The bitter politics of sugar

Laura Suzuki on Luke Willis Thompson's recent exhibition Sucu Mate/Born Dead at Hopkinson Mossman

A site can become more than a particular physical bodies might inhabit. It might be a shelter for the souls that reside there, a text which records – or omits—our deaths from its chronicle. It might be time spent communicating through gestures instead of words, the smell of wet air and insect bites in spring, the deathly white of hospice hallways: all the feelings and memories one embeds within it. Luke Willis Thompson’s latest work affirms this process of multiplying and morphing, which might occur where a particular place intersects with the imaginations of those who have come to know it.

Within the project, overarchingly titled Sucu Mate, a graveyard in Fiji extends beyond itself; parts of it disappear and are reinstated, and its lost histories are tentatively uncovered. “Who has the right to repair a nameless grave? And perhaps more interestingly, how does one build or construct that right?” asks Thompson.

Old Balawa Estate Cemetery is built upon a sweeping hillside and is topped by a shady mango tree. According to Thompson, the topography of this picturesque setting is racially codified: the top of the hill is a burial space for white settlers, who managed the sugar corporations of Lautoka, while the graves at the base of the hill are largely those of indentured labourers and their descendants. Thompson has a personal connection here, albeit one that he describes as “very slight”: “It’s a site where my grandmother, uncle, and other various people I’m related to are buried.”

Thompson engaged in a long process of research and dialogue with the Fiji Museum, at the culmination of which he was granted permission for a “very extended idea of what a renovation might be.” This ‘renovation’ involves the removal of several unmarked headstones from the cemetery that have lost their records and have been damaged either by vandalism or time. Thompson’s agreement involves exhibiting the headstones as art objects over a two-year period, at the end of which he is charged with returning the headstones to their original places in Old Balawa Estate Cemetery.

Complex, fraught colonial histories are embedded within all aspects of life in Fiji. After British settlers colonised Fiji in 1874, indentured labourers were transported from other colonies to work on sugar plantations. They often worked under harsh, brutalising conditions. Between 1879 and 1916, the British brought more than 61,000 indentured labourers to Fiji. This history continues to be a source of rupture within Fijian life.

In developing the project, Thompson engaged in a process of thinking about global histories of indentured labour, “Not just as a microcosm of Fiji specifically, but to see where else connections could tether to, and the ways the objects have had this latent conversation with other sugar islands and cities”. Sympathies between Fiji and Queensland (the location of the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial, where Thompson included the first chapter of the project, in collaboration with the artist Fiona Amundsen) readily present themselves through Thompson’s work. The thousands of indentured labourers, who were brought to Queensland by the British to work in the local sugar industry, mirror the movement of those who were brought to Fiji with the same purpose in mind. While most official historical accounts remain imprecise about the methods used to recruit such labourers, oral histories shared across generations include memories of kidnapping, deception, violence, and the trading of women. “My project is a global circulation of a very particular history, which is also painfully common to lots of other sites around the world that have these post-slavery relations or indentured mobilities,” says Thompson.

Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate / Born Dead, 2016. Installation view, Hopkinson Mossman, Tāmaki Makaurau, January 2016

The recent iteration of the project, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, 2016, at Auckland’s Hopkinson Mossman, is informed by minimalist philosophies: “If you think of installations by many of the canonical minimalists, say Carl Andre, or Donald Judd, there’s an interesting way the planarity creates a sense that could even seem egalitarian. These works are always conducted on a flat surface in such a way that each part does something towards a whole. If you then think back to those beautiful hills in Fiji, you might think that a short time in a non hierarchal space like the white cube could be the transgressive thing that is needed.”

Relieved from their placements in Old Balawa Estate Cemetery, the nine headstones form a sweeping line across the floor of the main gallery at Hopkinson Mossman. This arrangement, for me, imbues the work with an added sense of personification. Following each other in a line, these markers stand in for the people whose anonymous deaths they once recorded. The slight curvature of their neat queue creates a sense of impending flux within the space, as though the stones have been halted in transit, preparing to seep, shost-like, through the white wall ahead.

