From his studio at the Dasarts Foundation in Amsterdam, Australian artist Christian Thompson has a view of the sprawling gardens of Oosterpark. It’s a long way from his birth town of Gawler in South Australia but he adapts eagerly to cultural differences.
His art has been described by curator Rex Butler as an exercise in cultural cross-dressing and he revels in playing with hybrid iconography – mixing motif peculiar to Australia with camp fashion – to illuminate the conflict between his Aboriginal heritage and urban Australia.
In his studio in Amsterdam, Thompson is listening to Bidjara music (his father’s language) as he starts plotting ideas for new compositions and performances. Adorning the walls are miscellaneous cuttings – video stills from a David Bowie music clip, Vivienne Westwood designs, images of Billy Benn paintings, and photographs of his mother from when she modelled in Sydney in the 1970s. He’s also just finished reading English singer Pete Burns’ autobiography Freak Unique and by his own admission he is “a pop culture junkie”.
These eclectic tastes spawn a slightly confounding practice, which recently caught the eye of British curator David Elliot, the artistic director for the 17th Beinnale of Sydney. Thompson recalls he was “flattered, thrilled and inspired to make exciting work” following the invitation to exhibit at the Biennale.
He is particularly enthusiastic about Elliott using the late ethnomusicologist Harry Everett Smith as a kind of ‘patron saint’. Smith’s research into community-based music – including delta blues, bluegrass, gospel and jazz – which was released in the 1950s during an age of extreme conservatism in the USA, offered, in Elliott’s view, an alternative set of values to the rapidly proliferating mass consumer culture of the time. In Thompson’s view this proposition is timely. “The idea of folk music as a kind of displaced art form resonated very strongly with me as I am working with my own language trying to reintroduce it into the popular sphere.”