Still life after Penn
‘Still life after Penn’, a body of new work by Adelaide based artist Damien Shen, is a complex interrogation of many things. It seeks to begin dialogues about what is right and what is wrong, about the living and the dead, and the spaces in between, while simultaneously interrogating the practices of museums historically and in the here and now. Equally, Shen is unpacking the role of the artist who works with collections, including those who hold human remains and other sacred materials. As suggested by the title, Shen references the work of American photographer Irving Penn, through both his composition and the breadth of contrast rendered by his choice of tintype photography, which leave his subjects, or their remains, in a kind of timeless purgatory.
Shen, who is Ngarrindjeri and Chinese, has staged each of these works with the particular intention of shedding light on the practices of universities and museums, where these works were created, and whose collections they draw from. These institutions dehumanise remains, and have histories of disrespecting and degrading remains, from the Cadaver Society of the School of Medicine at UVA who would pose for photographs with the corpses of humans, to the destructive sampling of human remains in contemporary museums for academic research.
Shen knows these are not just skulls and femurs, after all, his family and community in South Australia endured the dehumanising and culturally violent practices of having remains and bodies stolen, dug from the earth or taken from hospital morgues in the dark of night by anthropologists and physicians. Although many have made their way home, the remains of Shen’s ancestors still sit in boxes within the collection stores of museums here in Australia and abroad, waiting to be returned to their homelands. The Ngarrindjeri believe that when their people’s remains are not on their country, then their spirit is wandering. So unless they are coming home, the spirit will never rest.
Written by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington
A message from God to the Blackfellow
A message from God to the Blackfellow, 2017, is a significant body of work by Ngarrindjeri-Chinese artist Damien Shen. In continuing his engagement with archives and museums, Shen draws on the encounters between Reverend George Taplin and the Ngarrindjeri people, to establish a thematic framework for this series. These encounters are drawn from Taplin’s diaries and give great detail on his engagement with Ngarrindjeri. Shen was particularly drawn to Taplin’s entry about a discussion with a ‘native’ on April the 7th, 1859.
“I then endeavoured to explain to him that I had a message from God to the Blackfellows, and what it was, and asked him to tell the others about it. He seemed to understand me but was evidently surprised. It is my impression at present that more will be done by individualising the natives than by teaching them collectively. I shall see how this idea is confirmed or otherwise bye-and-bye.”
Shen’s response to the righteous and paternalistic views of Taplin, which position his ancestors as inferior black subjects, initially took the form of a series of large portraits, depicting two of his great grand-parents, whom were both photographed and studied by Norman B Tindale at Raukkan in South Australia. These original studies depicted figures from his family, rendered in a dark and sombre palette with almost no light hitting their skin. A stark white background framed their faces, perhaps a visual cue to the anthropological methods utilised in ‘documenting’ Shen’s family. Whiteness didn’t just surround each of his forebears, but pervaded into their very being. They were submerged underneath a sheath of pale rhythmic dotting, ghosted in the virtues of whiteness while their selfhood was simultaneously erased by ‘well-meaning’ messengers of God, in state-sanctioned, publically funded assimilation machines.
In this body of work, which contribute to a growing series, Shen has instead focussed on depicting missionaries, including Taplin, and a selection of other messengers of God, alongside one image of his Great-grandfather. The intentional dominance of representation of ‘the missionary’, over a single image of his Ngarrindjeri ancestor, speaks to the overt imbalance of power that Indigenous people were forced to negotiate whilst under the ‘care’ of the church and of the state. Furthermore, this pictorial imbalance interrogates an Australian culture committed to the continued aggrandising of men with ‘good intentions’ in positions of privilege and power, regardless of the great violence their work, their words, or their choices inflict on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, 2017
 Reverend George Taplin, The Journals of the Reverend George Taplin, Missionary to the Ngarrindjeri People of the Lower Murray, Lakes and the Coorong,1859 – 1879, 7 April 1859, http://www.firstsources.info/uploads/3/4/5/4/34544232/taplins_diary_1859-79.pdf