The underlying structure of each of these paintings is formed by Rorschach images. Rorschachs were originally meaningless mirrored images used in clinical psychiatry as an aid in the diagnosis of schizophrenia; the patient would offer an interpretation of the image which itself would be analysed and interpreted by the psychiatrist. With the diagnostic outcome significantly dependent on the interpretative biases and prejudices of the practitioner, there are conflicting views on its efficacy and accuracy.
However, interpretative instability is a potent lens through which to consider history. Specifically, the common rift between the version of history moulded and proliferated by the powerful, and the often involuntarily subterranean versions of events according to the disenfranchised and exploited. History turns out to be increasingly provisional as we widen the aperture to include stories and angles that have been deprived of a platform by the dominant culture; fixed history gives way to fresh and complicated waters as the massaged renditions created to serve and preserve the purposes of contemporary power are wrenched from their monologic state into dialogue.
Ben Quilty is preoccupied with this dialogue and its generative potential as much as with the painful consequences of relegating atrocities to the tidy western notion of an historical past. In his work authoritative History is disturbed and revivified and the paintings are often an uneasy amalgam of conflicting accounts and viewpoints. They embody the reckoning he faces again and again with his ancestral connection to the violence of the colonisers and the oppressors; the history in which he is implicated.
Alien, Cooks death, after Zoffany 2022, as the title suggests is based on Johann Zoffany’s painting The Death of Captain James Cook, 1795. Zoffany’s theatrical depiction is itself derived from the story of Cook’s death at Kealakekua bay Hawaii in 1779 that proliferated in the West in the intervening years in the form of pictures, plays and written accounts. The commemorative painting appears to portray Cook as a martyr, captured in the moment of surprised and somewhat bewildered recognition of his own stabbing. The Hawaiians are depicted decisively as the aggressors with any sign of British wrongdoing and malice omitted from the painting.
‘Alien ’Captain James Cook, bearing gifts of Venereal disease and Tuberculosis from foreign lands was initially mistaken by the Hawaiians to be the god Lono and welcomed with reverence. He had coincidentally arrived at the time the deity was due and his ship’s mast and white sails are said to
have resembled the wood and white bark-cloth associated with the fertility god. However, suspicion about Cook’s godliness swiftly evolved into hostility following Cook’s sudden (un- godlike) return to the island due to storm damage incurred by the ship.
The action of Alien, Cooks death, after Zoffany emanates from a direct mirroring along the central axis. The split widens both visually and metaphorically as divergent versions of the one history painting spread left and right, our eye tracing a compositional loop back to the centre and out again until it feels as if we are caught up in the turbulence of two immense flapping wings. This dynamism is echoed in the mutations occurring in the details; figures morph into a new set of players. Cook’s face on either side is supplanted — on the left by that of Christ derived from Rubens’ painting The entombment, and Quilty’s father on the right with a comic Pinocchio nose. The heroic Captain Cook conveyed by Zoffany, Captain Cook the Martyr slayed ruthlessly by the natives, breaks like a great wave upon the rocks and in the tumult surfaces questions of authority, narrative power, the legacy of colonisation and white man’s attitude towards difference.