Christian Thompson can do a marvellous impression of the performance art luminary Marina Abramović.
The Australian artist was one of 12 selected by Abramović for her 11-day Sydney residency in June, held with Kaldor Public Art Projects, during which he showed her a work-in-progress. The video piece called Dead Tongue featured himself singing in his father’s Indigenous Australian language of Bidjara, of the Kunja nation in central Queensland.
“No, get rid of music,” says Thompson imitating a brusque Abramović and her staccato, accented English. He says she loved the work but was adamant: “You don’t use music. Just language.”
Thompson mimes a furious taking of notes. “I was like: get, rid, of, music.”
Her advice merely confirmed his own doubts – that perhaps the music was too melancholy, overpoweringly so. Including a language that “doesn’t really exist any more” was already a powerful thing in itself, he says. Bidjara has been categorised extinct by the global languages catalogue Ethnologue.
But as Thompson says: “The language isn’t really dead if it’s being spoken, even if one word of it is being spoken.”
The live-in residency was held on the top floor of Sydney’s Pier 2/3 and not only included one-on-one sessions with Abramović but a “very regimented sort of program”, Thompson says, including workshops and talks, and in the second week an intensive period of art-making.
Participants also interacted with the Marina Abramović method, during which he spent six-and-a-half hours separating out a pile of black lentils and white rice. “After a while your ears go into white noise – sort of this ‘eeeeeeeee’ – then you regress into your memories, into your childhood. It’s quite amazing. I kept thinking my grandmother would be so proud of me, which is the most random thing. All of a sudden this internal voice becomes a lot clearer.”
Few are as persistent with the rice and lentil sorting as Thompson was, and he says there was a “bit of a buzz” in the room when he finished. Later on he told Abramović, expecting her to be at least a little impressed, but who, with cool nonchalance, simply replied: “Yeah? Oh, good.”
But Thompson says the most confronting task was looking into the eyes of a stranger. He’s not certain how long he did so, perhaps 30 minutes, but describes it as a “really uncomfortable” experience.
“There were moments of complete seriousness and uncontrollable giggling and not knowing where to rest my eyes. I kept thinking: just look at the eyebrows, look at the sideburns, move your eyes into different places.”
He spotted the man – whom he remembers only as “wearing glasses and with sandy hair” – two or three days later. “I just ran away,” he says. “I felt like we’d said a lot to each other but without actually speaking.”
The photographer, sculptor and performance artist is based in London and in 2010 became the first Aboriginal Australian to be admitted into Oxford University in its 900-year history, completing a doctorate of philosophy in fine art. His works tackle identity, colonialism and culture, but often have a touch of flamboyancy and kitsch in their execution, from tacky, knitted sweaters to self-portraits wearing flower crowns and a fascination with crystals.
His piece from the Marina Abramović residency, Dead Tongue, builds on a number of previous works, including 2010’s Gamu Mambu (Blood Song), 2011’s Dhagunyilangu (Brother) and 2014’s Refuge, now showing as part of a curated retrospective at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney.
In them, Thompson has paired his family’s Bidjara language with pop and operatic music, borrowing from the “pigeon Bidjara” taught by his dad as well as word lists from historical archives. He asked his father if there were any traditional songs left, and when he said no Thompson decided to simply write his own.
Inevitably, most of those looking at the video work fail to recognise the language being sung, and in the past have asked him if it is Italian, French, German or even Asian languages such as Malaysian or Indonesian. “I like the idea of giving [the language] away and it being interpreted through the genre of opera, which I guess in western society is revered as a very high art form.”
Collection+ Christian Thompson is showing at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation until 12 December