Artist Study – Christian Thompson

Christian Thompson is a trained sculptor and is one of the first 2 Aboriginal Australians to attend the University of Oxford. His conceptual practice engages a range of mediums including photography, sound, video, performance and music. He holds degrees from: Amsterdam School of Arts, RMIT Melbourne and the University of Southern Queensland. He is represented in state and national collections and has exhibited across Australia, Asia, USA and UK.

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Christian Thompson, Australian Graffiti, Yellow Kangaroo Paw, 2007

I encountered this Thompon’s work at Photo London this year and immediately recognised issues of identity and ‘exploration’ through its visual language. He appeals to me because of the uniqueness of his experience as a creative individual and how he unafraid to practice in methods he did not initially train in. Also, he has been able to control his environment (studio photography) and change the element related to the photograph’s title.

I have selected him for my study because my topic is of a slightly personal agenda and I have to strive for this level of clear visual communication, across all my images. Whilst I am not really a studio photographer, I can draw from the technique of maintaining a constant background/setting within my own project. This approach will help me to see if this would make my visual communication clearer.

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Christian Thompson, Museum of Others (Othering the Art Critic, John Ruskin), 2016

I am looking at The Museum of Others, 2016, because it is a series on identity with an unconventional approach. Thompson engages with history in a cultural context, combines his biography with research and reflection, emphasises and reveals hidden narratives whilst going deeper than critiquing a museum’s display. He challenges the content of museums on such a topic as well as the process of putting together a body of work on a topic.

Below are my 3 key images for visual analysis.

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Christian Thompson, Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook), 2016
  • The lighting in this image creates quite a moody atmosphere.
  • The main focal point of this image is the face of James Cook in the centre.
  • The lighting of the photograph where the artist is in has been lit in the studio. The canvas panels of the person in question have possibly been painted and so this lighting question would be irrelevant. The light between the two separate parts of the image have been carefully considered so the shoulders of Thompson seamlessly flow into Cook’s despite the outfit change.
  • This is not a typical image by Thompson. In his previous art work, he has more of his body visibly present, especially his face. In this series, his face is concealed by the person in question and only his eyes come through.
  • Thompson’s intentions are to dialogue with the assumptions of this explorer who encountered Australia so many years ago and categorise him from a Native Australians perspective then and now.
  • This image is in square format and has been composed with a strong sense of balance with only the bottom of the image filled to its edge. The foreground is filled with Thompson’s physical presence, the background is relatively empty, leaving room for me as a viewer to consider the texture of the background. It is reminiscent of tree back which implies a sense of nature/natural landscape and how notorious the Aborigines’ people are for living harmoniously with nature.
  • I think this is a very successful image. The clear content and visual language as well simplicity but ingenuity make it work.
  • This image tells a very sad story. A story where a British man decided to ‘explore’ a land that did not belong to him in a time where colonialism and imperialism were synonymous with a country’s greatness. This image is the first chance to see through the eyes of the Natives and how it felt to explore the ‘explorer’ who was but a stranger, intending to do them harm.
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Christian Thompson, Museum of Others (Othering the Ethnologist, August Pitt Rivers), 2016
  • The lighting in this image creates quite a moody atmosphere.
  • The main focal point of this image is the face of August Pitt Rivers in the centre.
  • The lighting of the photograph where the artist is in has been lit in the studio. The canvas panels of the person in question have possibly been painted and so this lighting question would be irrelevant. The light between the two separate parts of the image have been carefully considered so the shoulders of Thompson seamlessly flow into Rivers’s despite the outfit change.
  • This is not a typical image by Thompson. In his previous art work, he has more of his body visibly present, especially his face. In this series, his face is concealed by the person in question and only his eyes come through.
  • Thompson’s intentions are to dialogue with the how this ethnologist classified the Native Australians so many years ago and re-classify him from a Native Australians perspective then and now.
  • This image is in square format and has been composed with a strong sense of balance with only the bottom of the image filled to its edge. The foreground is filled with Thompson’s physical presence, the background is relatively empty, leaving room for me as a viewer to consider the background. It is of flowers, which implies the importance of the nature/natural landscape and how notorious the Aborigines’ people are for living harmoniously with it.
  • I think this is a very successful image. The clear content and visual language as well simplicity but ingenuity make it work.
  • This image tells a very sad story. A story where a British man decided to ‘classify’ a people he had only heard stories of, by biased Britsh men. It also implies a sense of dominance and superiority on Rivers’s part. This image is the first chance to see through the eyes of the Natives and how it felt to classify the differences between the British and the Aborigine’s from a different worldview.
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Christian Thompson, Museum of Others, Equilibrium, 2016
  • The lighting in this image creates quite a moody atmosphere.
  • The main focal point of this image is the circle in the middle hiding Thompson’s face.
  • The lighting of the photograph is artificial (studio).
  • This is not a typical image by Thompson. In his previous art work, he has more of his body visibly present, especially his face. In this series, his face is concealed by a circular object which allows the texture of the background to come through.
  • Thompson’s intentions are to dialogue with the principle of equilibrium by using a visual and mathematical tool (circle) in the context of identity for the Native Australians. Circles have no beginning and end and in a way, it looks like something has come full circle or will continue to be as it always was.
  • This image is in square format and has been composed with a strong sense of balance with only the bottom of the image filled to its edge. The foreground is filled with Thompson’s physical presence, the background is relatively empty, leaving room for me as a viewer to consider the background.
  • I think this is a very successful image. The clear content and visual language as well simplicity but ingenuity make it work. It is the only image where eyes are not present.
  • This image is quite open ended in contrast to the others in the series. A circle has many uses and is a common symbol for balance, harmony and a cycle.

Artist processes/materials used

Thompson uses a variety of materials to complete this work. He collects a variety of costumes and props and is a bower-bird lover. These props/costumes then feature in the majority if not all, of his work. In addition, this fine art approach was hones by his unique mentor support system. Names such as Marina Abramovic (his mentor) and others who engage in auto-ethnography, research and reflection to interpret historical collections to produce new cultural expressions.

In this series canvas masks were used as a prop and then their eyes were removed and Thompson’s eyes substituted theirs. Information on Thompson’s site about C-type prints implies that these images were shot on Colour (C-41) film, probably large format (studio practice, quite slow) and then processed and printed digitally. They ended up as black and white images and textures were preserved using metallic paper. The square format of the images implies a square medium format camera or severe cropping in post-production reminiscent of the square canvas panels used.

Key elements taken for my own practise

  • Whilst I am not working in the studio for my project, I will slow down my practise to consider composition even more.
  • It is okay to take work in colour and print it in black and white. Colour rules are not as rigid as they used to be (i.e. photojournalism or documentary photography in black and white only).
  • Be very strict in how I present a message so that viewers who do not know what the topic is about can easily guess that from the pictures presented.

Christian Thompson (2016) Available at: http://michaelreid.com.au/art_series/museum-of-others/?artist=christian-thompson (Accessed: 20 November 2016)

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