Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina is a new series of works from Darren Siwes, new in so many ways it could be called a rupture in his methodology. Gone is the time-lapse photography Siwes has made his own, subsumed on this occasion by the solidity of a political proposition. What if a future head of state were Aboriginal? What if the Obama aura that is currently sweeping the USA spread to the land down under? What if, What if? Hope springs eternal.

Siwes’ new series of works is timely, post Sorry Day we must now give ourselves, as a nation, the opportunity of looking forward, pondering if you like new possibilities. In its materialism perhaps Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina is a rupture in Siwes’ methodology but in its consideration of his cultural history this series again questions the combined elements of the artist’s Dutch background and Aboriginal heritage. It is a mix of the classical and the nostalgic, of rule and deprivation, and throughout the legacy of his own work Siwes has contemplated himself as a counterpoint, a nexus even, of these two political positions.

In this combination of Dutch and Aboriginal history we may also augment a discussion
on exchange value. The Dutch of course colonised through trade, setting up that bastion of industry The Dutch East India Company. Its base in Jakarta brought wide spread trade to South East Asia but of course trade with Indonesia was something the Aboriginal people of the North were doing long before the Dutch East India Company arrived. The Dutch and the Aboriginal past give us vivid examples of the power of exchange and its value as a bench mark of worth and respect, and this pursuant of exchange is I think a consistent in Siwes’ work.

In past work his own body has been a transition on the land, here the point of exchange was the landscape and his body. In Siwes’ last series positions of power and subjugation were questioned through the exotic nature of trends and his son’s wish to be brown. Here the point of exchange was again the body, but this time the diffusing of colour as bodily fluid. In Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina the body is once more at the point of exchange, this time in the guise of economic exchange – as the coin.

The coin, as it jingles in our pockets, is easily recognisable for its exchange value.
Perhaps more so it should be recognised for its symbolic value. The coin has a unique place in the history of Australia, for instance its relationship with two-up represents the history of chance and providence in our cultural memory. The coin also has a special symbolic relationship with portraiture. Siwes’ photography has long held a humanist fascination with the classical past, in this series that extends back into the realm of the seal and the profile portraits of Greco-Roman antiquity. Long before the Caesars had their profiles rendered on currency Alexander had discovered the power of the face and its ability to unite, at least symbolically, various tribes under his rule. Alexander’s profile has become uniquely iconic, past down as it has been through antiquity to give us an example of the power of the portrait. The side profile exacts moral rectitude, its upright posture given the head an imperial air, a moral right to power. Interestingly these characteristics are upheld in the Lavater’s pseudo-scientific Essays in Physiognomy.

The side profile also exacts a slight indignation, as if looking down from a superior position. This is a reminder that the worth of the coin is not just measuring economic value but also the worth of the featured imperialist. In his use of the high art veneers of gold, silver and bronze, the artist’s enquiries into the qualities of classical art continue and, as the Olympics remind us, within classicism, metals register a scale of worth in their own right. The gold, silver and bronze of Siwes’ coins cleverly bring to mind another classical rote, that of the Great Chain of Being.

Within this classical imperialist theorem all things in the universe were given their “rightful” place in a chain of order. At the top of the pile was the emperor, king or queen.
Within the human scale first came man, second women, third boy and fourth girl, white was superior to black of course as the Europeans wrote it, and so it went on all the way down to the soil we walk on. In his metallic generational portraits Siwes not only gives us hope of future change but memories of past inditements.

Whether caricatured or genuine, Siwes’ portraits of possibility reference this history of the profile and its associated anthropological theorems. But, with typical Siwes wit, it is
difficult to position them as serious rallying points of change or as subdued irony of the politically inevitable. In Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina there is a serious attempt by Siwes to undermine his own humour, fully acknowledging his own cultural and family history. As equally as high powered profiles, these portraits could be mug-shots, indeed this is where we might encounter these faces in contemporary media, and as such question our stereotypical reactions to cultural representations. In being presented with the obvious entrapments of our own social expectations, Siwes critiques our notions of social class, of economic management and the possibility of cultural change. These are deep, resonating
issues and only a deft hand at dry humour could examine them in the way Siwes has.

The humour in these photographs is only skin deep, reinforcing Siwes’ investigations into his own practice and his ‘respectful’ affair with the camera. By stepping away from his time-lapse photography and his night time, set like theatre documentations, Siwes has created a body of work that is richer and more complex for the move. In creating reliefs as a form of photography Siwes has given us a history lesson on the shift of the portrait’s power from the sculpture of antiquity to contemporary media. These images embrace the tactility of sculpture only to move to the lustre of photography –the very position in which the political power of the image exists today.

Ric Spencer

July 2008