When Debil Debil opens in April 2013, it will be twenty years since Tracey Moffatt’s feature film, beDevil, first screened in Australia. It was a revolutionary work of cinematic art that told three stories of ghostly characters living with, and in between the present, and the past. Its presence in this exhibition marks a point in our history. Since then, conceptual art work that tackles difficult matters of history and the self has flourished.

The artists and filmmakers who have contributed to Debil Debil have each tackled the problematic presence of the ghosts of the past in a distinctive and powerful way, drawing uniquely on Australian history, colonial tropes, landscapes, our families of fauna and flora, indigenous history, feeling, and disturbing visions that reach into our lives.

The title, Debil Debil, is a reference to several characteristics of the work of this group. We have observed with great interest that the subjects of many of their works are recognisably characters from the dark past of frontier anthropology and history in Australia, sometimes human, sometimes ancestral, but always carrying multiple meanings. The power of these works is that, while appearing to reference a very modern present, they glance back, creating a tension, anxiety or a lack of resolution; and all the while showing what is and might have been. Their work delves into the past to resurrect not just history or ghosts, but reinterpretations of the self, place and the present, and grand visions.

Art breaks the boundaries of reality, or, at least, permeates them, creating fuzzy entries and exits to and from places in the mind and places in the world around us. In the marvellous Dictionary of Imaginary Places, the authors explain some of their dicta for carefully choosing places imagined in fiction rather than merely concealed or disguised:
 “This victory of the imagination (or common sense) over duty, over the restrictions of factual truth, is of course rare.  The world we call real has deadlocked boundaries in which the long-established principle that two bodies (let alone two mountains) cannot occupy the same place at the same time is rigorously observed.”[i]

Artists, however, are able to persuade us of the existence of phenomena that lie beyond the boundaries of ordinary perception and it is the imagined world, summoned from Australia’s ancient past by some of the heirs of its unique philosophies that we hope to capture in this exhibition.  The evocation of emotional states and varieties of states of being, the imagination of the other; all of these are mysteriously ‘sensed’ and something other than the merely physical in our being is called upon in the work of ‘seeing’ art. Darren Siwes says this so well: “I see my work residing somewhere between the truth and a hypothetical.”

The artists responded to our invitation brilliantly. The works give us a sense that we are knocking at the door of the great unknown with little expectation of an answer. Yet, the dead speak. Lacan reminds us, “Now the real problem with the dead is that you cannot shut them up.” [ii]

Warwick Thornton has imagined a priest, a cowboy and a policeman, but not as we have ever seen them before. They rise up out of his being and his homeland as colonial and postcolonial ghosts. In Michael Cook’s work, Aboriginal Australians are dressed in the fashions of four European countries that visited Australia before and in the early stages of colonialisation: Spain, The Netherlands, England and France. Cook asks ‘what makes a person civilised?’ His imagined historical characters speak to this question with wit and charm. Brook Andrew problematises space and time. Not all is serious, however. Destiny Deacon’s undead characters speak to her memory of her brother in childhood and his fear of vampires. Sibling stalking is as much a family tradition as any other and deserves to be the subject of art.

There is much to be investigated in the works in Debil Debil. Brook Andrew, Gordon Bennett, Daniel Boyd, Michael Cook, Destiny Deacon, Ricardo Idagi, Danie Mellor, Tracey Moffatt, rea, Darren Siwes, Christian Thompson, Warwick Thornton, and Nawurapu Wunungmurra: they have shared themselves, the characters and places from their heritage, and re-enchanted our world.

[i] As cited in, David L. Clark, Schelling and Romanticism. Mourning Becomes Theory: Schelling and the Absent Body of Philosophy, McMaster University; URL accessed 25 June, 2005: http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/schelling/clark/clark.html
[ii] Manguel, Alberto, and Gianni Guadalupi. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.

Marcia Langton AM