From Savonarola’s late-15th-century bonfires of the vanities and his own ultimate death by fire, to the Nazi student book burnings of 1933, public burning has a terrible reputation; there is generally something ominous about fire in public spaces, the flicker of mob control. On the other hand, burning effigies may be seen as a kind of political unity.
So, what do we make of Jeremy Deller’s latest piece for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Father and Son, which is burning at St Saviour’s Church of Exiles in the inner-city Melbourne district of Collingwood (till midnight Saturday)? A grey life-size candle of Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, positioned in accordance with corporate portraiture tradition, takes on a serio-comic ghastliness as it melts before our eyes, a patriarchy disintegrating in real time as the figures drip to the floor.
Murdoch is an obvious choice for the installation, as a towering emblem of overweening media dominance and political influence as we can get in this day and age, and Deller’s choice of Melbourne, Murdoch’s birthplace, is undoubtedly purposeful.
Max Delany, the creative director of the ACCA, perceives a calmer, almost meditative quality in the piece.
“It’s a work about the passage of time,” says the artist. We’ve given a lot of attention to the play of light and how it will shift throughout the day. We’ve spoken about the gentle glow of remembering a lot with Jeremy.”
Its placement in the deconsecrated cathedral seems like a reaction or challenge to Michelangelo’s Pietà, which, unlike this piece, had the decency to be tucked away in St Peter’s Basilica’s nave. Deller’s choice of the hazardous medium of wax, on the other hand, implies a memento mori, a reminder of power’s impermanence.
Deller, a Turner Prize-winning artist, has long been concerned in the communal character of public art, ritual, and performance, and the audience’s reactions to and presence inside his works contribute significantly to their significance. The nature of Father and Son was kept a well guarded secret until its debut, so the crowds who have flocked to view it seem to have been attracted as much by the mystery as by the opportunity to engage with one of Deller’s notoriously interactive works.
Fiona Brook, the producer of Joy FM’s Saturday Magazine show, says she’s “knew something was coming to this space for a long time but couldn’t reveal anything, so that’s intriguing.” Brook mulls about the velocity of change in the artwork and what it may signify politically as people roam around snapping photographs and video with their phones.
“Time is running out, but change takes a long time in Australia, as it does with a lot of things.”
“I knew about Jeremy’s work, and I knew not to have any expectations before coming here,” says art fan Charles Lai.
“In this country, we tend to be cynical about the Murdochs, and I believe the work contributes to that cynicism,” he adds. The greyness of the features alludes to the legacy’s lack of color in some way.
Deller’s sense of humour is one characteristic that both Brook and Lai notice, giving the impression that he is mocking Murdoch and his lineal pretensions. “There’s meant to be humour and absurdity in it, like in a lot of things I do,” Deller remarked of a previous piece featuring the mash-up of acid house and brass bands.
He avoids the simply amusing; his works seem to begin as a gimmick and gradually morph into something more emotional and multi-layered.
What is certain is that by tomorrow, all that will be left of Father and Son is a puddle of grey wax. Rupert and Lachlan’s skulls had been hollowed out by early afternoon, and long Rasta-style beads dangled from their temples.
Lachlan looked to be sobbing molten wax tears for a lost country or a worthless inheritance in particular. Deller is a master of event design, and his melting moguls are “an invitation to a vigil,” as Delany puts it. One Melbourne resident is ecstatic to be there.