's project owes much to its photographic format, because with it he has managed to evoke the texture and nuances of his subject, to make us feel its presence. This is partly due to photography's place in the confluence of historical events that concern Siwes's project. The turn of the previous century, when the British Empire was at its height, and Australia was being forged as a new star in Britannia's crown, was also the era of photography. Siwes even lumbers himself with the limits of nineteenth century photography: large format camera and long exposure times. The stiff poses of his models, the strange emptiness, stillness, and over-exposed light areas of the scenes, and the ghost like figures are all evidence of this. Further, it is difficult to imagine these images in any other format. The central importance of perspective and dramatic chiaroscuro (two of his favourite artists are Piero and Caravaggio) in the meaning of his images locks them into the prehistory of photographic imaging. Thus Siwes's images would not carry the same resonance of meaning if they were either paintings, digital images or videos. That they are modern Cibachrome photographs only enhances his project. It is not just a matter of Cibachrome's superior imaging quality. More important is the highly crafted nature of the photographs so evident in these prints. They have that olden-day feel of being printed by a master-printer; and achieve an aura especially evident in nineteenth century photography: an aura that enhances the very uncanniness Siwes searches for. The resulting fetishistic quality makes his photographs true icons of that absence of place that forever troubles Australian identity.
Ian McLean, 2004