Melbourne

View of “Kate Daw and Stewart Russell,” 2018. From left: A Simple Act, 2008; Olympic Project for Human Rights Curtain, 2018; Olympic Project for Human Rights Soft Badge, 2018. Photo: Christo Crocker.

View of “Kate Daw and Stewart Russell,” 2018. From left: A Simple Act, 2008; Olympic Project for Human Rights Curtain, 2018; Olympic Project for Human Rights Soft Badge, 2018. Photo: Christo Crocker.

Kate Daw and Stewart Russell

Sarah Scout Presents

View of “Kate Daw and Stewart Russell,” 2018. From left: A Simple Act, 2008; Olympic Project for Human Rights Curtain, 2018; Olympic Project for Human Rights Soft Badge, 2018. Photo: Christo Crocker.

Peter Norman, a white Australian sprinter, is mainly remembered for his role in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, where he won silver in the two hundred meters, with African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos winning gold and bronze, respectively. At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos famously bowed their heads and each raised a clenched, black-gloved fist as the US national anthem played. Norman acted as an ally, donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge along with Smith and Carlos. When Carlos realized he had left his gloves in the Olympic village, Norman suggested that the he wear one of Smith’s gloves (which is why Smith can be seen raising his right hand while Carlos raises his left). This led Smith to later recall that while Norman didn’t raise a fist, he did lend a hand. 

In Australia, artists across an entire spectrum of identifications have explored the image of Norman. Richard Bell and Emory Douglas are the best known, but Kate Daw and Stewart Russell, too, have been working with the significance and iconography of this event for more than a decade, establishing a close relationship with the athlete, and even conducting and recording the last interview he gave before his death in 2006. Timed to coincide with the semicentennial of the 1968 protest, the exhibition “The Waiting Room” presented a new chapter of their work on and with Norman, here constellated with selected past works that likewise speak to themes of nationalism, systemic racism, and activism in the sporting world. 

Peter Norman, 2008/2018, was a set of screen prints on wool, cardboard, and paper, casually stuck to the wall with masking tape. Echoing the vernacular of protest signage, the work quoted excerpts from the artists’ interview with the runner, in which he describes his sonic memories of the event—recollections of the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing as the crowd cheered, booed, whistled, catcalled, and shouted. In the next room, white translucent curtains screen-printed with the Olympic rings in silver metallic foil covered the gallery’s large, ornate windows. A photograph of Carlos, Norman, and Smith upon the podium, printed on a small silver canvas, hung on the wall. On the floor were three soft sculptures, each a scaled-up version of the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, sewn from screen-printed linen and stuffed with feathers. Next door, in the “waiting room” of the exhibition’s title, stood a table with a few chairs around it, at which one could read printouts of three stories written by members of the artists’ families—reflections on the personal and political significance of 1968. Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, 1920, and Walter Benjamin’s meditations on the philosophy of history are given as reference points for the artists, but it is Klee’s later painting Sinbad the Sailor, 1923, that Daw reworked and exhibited in this room.

A room across the corridor held the strongest work in the exhibition: a version of Daw and Russell’s 2016 Two Homes, Another World project, which pivots around the story of Warlpiri footballer Liam Jurrah and his experience of playing Australian rules football on both the red-dirt pitches of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory and the manicured green lawns of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In this piece, the Australian national anthem can be heard sung in reverse (thus “Advance Australia Fair” becomes “Riaf Ailartsua Ecnavda”). Between long intervals of silence, a recording of the song played through small speakers, gently infiltrating each of the other rooms and animating Norman’s interview fragments in the corridor. Sung operatically, and “upside down and back to front,” the anthem, originally in a proud and triumphant major key, somehow falters into dramatic but melancholic irresolution; its colonial English is suddenly rendered barbarous. Although the construct of “the waiting room” was perhaps too coded, and the second-place silver of the screen-printed works all too literal, this song was utterly enchanting. What might it mean to sing backward? A type of time travel, or orientation toward the past as with Klee’s angel? Could the song’s reversal also be its undoing?