For Thompson, there are separate audiences to consider as his work takes shape. “The comprehensive research, which makes a work like this possible, isn’t actually something that I work on for the art audience. It gets solely given back to the side of the project based in Fiji.” Thompson believes he may have the recovered the identities of those who were buried beneath the unmarked headstones. However, he has no intention of revealing this information in an exhibition context. “I don’t believe my two distinct audiences ever need the same things. There might be crossovers but there are also always things I want to keep from my art-world audience, and aspects to my work the community side don’t want or need,” he says.

Thompson’s selective deployment of information feels crucial to the work, resonating with an active mode of considering the past, one that eschews tidy narratives, while acknowledging the inherent ambiguities and complexities within the site as they continue to unfold over time. For Thompson, the affective relationship between a work and its viewer takes precedence over neatly presented facts. “Your emotions towards the object shouldn’t be solved by the right kind of information or the right kind of permission,” he says. “An artwork’s ethical function should still be difficult even if you know everything about it.”

Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate / Born Dead, 2016. Installation view, Hopkinson Mossman, Tāmaki Makaurau, January 2016

Thompson was awarded the Walters Prize in 2014 for his work inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam (Hopkinson Cundy, 2012). The work invited viewers to take a taxi ride from the gallery to an undisclosed destination. Upon arrival, visitors were invited to enter and explore a suburban house in Epsom, with the exception of the bedrooms. The residential property was emptied of its regular inhabitants, and vet furniture and framed photographs remained, food packets were left on the kitchen shelves, and sundry utensils, knickknacks and other domestic objects littered the window-sills and hallways. Visitors who passed through the space might—or might not—pick up that this was Thompson’s family home. As the Walters Prize Jurors’ statement concluded, “the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion, intimacy and voyeurism were completely blurred”.

After the re-staging of this work for the Walters Prize show at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki in 2014, Thompson flew to New York to participate in the 2015 New Museum Generational Triennial, Surround Audience. For this event, he orchestrated a similar conceptual work, titled Eventually they introduced me to the people i immediately recognised as those who would take me out anyway, 2015, which ran continuously during the triennial. Here, viewers also became voyeurs as they engaged in the pursuit of a silent, “ostensibly black” cast member throughout New York City. The routes taken during the performances varied dramatically, from two-hour trips to the Bronx, to half-hour journeys through commercialised Manhattan. Describing the experience, Thompson says, “It was as if you were at first aping a cop-like figure and then you would realise that actually the ‘targets’ were your only orientation and support, and were actually the ones in power.”

By setting up a changeable and tenuous relationship between the pursuer and the pursued, Thompson’s performances iterate an alternative to the power dynamics taken for granted in the surveillance and policing of coloured bodies in the United States, Indeed, Thompson conceived the New York performances after the victory of David Floyd et al, against the City of New York—a successful class action lawsuit in which the New York Police Department were found guilty of conducting unconstitutional stop and frisks against black citizens. “The exported racism of America was where I started looking. There’s this ten-year plus history of riots or political activity after police kill a young non-white person, which coincides with my adult and artistic life,” he says.

Thompson cites his friendship with Tavia Nyong’o, a cultural critic and Associate Professor of Performance studies at NYU, as a major influence. He refers me to a blog post titled “Bully Bloggers,” which Nyong’o wrote in The Student Demand in November 2015: “Now we actually have to face the question: if black lives, like all lives, matter, then what? Why would (we) expect that answering in the affirmative—yes, black lives do matter—would be the end of it?.. (we) already know that our black lives matter; it’s a rhetorical question!”

Like Nyong’o, Thompson is concerned with the question of what to do next. “How do we re-evaluate aesthetic power and institutional critique after this movement?” Thompson’s work ruminates on this question, and prompts us to do the same. Perhaps artworks, like sites, are always already indelibly marked by the ontologies of separation that form them. While unsettling, this condition is also cause for reflection on the reproduction and mutation of the divisions that shape our experiences.

This year, Thompson will exhibit work at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil. He can’t yet disclose what form the work will take. “I can say that I was invited specifically by Gabi Ngcobo, one of the co-curators of the biennial. She’s someone I worked with in Frankfurt. I’m influenced by her work and hopefully vice versa.” Ngcobo and Thompson were both guests at Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum during a residency in 2013.

Luke Willis Thompson’s first survey exhibition is at Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, in July 2016; the 32nd Bienal de Sāo Paulo: Live Uncertainty opens in September 2016

More from Issue °171, Autumn 2016

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Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

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