Commissioned by Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria for Garden Variety: The Politics and the Picturesque, as part of PHOTO2021 Photography Festival
Curated by Isobel Parker Philip
Curated by Isobel Parker Philip, Garden Variety: Photography, Politics and the Picturesque is a site-responsive exhibition at Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. A suite of ambitious new lens-based commissions plots a pathway through the Gardens and leads visitors on a journey of discovery. The landscape itself is enlisted as an exhibition partner, with each installation mapped according to its surrounds. All of the featured artists engage with the Gardens’ history and draw reference from its rich archival holdings.
Garden Variety challenges the idea that a garden exists and functions as an idyllic and politically neutral space. Sensitive to the symbolism attached to the site, the exhibition addresses the many functions and identities of Melbourne Gardens. The Gardens are a picturesque landscape and a scientific institution but also a marker of colonisation and an occasional backdrop for displays of soft power. They are a place for pleasure but also political performance, a civic space that carries (horti)cultural capital.
Featuring new work by Yvonne Todd, Grace Wood, Steven Rhall, Luke Parker, James Nguyen and Emmaline Zanelli.
For this exhibition, I was commissioned to respond to a site in the Botanic Gardens called the William Tell Rest House. On my first visit to the Gardens, I got to ride on the back of the staff buggy with Mark Lowry who took me on a comprehensive tour of the gardens. I actually didn’t know who William Tell was, and so I asked Mark, and he proceeded to hum the William Tell Overture to me, which I immediately recognised. The first thing it took me to was a mental playback of Looney Tunes’s Porky and Daffy cat ’n’ mouse style chase, which is backed by the famous overture from Gioachino Rossini’s 1829 opera. And then when I go home and talk to someone else and I hum them the tune they say, “oh that’s the Lone Ranger theme song”. So I am already starting to feel confused about this mythical fragmented character of William Tell.
William Tell is a legendary figure in Swiss history, although wether he was in fact a real, singular person appears to be debated. In 1307, what is now Switzerland was under the rule of Austria. In an act of political resistance, Tell publicly refuses to salute the hat of the Austrian ruler, Albrecht Gessler, as the ruler and his men pass through a local marketplace. As punishment for his disobedience, Tell is arrested. But Gessler has heard that Tell is an excellent marksman, and so he gives Tell what he believes to be an impossible opportunity to be spared execution — he must shoot an apple off the top of his young son’s head. Tell completes the task with ease, much to Gessler’s dismay! But, Gessler still condemns him to death, and Tell is chained and put on a boat to be taken with his captors.
During their boat journey the seas become rough, and the Austrians cannot manage the conditions - they’re all at risk of dying if someone doesn’t help. Tell offers to save the group if they would only release his chains, and in desperation they oblige. Tell immediately jumps ship, making his way to a rocky outcrop where he turns and shoots his captors, an action which symbolises the beginning of Switzerland’s independence.
William Tell is credited as the origin of the “apple shot” — where a marksman shoots an apple off the top of an innocent subject’s head. But if someone said to me “apple shot”, I think first of the Hunger Games, where Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen shoots an apple from the snout of a suckling pig that sits atop a banquet where her captors are feasting. And then also James Bond Skyfall, where Javier Bardem commands Daniel Craig to shoot a shot of whiskey from his lover Bérénice Marlohe’s head (unsuccessfully). And then further back, Kimberly Hart (the pink Power Ranger) defeats the evil Snizzard by shooting with her bow and arrow the golden apple of power that sits permanently above his head.
The gesture of the apple shot has been utilised and recycled in pop culture with varying outcomes - from criminals killing innocents to heroes slaying villains, and then also it is used as a comedic skit, such as in Popeye, or in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, where a celebrated fashion photographer played by Matthew McConaughey coaxes a model to strip to her underwear and have an apple shot from her head by an olympic archer, before the scene cuts with the flash of a camera.
my tv brain Tells me how to aim is a series of re-photographed collages that further remix the apple shot gesture by using screenshots from movies and shows and fragments of art history references, re-imagined together with stuff in my shed to form new characters and apple shot scenes. I like the idea that Tell moved up from a common person to a legend and a hero, and that his memory can trickle back down through the never-ending recycling of pop culture for people to absorb through their favourite cartoons and movies, recreating the gesture of a hero at home….
The series of 4 images is installed within the William Tell rest house on a steel frame designed by Youssofzay + Hart.
The above video shows a few references showing my personal experience of Tell’s legacy. Screen captures from Youtube/Stan/Netflix showing many interpretations and recycling of the “apple shot” gesture. I find it fascinating that a gesture like this can find it’s way to being mythologised to the point that it’s a household thing. Even the fact that there is a structure in the botanic gardens named after Tell - on the opposite side of the world to Switzerland - seems to reinforce this feeling. I liked the idea that this distant hero can be so condensed to a refined symbol (the apple shot), but then pop culture can work it’s magic/poison to share and recycle recycle recycle the symbol so that it can trickle down down down to me watching a rom com and I can print off screenshots and then add my own recycling and make up my own hero apple shots. These snippets show Tell content from; The Simpsons, A clockwork Orange, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Lone Ranger, Looney Tunes, James Bond, Popeye, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, The Ghost of Girlfriends Past, some BTS footage of Roger Federer on a photoshoot , The Muppets, Blood Punch, The Toxic Avenger: The Last Temptation of Toxie and The Hunger Games.