23/11/19 - 19/01/20
Exhibition views - Photo credits @ Simon Strong
Shifting Meaning: Ignorance, unknowing and the underlying narratives
by Phuong Ngo
I’ve known of Ben Aitken’s practice for some time, unashamedly stalking his work from afar for a number of ears, but it wasn’t until International Art Services delivered artwork to my door that we formally met in 2018. Since then through a stream of social media conversations we have gotten to know each other, and I have come to appreciate him as not just an artist, but as a person.
When Aitken asked me to write an essay for this exhibition I was taken aback, I am not a painter, I am not a maker, I am not a writer, I loathe academic writing, and I absolutely detest convoluted art wank. However, one thing I have learnt about Aitken is that somewhere in the disjointed madness of his intellect, there is a considered and resolute reason as to why he makes particular decisions, an instinctual process that feeds into his practice. An instinctual process that is acutely pronounced in this new body of work, which at first seems to be a grab back of history, popular culture, nostalgia, politics, and trauma, but upon closer inspection there is a through line. One that speaks to the ways in which we understand, and the perverse ways in which meanings shift; from person to person, from place to place, and from Atikin’s brain to the canvas.
In the 1990’s when I was a child it was common ritual in Australia to get up early and devour cartoons before being marched off to school, for me this ritual usually involve breakfast, mum fussing over my school uniform, and a healthy dose of animation from one of two programs; Agro’s Cartoon Connection or Cheeze TV, the later was the home of Garfield and Friends. For me these moments from my past drip with sugary nostalgia, but for Aitken cartoons are entrenched in a history of trauma, they were the first of many self-inflicted and forced coping mechanisms that have become a staple in his practice. The sinister nature in which they present themselves on children’s bed linen, in contrast to drug paraphernalia, alcohol and big pharma logos, a deliberate response to a history that was forced upon his identity (Childhood, 2019; Self Portrait 67, 2019).
Positionality is predicated on knowledge; it is the way in which an individual identifies influences, and potentially biases, in their understanding of and outlook on the world. In 1940 Fanta was created by German Coca Cola. It was a direct response to the restricted shipping between the United States and Nazi Germany that resulted in the limited access to Coca Cola syrup. Fanta, or ‘Nazi Coke’, features prominently in this body of work, connecting the present with the past, it is a metaphor for the ongoing and evolution for white supremacy. F. A. N. T. A. (2019), is a survival kit for the white man, a German level and some fencing to ‘build a wall’, exploration equipment to discover and conquer, and ‘Nazi Coke’ for sustenance. Knowledge is key to one’s positionality, but then, so too is ignorance. Hinted through the use of Thai Fanta cans Aitken points to the perverse ways in which ignorance of history has led to ‘Nazi cool’ informing Thai popular culture; he is the Ghost Baby after all.
Aitken is seemingly acknowledging his own experience with that of other white men who have come before him and the legacy that they have left. Out of the Nazi history we arrive at the Cold War and the space race. Not only are the key architects of NASA former Nazi German scientist, they were upheld as democratic Cold War heroes for a length of time. In the two collaborative works with Sam Leach, Space Race (2019) and Space Race II (2019), personal and global histories collide. The positionality of these works is confused in a way that brings to question; what is significant, and what is it that matters in the world on both the macro and micro level. In a year when countless galleries and museums are exhibiting projects in honor of a half centenary since the moon landing, how consequential has this been on Aitken’s positionality? Or is it the legacy of his own lived experiences that dictates his positionality.
Through these works, Aitken aims to shift meaning.