Jenny Brown’s Wink

Jenny Brown’s Wink was a low-key installation of a series of portrait photographs installed on a retro pegboard stand at the front of one of our windows.  There was nothing remarkable about them, a number of snaps or headshots, but then something caught your eye.  They were all winking.

It’s that wink that catches your eye, addressing you, automatically making a connection in a flash of recognition.  It’s hard to wall past a wink without taking a second glance, without wondering whom the wink is addressing.  Who or what is being winked at? Me?  Some object beyond me?  Something addressed outside of the photograph’s frame?  And why are they all winking together?

A wink is simple, and yet complex.  We all think we know what a wink is.  A signal.

A kind of secret accord. Directed, discreet.  Something you do if you don’t want to draw too much attention.  You might wink at somebody across a room, not wishing to disturb the conversations you or they might already be in.  You might wink at someone in the street, when, after making eye contact, you want to acknowledge her or him, without drawing attention.  In some cultures it’s a kind of flirting, the furtive wink of a guy addressing a girl on the street, the wink so fast, delivered just as she is passing, and disappearing as quickly.  It maybe the wink of a friend across the room, a kind of hello, or a signal for an in-joke, sign that some other third person’s leg is being pulled and not to give the game away.  The wink covers all of these things.

Even if you’re not sure it’s directed at you, you know what a wink is, a kind of complicity or understanding, an anticipated mutuality.

So you’re not sure of that person winking was winking at you? Or the person behind?  Do you even know the winker?  Nonetheless, you acknowledge the laws of the wink, in that it, like a letter, has an addressee.  Winking is a kind of messaging.  It may be So, you’re walking down the street of the little country town of Kandos, and there’s a wink in the window.  A whole series of winking people.  You have to ask who or what they are winking at, and guess at what is behind the wink, what complicity.

Who are these winkers and why have they been set up to address those who pass down the street?  The images themselves offer no obvious clues.  Just a bunch of headshots, of males and females winking, of a range of ages from around thirty to fifty.  In a recent exhibition of this series at a Sydney gallery, Jenny Brown attached an explanatory note: indigenous curator, Djon Mundine, had approached Cockatoo Island with the idea of an indigenous arts festival.  Privately he had joked it could just be him, alone on the island, winking at the passers-by.

Sending himself with this gentle irony, he imagines himself as the exhibit, winking to draw attention to himself as an artwork, a minimalist performance intervention.  He’s saying that you don’t have to do much to set up the conditions of the performative; a single gesture will suffice to mark a difference between nothing and something, between something happening, an event, and nothing happening at all.  It is as if hje is suggesting that the minimal condition of difference, of distinction, between just standing there and performing/exhibiting is the exchange with an audience, the passing of minimal meaning, I am addressing you.

Jenny Brown has implicitly run with this idea as the minimum condition of photography, as of art.  As Lacan remarked in respect of what we recognize as amongst the earliest art, the religious icon, its gaze was to attract the attention of God.  The eyes of the icon, in simply looking out, were an act of solicitation – one regard seeking to meet the regard of another, in this case the highest of others, in the form of the diety. The icon could also, however, have been seeking the returning gaze of the worshipper.  It could be said of all painting that they solicit the gaze- they are there to be looked at – but that the portrait, more than a landscape or a still live, explicitly solicits a return gaze.

More so the wink.  It’s out to catch your attention, if only to foreground the function of art, of the photograph, to solicit your gaze, to make you stop and look.  Brown then multiplies her solicitors.  All winking, and why?  You look for differences and similarity, for what links these winkers.

Borrowing from Djon Mundine’s story Brown went to a signifcant opening at Blacktown Regional Gallery celebrating Blacktown’s indigenous heritage.  It used to be called Blackstown.  She set about asking the indigenous artists she knew to wink for her at the camera.  There you had it, a portrait of contemporary indigenous Australia.  You might not recognise everyone, but Djon Mundine with his dreadlocks was instantly identifiable, as was Adam Hill in his pork pie hat.  After scanning the faces you began to surmise that maybe this was the premise – letting you in on the secret, that, yes, we are all indigenous, thought we all might not present as particularly indigenous, but are indigenous by association.

In that collective wink, Brown was assembling a portrait of contemporary indigenous Australia, giving them a shared mutuality, and a status of being in the know.  We might not be sure about what exactly, exactly what this status or this thing is, except that they all share it, and that they are open to sharing.  To giving us the nod, in the wink, so to speak.

What’s important is the return of their gaze, their collective acknowledgement of us.  Initially, they were performing for Brown, giving her a wink of acknowledgement, or acceptance.  Now they are winking at us, the average, everyday passer-by.

In terms of indigenous-Australian relations, it’s a significant gesture.  Like Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Day, it’s about indigenous Australians calling the shots, giving whitey a place, acknowleging back.  After the pain and damage of the assimilationist policy, after the shame of the Stolen Generations, after’s Rudd’s long overdue apology, an apology globally distributed through the opening sequences of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Perkin’s Bran Nue Day with its message of everyone becoming-Aboriginal signalled a major shift.  An apology from whitey is but half the equation.  An apology has need of acceptance and return, and this is what Bran Nue Dae did, it offered regular, ordinary, average Australians of all kinds to be accepted, and implicitly forgiven, by the Aboriginal community.

Wink, even though it is photographed by Brown, of non-indigenous heritage, recreates a similar gesture, one which, even though it is fantasmatic, imagined by her as from the point of view of psychoanalysis’s ‘other’, in this case Indigenous Australia, it is giving her, and us passers-by, a place of acceptance.

In accepting the wink, as being directed at me, there’s a kind of implicit acceptance by me of the other, and of the other’s acceptance of me.  Like Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae it’s a healing and sustaining fantasy.  Zizek, as a Lacanian theorist of politics, might read it as a fantasy of national healing.

The installation of Wink at Kandos took on a particular historical significance.  Kandos sits at the cusp of the Capertee and Cudgedong valleys.  Glen Davis, deep in the Capertee Valley where the escarpment rises up to form a steep natural enclosure was one of worst of Australia’s shameful massacre sites of indigenous Australians.  The entire valley area, including the Wollemi forest, is rich in indigenous cultural remains, but in that particular valley the massacre was so terrible that very few indigenous Australians survived.  Given that dreadful history, Wink was displayed in a town with very little indigenous presence, compared to nearby Mudgee or Lithgow.  The exhibition, though a staged fantasy, was a way of returning a very real indigenous presence of many of Australia’s most significant artists.

What proved most interesting, and gratifying, were the responses from passers by who felt they just had to make an enquiry at the gallery.  Were they indigenous Australians?  Was that so and so?  People began to recognise friends or friends and relatives or relatives, indigenous Australia standing strong, and winking back from their own ground.  Brown’s reconciliation gesture resonates with Bindi Cole’s “I Forgive You”, recently spelled out large in emu feathers on the walls of Brisbane’s GOMA.

Brown’s work might be a construct, set up from the perspective of the other, according to the Lacanian insight that what we most want is recognition from the other.  But isn’t it something that we all, as a nation, want?  To be forgiven, to be accepted, to be on the inside of that knowing wink, one of them, as they of us.


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