Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, 2016, concrete headstones. Installation view. Photo: Alex North.

Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, 2016, concrete headstones. Installation view. Photo: Alex North.

Luke Willis Thompson

  Luke Willis Thompson, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, 2016, concrete headstones. Installation view. Photo: Alex North.

The colonial period in the South Pacific may notionally be over, but its legacies are ever present, particularly in the way island nations struggle to survive in the global economy. Market forces well beyond the people’s control shape the economic life of the islands—whether that means growing niche commodities like vanilla in Tonga or allowing ecologically destructive mining in Papua New Guinea. Luke Willis Thompson’s Sucu Mate/Born Dead, 2016, offered a complicated picture of these intersections of colonialism, labor, death, and global trade. And it does so with a minimal gesture: a single line of nine anonymous and age-worn gravestones, taken from a colonial-era cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji, where indentured laborers from a nearby sugar plantation—many of them Chinese—had been buried.

The stones’ potency as narrative objects is determined by whether viewers know they are in fact part of a wider project about the cemetery, aspects of which were concurrently presented at the Eighth Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) in Brisbane. That the cemetery had been segregated along ethnic lines, for example, was a detail made clear at APT8 but not here. It was also relevant that Thompson had borrowed the stones for a fixed period, rather than permanently acquiring them. And there is the important detail that Thompson’s father, who died in 2009, was Fijian. None of this was spelled out in the exhibition itself, emphasizing the confrontational ambiguity of the artist’s practice. In 2014, Thompson won New Zealand’s most important art award, the Walters Prize, with inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam, 2012/2014: a taxi ride across Auckland to the artist’s childhood home. Once there, visitors were left to explore on their own—without being explicitly told it was where Thompson had grown up and where his mother still lived (though Lauren Cornell addressed this in the Walters Prize catalogue). And in 2012, he made an untitled piece from three garage roller doors that had been vandalized by an Auckland teenager who was subsequently stabbed to death by their incensed owner.

Thompson, then, makes a habit of walking a fine line between excavation and exploitation: mining objects and situations loaded with personal and cultural history and redeploying them in partially obscured situations that nonetheless leave him in complete, if absent, control. Far from being an abdication of responsibility, Thompson’s incommunicativeness (in the sense that he doesn’t speak for the objects or situations he sets up) is deeply informed by contemporary museological and anthropological debates about collecting, displaying, and defining cultures—particularly those that suffered under colonialism. Paramount within this is the question of repatriation, which, as David Joselit has suggested in his book After Art (2012), is a thorny issue in an Internet age, when the circulation of images seems to defeat old assumptions about an object’s inherent aura and site-specificity. But while it’s easy to apply Joselit’s argument to the Elgin Marbles, it’s much more difficult when dealing with the immense amount of human remains taken from the Pacific, which languish in the storerooms of European and American museums that now (quite rightly) feel squeamish about having collected them in the first place.

It is against this backdrop that Thompson’s appropriation of the gravestones, which marked the passing of migrant workers miles from their homeland, became so complex. Yes, he is of Pacific heritage himself. Yes, the anonymity of the stones acted as a powerful statement about the histories of economic slavery in Fiji. But the work also monumentalizes death and its traces—a dangerous ethnological game, particularly when those deaths have embedded within them systemic power imbalances. This ambivalence, it seems, is precisely Thompson’s point. Sucu Mate turns postcolonial theory into something starkly concrete. It is a blunt act that, in its quiet confrontation, refuses simplistic reduction. Thompson’s work acknowledges that though the Pacific will never fully recover from colonial traumas, there are still productive, if uncomfortable, conversations to be had.

Anthony Byrt