Re-Presenting an Australian Spearthrower

Work conducted with:  The British Museum, UCL Ethnographic Collection.

UCL’s Ethnographic Collection contains several spear throwers, but only one from South-Eastern Australia. In different ways, it is beautiful, functional, mysterious, powerful, and potentially tragic. This is an object which is intriguing, and one which we felt demanded to be worked with.  Of all the regions of Australia, the aboriginal peoples of the South- East perhaps suffered the most. A relatively large population, and rich and varied cultures were reduced over history to a few individuals. Historically, the loss of life, the loss of culture, and the injustice has been immense. There is a vibrant movement in the state of Victoria, and surrounding areas, to not only address injustices, but just as importantly to build and develop native Australian culture, art, material culture, and contemporary heritage.

Working with curators of UCL’s ethnographic collection, and of the Australasian collections at the British Museum, we have attempted to find ways of exploring and communicating the properties of the wooden spearthrower.

For us, then, the spear-thrower became a route into which we might explore many different cultural understandings, and we began to attempt to render the thrower as a set of questions about shininess.  Across Australia and Papua New Guinea, many different understandings of shininess express themselves, as manifestations of power, force, and spirituality.  Shininess is also manifest in many heritage displays and museums.  The spearthrower clearly exhibits many aspects of shininess and force.

We decided to use deign methods to storyboard the shininess of the object, and immediately realised that the thrower is itself a kind of storyboard. The flat panel, divided into three sections, very likely tells a story or dreaming. In some ways, the thrower resembles also an Australian ‘message stick’, which was once used to communicate the authority of a person to carry a message or piece of information.

Our core idea was to attempt to restore an experience of the spear thrower’s original, vivid, impactful ‘shininess’ in line with modern times – to create an exhibition space which could show its value. Many people view this silent object in the expectation that its properties are intrinsic and contained within it, rather than recognising their own presumptions of what force is, nor the influence of the environments and places which have produced this artefact and led it to where it is now.  We wanted to experiment with the idea of shininess as property, by taking different aspects of shininess from the spear thrower, and manifesting them in contemporary environments or spaces. By doing this, we hoped to illustrate and critique the way in which we had been looking at the artefact for ‘answers’ about the environment in which it was made. This meant an act of artistic reversal, by which the thrower could be seen to influence and critique its contemporary surroundings.

The full story of the work, its progress, and conclusions, can be found in a self-published volume, Properties and Social Imagination.  A pdf copy can be found on the Material World Blog, along with a link to a site where a hard copy can be ordered for print:

Work conducted by:  Ginger (Yao Yao) Jiang, Miffy (Xiaoyue) Yang, Phoebe (Siyu) Chu

Summer 2013

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