View of “Steaphan Paton.” 2019.

View of “Steaphan Paton.” 2019.

Steaphan Paton

Walking into Steaphan Paton’s exhibition “Nullius in Verba,” one was confronted by a triangular formation of twelve leaf-shaped shields mounted on poles—and it was practically impossible not to anthropomorphize them. Indeed, that the shields confront you, that they address you, is, one suspects, the point. Each is about six feet tall, and cumulatively each shield, pole, and base unit matches the artist’s height and weight. For those trained in canonical Western modernism, the installation might bring to mind Michael Fried’s famous summation of Minimalist art as registering the “silent presence of another person.”

Yet where, to take one of Fried’s examples, Tony Smith’s cube Die, 1962, merely connotes a human body—any fully grown, normative adult body—Paton’s conjures a very particular body. His shields are incised with the distinctive concentric diamond patterning of the Gunai nation of the area now known as Gippsland in southeast Australia. Whether applied to shields, to bodies as part of a ceremony, or to tree trunks, these designs have been passed down by Paton’s ancestors over thousands of years, directly binding him both to kin and Country (the holistic conception of place, including its physical, spiritual, and political dimensions). So it was not a body that we encountered in “Nullius in Verba,” per se, but specifically an Indigenous Australian body—or, rather, twelve of them.

Paton’s grandfather, a master carver, taught his grandsons in turn how to produce cultural objects, including shields. To inscribe the aforementioned pattern on a shield, waddy (club or stick), or boomerang made from locally sourced wood is to enact continuity between a people, their land, and its symbolic abstraction. These relations were underscored in Paton’s exhibition by a video work, My Jindabyne II, 2018, in which footage, shot from the window of a moving car, of the Monero-Ngarigo territory in New South Wales has been split into four disjointed perspectives. Thus a river might intersect with itself at an obtuse angle to form a zigzag, while the juncture of a mountain ridge with blank sky produces an inverse zigzag, thereby coaxing diamond shapes, similar to those on the shields, out of the natural features of the landscape.

Moving around the installation of shields, one discovered a uniform vertical sheen running down their exterior face, belying the untraditional material from which they had been hewn. While Gunai shields are traditionally made of a wood such as ironbark, moist and salty from the sea, rivers, and estuaries that surround the region, Paton’s have been cut from thick industrial steel piping. The designs have been scored with deep cuts, administered with an angle grinder, exposing rust-colored metal underneath a layer of black acrylic paint. A number of shields on display, including Nullius in Verba IV, 2019, had an additional layer of dots or roundels floating over the more heavily incised diamond design.

The specific kind of steel pipe used by Paton is intended to reference that used in offshore drilling currently under way in Gunaikurnai waters in the Gippsland Basin, a series of offshore platforms that deliver gas to the wider state of Victoria through a network of subterranean pipes. Thus, to inscribe the diamond motif into this pipe is to implicate the extractive infrastructures that now incise and course through Country. In this way, Paton’s shields recall the Yolngu artist Gunybi Ganambarr’s radical use of materials harvested from decommissioned bauxite mines in northeast Arnhem Land, which he deploys as supports for his mintji (clan designs). Ganambarr, like Paton, draws attention to the violent incursion onto Country of new materials and the expropriation off of Country of natural resources, simultaneously pointing to new obligations of care and new battles to wage. Faced with the silent presence of Paton’s shields, these sentinels become warriors, radiating resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience.