Social justice has the problem of being interpreted from many points of view. These include not only how best to deal with the distributive issues related to making the world a better place, but, more immediately, the problem of how to inform and encourage people to care about the suffering in the world.
The reconnaissance exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery displays pieces by Bob Birch and Jon Tarry, which raise awareness of social justice issues and explore the idea of actually experiencing social injustice versus viewing a portrayal of the idea through some external form of media. It will become evident, as we explore the ideas presented within the works of Bob Birch and Jon Tarry, that you cannot truly comprehend such injustices without actually experiencing them.
To understand the ideas being presented in Bob Birch’s collection, and my position on the ideas being portrayed, it is first crucial to know what motivated these artworks. Curator Annette Pederson reveals that “... the concept for reconnaissance originates in Bog Birch’s blog, Through Australia Eyes.” 1 The blog is captioned with the phrase “The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, from the viewpoint of a concerned Australian”.
A symbolic picture accompanies this title. It consists of a man with his back turned to the viewer in the foreground, and he is looking into a war scene whilst holding a Palestinian flag. The Australian man holding the Palestinian flag represents the attempt to bring some sort of unity between the different races, and yet at the same time all he can do is stand and watch whilst the war continues in front of his eyes. Overall, this symbolic picture can be taken as a representation of Australia’s role in this situation. As Australians, we are all encouraged to acknowledge the presence of injustices against the people of Palestine, but, unfortunately, the reality is as Pederson describes: rather “subdued in front of my screen”.  She then goes on to say, in response to Bob Birch’s photographs, “it is easy to forget the rest of the world. Australia is, after all an island. Despite our relative isolation however, there are times when we are forced to acknowledge that we are part of a world community”.
This highlights the very notion of social justice in Australia: we are not simply passive observers of such occurrences via television, newspapers, and so forth. Rather, there are times when we must identify with the horrors of these injustices, and that often requires us to be on the receiving end of prejudice and violence.
Birch’s photographs displayed in the reconnaissance exhibition are divided into two groups: those that display day-to-day activities of local people, and those that capture more violent scenes. The two groups are placed on opposite sides of a wall which physically represents the notion of looking at something from two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, we have a series of pictures on the wall of women gathering herbs, children eating ice cream after school and men working in the markets 3.
On the other side of this very same wall, we are exposed to the violence, the anarchy and the protests. A powerful emotional response is evoked as a result of the artistic exposures of the two different, yet co-existing, realities. But, at the same time - as we continue to make our way through the art gallery - the feelings of shock, horror and unease drift away the further we get from these photographs.
For those who have actually seen similar forms of injustice, these pictures can act as a reminder of their experience. For example the picture “Peppers” reminded me of my hometown in India, but I could not personally relate to any of the other more disturbing pictures; therefore, I will admit that I, like other people who haven’t actually experienced anything similar, cannot empathize with these people, nor relate to them on a level that is anything beyond a simple acknowledgement of the presence of injustice.
Tarry also plays with the idea of this separation that we have from issues of social justice in his series of pictures entitled “The White List” 4. The piece deals with the social issue concerning detention centres and conveys their close physical proximity by attempting to directly place the audience into the picture.
Tarry displays a ‘List of detention centre facilities’ and replicates this picture a further three times. Each replication is a slight variation on the original list with words blurred out, words such as “objectives” zoomed in on, or a bold yellow line striking out a portion of this list. Then, as a fifth edition to this series, there is a mirror that serves as a very powerful and symbolic way of “putting us in the picture”.
The mirror attempts to physically close this gap between the social injustices in the world and the viewers in the gallery. The mirror brings us back to the reality that lies within the room whilst, at the same time, reminding us that we can’t detach ourselves from the refugees at these detention centres.
Tarry’s use of the mirror tries to close this gap between the viewer and the issue itself by first acknowledging that such a gap exists between the people viewing the artwork in a gallery, and the detention centre in some other location. This only re-iterates my proposition: at the end of the day we, as the viewers, don’t go to a detention centre - we have the privilege of returning to our more comfortable homes whilst we forget about this other not so pleasant reality.
It is evident, through the above discussion, that the concept of social justice is normative, and we can only realize what justice should be if we first understand, and, more importantly, experience, what injustice actually feels like. Once we can relate to this idea of injustice, it naturally follows that only then can we try and work towards a more just society by eliminating these injustices.
The reconnaissance exhibition conveys a similar idea by exploring this notion of detachment and isolation that, Australians in particular, have with the injustices going on in the world around us. Both Bob Birch and Jon Tarry attempt to bridge this gap by first acknowledging that the gap exists, and then attempting to bring us, as the audience of this exhibition, into the picture as much as possible. However, it is still only an artistic perspective of the situation which is designed to evoke an emotional response, and thus cannot provide a true experience of social injustice.
Read this winning entry essay in an alternative downloadable format.