Artwork catalogue essay by Steven Rhall

This text accompanies other materials within the compendium that is the ‘art catalogue’ (potentially being held by you or read on a screen right now). My understanding of art catalogues and their various purposes is limited by the ‘art world’ I have experienced, along with the understanding that, like art itself, the catalogue can operate in many ways beyond its (likely) more functional and explanatory purposes and beginnings.

Brad Darkson, ‘Ruled Us, Ruled Us, Ruled Us’ (2023), installation view, Museum of Economic Botany. Photography by Sam Roberts.

When it comes to cataloguing, the functions of natural history museums can be seen as exemplary. They aim to inventory their contents objectively and, in doing so, catalogue the world beyond their boundaries. The museum's connection to the colonial project often influences what is included and how it's catalogued. However, this essay does not explain this relationship or the museum’s support of the colonial project. In my opinion, it’s not the role of First Nations people to carry out such explanations. It's likely, too, that many who encounter this catalogue are already aware of these relationships and associated motives. 

Despite the subjective nature of art catalogues, the "catalogue essay" still tends to have a descriptive function, much like the cataloguing function of a museum. These essays take different routes to unpack and explore the artwork or project that gives rise to the catalogue itself. Although I haven't physically experienced the collaborative artwork, geographical distance shouldn't hinder analysis. The project, as viewed as not confined by a specific location, enables this discussion. 

Brad Darkson invited me to write this "essay" about a project otherwise outside my conscious attention and geographical reach. Nonetheless, through various materials supplied by Brad, I gained a reading of the project otherwise precluded through distance. The reading obtained results from both our subjectivities—how Brad came to frame the work’s components and combined with my subjectivity and the limitations or freedoms it entails.

  • View of exhibition install in Santos Museum of Economic Botany. Three artworks by Brad Darkson. Three digitally manipulated photographs.
  • Brad Darkson's artwork 'botanic coolamon'
  • Brad Darkson's artwork in the Museum of Economic Botany display case.
View of exhibition install in Santos Museum of Economic Botany. Three artworks by Brad Darkson. Three digitally manipulated photographs.

As an exercise to avoid common subjective readings of the art project and to borrow the museum's attempted objectivity, I have employed artificial intelligence to distil some of the project's main themes or outcomes as prompted by Brad’s ‘source material’ yet also via some of my own keywords – such as narrative and authorship – which came to mind as some of the work’s main themes. This approach both aims to reduce the (human) subjectivity that could overwhelm the art catalogue essay, and attempts to mirror the objective, though not entirely and often problematic, functions of the museum.

In addition to supplying my keywords, a ‘subjective’ voice that still emerged in the AI-generated copy was seemingly informed by AI trying to replicate the subjective voice of human subjectivity and, perhaps, through the influence of extant and most common subjectivities about art by First Nations people and of art itself by First Nations people (particularly when intersecting with the colonial project).

A black and white archival film photograph of a large tree trunk.
A black and white archival film photograph of a large tree trunk.
Brad Darkson, 'shelter tree' (2023), film photograph, digitally manipulated. Courtesy the artist and the State Library of South Australia.

In conclusion...

(Suggested) Title: Unveiled Narratives: Duplication, Authority, and Shifting Perspectives. 

Excerpt 1: pertaining to Brad’s 3d bust animation: 

This act of replication raised intriguing questions about authorial power and representation. By positioning himself, an Aboriginal man, alongside physical busts of historical figures within the museum, Brad sought to challenge the established narrative of authority. This deliberate gesture confronted the historical associations tied to colonial perspectives on Indigenous botany, aiming to reclaim space and reshape the discourse. The duplication of Brad's likeness served as a thought-provoking reminder of the historical busts traditionally displayed in museums, symbolising authority and reverence. However, the animated bust disrupted the notion of a fixed and singular author. It embodied the fluidity of identity, potentially reshaping traditional power dynamics within the museum space. This invited contemplation on the multiplicity of voices and narratives that existed beyond the boundaries of historical canon. 

Brad Darkson, 'Ruled Us, Ruled Us, Ruled Us', (2023), installation view, Museum of Economic Botany. Photography by Sam Roberts.⁠

This essay was commissioned by ACE as part of Brad Darkson: Ruled Us, Ruled Us, Ruled Us, a specially commissioned offsite project presented at the Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, 31 July to 6 October 2023.

ACE tampinthi, ngadlu Kaurna yartangka panpapanpalyarninthi (inparrinthi). Kaurna miyurna yaitya mathanya Wama Tarntanyaku. Parnaku yailtya, parnaku tapa purruna, parnaku yarta ngadlu tampnthi. Yalaka Kaurna miyurna itu yailtya, tapa purruna, yarta kuma puru martinthi, puru warri-apinthi, puru tangka martulayinthi.

ACE respectfully acknowledges the traditional Country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pays respect to Elders past and present. We recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land. We acknowledge that they are of continuing importance to the Kaurna people living today.