Reframing the Enlightenment

18 November 2020
Artist Daniel Boyd transforms museum objects by questioning, even contradicting, their original intentions.
Curator Ann Stephen discusses ‘Pediment/Impediment’, Daniel Boyd's immersive new installation in the Chau Chak Wing Museum's Penelope Gallery.

The artist Daniel Boyd has developed a strong affinity with the Martinique poet and intellectual, Édouard Glissant (1928–2011). For both, the idea of darkness acts as a form of resistance to Enlightenment ideas and the ‘light’ of western civilisation. In his new project Pediment/Impediment, Boyd deploys such opacity to examine the Enlightenment origins of the museum – the subject of the inaugural exhibition in the Penelope Gallery, the contemporary art project space, at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.

So don’t come this way, you will find no monuments. (Don’t sing our land, its song is enclosed in these ditches.) … The lifeless streets haven’t even the charm of ancient things: our past doesn’t belong to us … The favour to grant you, Western mariner, is indeed to read your oeuvre diagonally, to apply other seas to you, other shores, other darknesses … Thus out of the opacity of the world, out of seasonless suffering we surface dreaming of beauty borne to misfortune.
Édouard Glissant, 'On a deficiency of monuments, Poetic Intention', 1969 translated by Nathalie Stephens, 2010

In a career just short of two decades, Boyd has regularly plundered archives and museums for the source material of paintings and installations in order to imagine a decolonising vision. In 2005, he repainted versions of colonial portraits – of captains, governors, kings and knights of the realm – adding pirate patches and copperplate nicknames to these 18th century English colonialists. In 2011 he worked for three months in the British Museum researching the First Fleet collection, as he explains:

I actually used the Endeavour voyage as a starting point. The landscape of Cooktown – where they stopped to repair the ship after they’d hit a reef – was a way to speak about other things too … a way of exploring my great-great grandmother’s connection to that area and her relationship with my great-great grandfather from Vanuatu, Samuel Pentecost.
Daniel Boyd

Boyd’s immersion in the archive coincided with his adoption of an all-over dotted surface in his paintings, which blurred their photographic origins under a curious form of pointillism, like Untitled (MINC) 2012, on display in another exhibition at the CCWM, Coastline.  From then on, all his paintings would be covered by a constellation of globules made from semi-translucent glue that illuminate and refract light across the painted image. Such screens are not mechanical but hand-made and frequently smudged with charcoal or oil paint to conceal as much as to signify. The process produces a tension between the photographic ready-made that Boyd employs and the artist’s touch, which variously animates or darkens with each glutinous drop, as he brings the archival object into the sphere of art.

The all-over dotted surface in his paintings, videos and structures create pinpoints of light and black holes of dark matter. Recently, when Boyd embarked on several architectural projects, most notably a permanent pavilion at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to honour Indigenous Australians killed in war, his dot screen assumed a three-dimensional character, as the fabric of the structure. Its walls, made from small pools of two-way mirrored glass, darken and fragment the surroundings, breaking them down into individual lenses. Boyd’s star-light suggests the deep time of constellations and the role of the celestial sky in Indigenous agriculture, mapping, navigation and ceremony.

For Pediment/Impediment, the artist has veiled the entire Penelope gallery in light and darkness. As the eyes slowly adjust, one can make out a miniature plaster model of the Athenian Acropolis enclosed in a vitrine at its centre. This remarkably accurate tableaux was made in 1895 by renowned German architectural model-maker Henrich Walger for the Metropolitan Museum, and then copied for other museums, like the Nicholson. It is flanked on either side by two trapezoid frames, holding life-sized plaster casts from the university’s collection.

These reproduction copies of classical Greek sculpture were the stock teaching aides of universities, art schools and museums for over three centuries, until abandoned by modernism. Sitting on the dappled mirrored glass, their massive weight dematerialises in shadows, reflections and silhouettes. In the mottled half-light, thetransplanted second-hand versions of western civilisations are occluded, allowing other ways of seeing. These effects are similar to Boyd’s memorial, which, in the words of the artist is “an opaque space where the world we see is not in our own reflection, but the reflection of many”. 


Dr Ann Stephen is Senior Curator, University Art Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article was first published in Issue 26 of Muse Magazine, November 2020. 

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