ARTISTS: Helen Johnson and Michelle Ussher
CURATOR: Ulanda Blair

At different times through Australian history the campsite has been a space for colonial expansion, for political resistance, for nomadic shelter, and for recreation. Far from being neutral or democratic territory, the campsite is shaped as much by cultural values as it is by individual needs and the practicalities of shelter and lifestyle. Integral to this ideological framework is the place of landscape, and what it means to occupy Australian land in a physical, social and political sense. Comparing Indigenous readings of the land as intrinsic to the idea of ‘self’, and Western understandings of the natu- ral landscape as a resource to be harnessed, we can begin to recognise how the campsite is a potent occupation of Australian space. 

Helen Johnson and Michelle Ussher’s site-specific installation The only thing you taught me was the only thing you know, 2006 considers the symbolic significance of campsites, their appropriation as instruments for political resistance, and the aesthetics and impact of such protests in the contemporary Australian moment.  More than a straightforward critique of European invasion or of the ritualistic nature of recreation, the installation highlights the role of community and communal living in Aboriginal Tent Embassies, and the parallels between makeshift communities such as these and early colonial settlements. 

Developed specifically in response to the historic Royal Exhibition Building and also to recent developments within the Australian Indigenous rights movement, the multi-faceted installation interrogates the occupation of native and acculturated landscapes, as well as the economies of leisure and resistance.  

Historically, the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne has played a prominent role in framing and disseminating colonialist nation-building ideologies. Purpose-built in 1880 for Melbourne’s first International Exhibition, the monumental structure initially housed a six-month long display of Victoria’s most prized and innovative cultural, industrial, scientific and technological artefacts. Eight years later the building hosted the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition, a lavish event that celebrated a century of European settlement in the Australian colonies, whilst in 1901 the sovereign Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated with the first Parliament of Australia convening there. Over a century later, in 2004 the Royal Exhibition Building became the first man-made structure in the country to be granted a World Heritage Site classification, being one of the few major nineteenth century exhibition buildings to survive worldwide. Earlier this year Australian Prime Minister John Howard officially welcomed the Australian Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II to the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games at a soiree in this landmark Australian building. 

Significantly, as Her Royal Highness entered the building on the 15th March 2006, approximately 500 Aboriginal protesters, campaigning as the Black GST (Genocide to end, Sovereignty acknowledged, Treaty to be made), congregated on the manicured lawns outside, disrupting yet another celebration of White Australian patriotism. This group, part of the larger protest located at a site in Melbourne’s King’s Domain parklands known as Camp Sovereignty, carried placards that dubbed the sporting event the “Stolenwealth Games”. For a brief but decisive moment, the (television-viewing) world’s attention was drawn away from sport and reality TV to concerns surrounding Australia’s Indigenous community. Back at Camp Sovereignty, a sacred fire ignited from ashes at Canberra’s long-standing Aboriginal Tent Embassy burned stoically. 

In The only thing you taught me was the only thing you know, Johnson and Ussher insert the mobile, organic, and collaboratively assembled architecture of temporary structures, along with their attendant activist philosophies, within the monolithic, colonial and permanent structure of the Royal Exhibition Building.  By reactivating anthropological images of Indigenous Australia sourced from retrograde photographic books, and juxtaposing these drawings with a chaotic bricolage of domestic, readymade materials such as tarpaulins, tents and furniture, the artists impart a self-consciously constructed and fragmented vision of post-colonial Australia that is at once imaginative and strategic. For Johnson and Ussher, the ephemeral and complex folds and spaces of Aboriginal Tent Embassies provide a useful and critical aesthetic contrast with the sanctioned spaces of a colonial society.  

More importantly, the campsite is presented in this context as a possible entry-point into issues of White / Indigenous race relations from the problematic position of privilege within John Howard’s culturally revisionist ‘modern world’, where Indigenous history and values are excluded and undermined in the public sphere and conspicuously absent in the established education system.  

Ulanda Blair, 2006