Public burning has understandably had a bad rap throughout history, from Savonarola’s late 15th century bonfires of the vanities and his own eventual death by fire, to the Nazi student book burnings of 1933; there is usually something ominous about fire in public places, the flicker of mob rule. Then again, the burning of effigies can represent an act of political solidarity.
So what are we to make of the UK conceptual artist Jeremy Deller’s newest installation for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Father and Son, burning (until midnight Saturday) in St Saviour’s Church of Exiles in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Collingwood? A grey life-size candle of Rupert Murdoch and son Lachlan posed in acquiescence to the tradition of corporate portraiture, it takes on a serio-comic ghastliness as it melts before our eyes, a patriarchy collapsing in real time as the figures slowly drip to the floor.
Murdoch is rather an obvious choice for the installation, as towering a symbol of overweening media power and political influence as we can get in our current age, and Deller’s choice of Melbourne, Murdoch’s birthplace, is surely deliberate.
The ACCA artistic director, Max Delany, sees something gentler, even contemplative, in the work.
“It’s a work about the passing of time. We’ve thought a lot about the play of light, how it will change as the day progresses. We’ve talked a lot with Jeremy about the soft light of remembrance.”
Its position in the centre of the deconsecrated church feels like a response or provocation to Michelangelo’s Pietà, which unlike this work has the decency to tuck itself away in the nave of St Peter’s Basilica. But then Deller’s use of the precarious medium of wax suggests a memento mori, a reminder of the impermanence of power.
A Turner prize-winning artist, Deller has always been interested in the communal nature of public art, in ritual and performance, and the audience’s responses to and presence within his works make up a large part of their meaning. The specific nature of Father and Son was kept a tight secret until the unveiling, so the flocks of people who have come to see it seem to have been drawn as much by the mystery as by the chance to experience one of Deller’s famously interactive pieces.
The producer of Joy FM’s Saturday Magazine program, Fiona Brook, “knew something was coming to this space for some time, and knew that nothing could be revealed, so that’s intriguing”. As people mill about, taking photos and filming with their phones, Brook contemplates the pace of change in the artwork, and what it might mean politically. “Time is running out, but like a lot of things in Australia it takes a very long time for change to come.”
Art enthusiast Charles Lai “knew about Jeremy’s work, and I knew not to have any expectations before coming here”.
“We tend to be cynical about the Murdochs in this country and I think the work promotes this cynicism,” he says. The greyness of the features suggests the colourlessness of the legacy, somehow.
One of the aspects Brook and Lai both pick up on is Deller’s sense of humour, an impression that he might just be taking the piss out of Murdoch and his lineal pretensions. Deller has said himself of an earlier work involving the mashing up of acid house and brass bands, “there’s meant to be humour and absurdity in it, like in a lot of things I do”. He avoids the merely jokey; his works seem to start out in the realm of gimmick and subtly transform into something moving and multi-layered.
What is certainly true is that nothing will be left of Father and Son by tomorrow, other than a pond of grey wax. By early afternoon, the skulls of Rupert and Lachlan were hollowed out, and long Rasta-like beads hung from their temples. Lachlan in particular seemed to be crying molten tears of wax, for a lost kingdom or a worthless inheritance. Deller is a master of event art, and his melting moguls are, as Delany puts it, “an invitation to a vigil”. One Melbourne seems delighted to attend.