DETAIL: Michael RILEY, 'Untitled from the series cloud [feather]' Cloud series Feather 2000, printed 2005 Photograph chromogenic pigment print Ed: 1/5 NGA 2005.294.5, Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Riley Foundation and VISCOPY, Australia

THEME : INTRO | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | AUDIO TOUR | ALL

LISTEN to AUDIO | 256K | 56K  

Djon Mundine
Brenda L Croft

flyblown was first shown at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne in November 1998 and closely echoed the imagery in the film Empire, which was shot at the same time. During its showing Riley met with musicians Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, who were in the early stages of writing the music for Rachel Perkins’ film One night the moon. The initial intention had been for Riley to also work on the film, but by that stage he was already constrained by the weekly dialysis in Sydney that his illness required.

In 1999 Gabrielle Pizzi curated an exhibition by Indigenous photo-media artists for the al latere section of the 48th Venice Biennale, which included a selection from flyblown. Oltre il mito [Beyond myth] was shown in the beautiful giardini of the Palazzo Papadopoli, on the Grand Canal, and the artists’ works were displayed in the gardens during the day and projected on the palazzo wall at night. This looked incredibly cinematic when viewed from passing vaporetti [water buses] or from the other side of the canal.

The images in the series flyblown reflect the ways in which the problems of colonialism persist in our contemporary landscapes. The evidence of failure is not just in the burial sites of massacres, or even in the ongoing ecological damage, but rather that we still have no answers to the questions of how can we all live together in this place. Our presence in this place has consequences. The images in flyblown can evoke feelings of the uncanny nature of the Australian sun and heat. The flameless summer light can become an all-consuming yellow. At night the only witness is the distant but ever-present cicada, whose restless chorus offers little redemption.

This installation involves five panels, each composed of pairs of images that conjure up the gaping extremes of the Australian landscape. A dead galah on a dusty and cracked track; boundless skies with murky waters; hybrid wheat fields rustling in the wind; blood red, grey and blue crosses dominating the foregrounds; and a Bible floating, as if in the position of a dead man, on a shallow riverbed – these haunting images arrest all sense of time. The landscape hovers somewhere between life and death. The story of colonisation is being told from a different perspective in these panels. They have the elegiac qualities that inspire a sense of reflection and humility that is common in much religious iconography. This calm note of destruction is the opposite of the alarmed shrill of protest, but the resonance is more reaching. These gentle and somber images can have a haunted quality.

The still images Riley created spoke to his films. This can most clearly be seen in the photographic series flyblown and cloud, and their reflection in the sumptuous experimental film Empire. Quest for country is a further meditation on the abuse of settler culture on the environment.

Riley’s earlier photographic essays, Sacrifice (1993) and the evocative short film Empire (1997), deal with the broad but brutal issues of the ‘black armband’ – true facts – of Australian history. This is the history of a colonialism beginning with cursory sightings, then violent exchanges, wars and massacres, followed by the saving and assimilation of the Aboriginal survivors by Christian missionaries. Presented here is the history of ‘clearing the land’, to wipe clean and rewrite; of Aboriginal people being murdered or forced from the land and onto missions and reserves; the gun or the crucifix; crosses, prayers, stigmata, dark fishes, Bibles, water, cracked earth; the death of the environment in Christian overtones; and biblical plagues – drought, locusts – a poisoning of the water. As rural industry takes over the physical land, Christian missionary zeal takes the soul of the people.

In the duplicitous photographic constructions of Sacrifice, and later in the series flyblown (1998), its partner film Empire (1997) and finally cloud, Riley continually returns to thereligious imagery of the crucifix and the Bible, coupled with natural elements of the sky, water and earth. In an attempt to resolve the irresolvable, Riley was a pragmatist, interrogating the iconic image. His method is based on distilling the arsenal of signs imposed on and by Aboriginal people, which originated from religious and social-political orders of the day.

NGA Home | Introduction | Themes | Search | Essays | Learning | Visiting | Previous