Divide

by Gillies, John

2005

Exhibition
Figuring Landscapes

As white settlers drive their flocks of sheep across Australia, biblical quotations heralding the Promised Land provide the ironic justification for the appropriation of land. Vexed questions of nationhood, identity and land ownership circulate and disturb this profoundly lyrical work.

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Divide is a powerful cultural response to bitter social divisions that arose in Australian society in the late 1990s around land ownership, race relations, refugees and environmental destruction…. In this vein, Divide is also designed to prompt historical consciousness. Sheep watch on as the film invites us to reflect on how biblical doctrines of possession, such as the Genesis 12 story of the call of Abraham and his chosen ‘flock’ to the promised land, have been used throughout the modern world to justify the dispossession and continued oppression of Indigenous peoples. From its first stunning scene of one of the men disturbing the fragile structures of an ant nest, this work slowly builds up a series of images of practices of division and possession: the deformations and reformations of a tightly-packed herd of sheep, the endless counting of stock numbers, the tearing and scattering of pages from the Bible. Together, these images recast this colonised land as a deeply ambiguous space. It is coveted and covered in and by the Word of God. Yet, at the same time, the land clearly refuses to give over to the Genesis logic, resisting human possession. Therese Davis, unpublished essay, 2007 Divide questions the origin of the stories we tell ourselves about nationhood. It suggests we examine the degree to which we feel relaxed and comfortable with the sense of entitlement that once informed a colonising intent, that haunts a postcolonial sensibility, and structures contemporary thinking still. Fiona Trigg, excerpt from ‘John Gillies: Divide’ in 2006/Contemporary Commonwealth/, exhibition catalogue (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006).

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