Flags for a trades hall council, 2005

Public installation of four flags on the four roof-top flag poles of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and a simultaneous installation at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, as part of the exhibition, The body. The ruin, curated by Bridget Crone, 5 November 2005—22 January 2006.


The flags draw on the face of Marat from Jacque-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793). They were generated by an extended drawing process. Three charcoal drawings were reworked over several months, and digitally photographed at different stages of their development. These photographs were the basis of the digitally-printed images on the flags, at the Victorian Trades Hall Council and at the Ian Potter Museum of Art.

The body. The ruin, curated by Bridget Crone, also included the work of Laylah Ali, Diann Bauer, Ian Burn, Christian Capurro, Joy Hester, Joan Jonas, Santiago Sierra, Ruth MacLennan, and Aaron Williamson.

Traces of the project Flags for a Trades Hall Council were subsequently exhibited in the solo exhibition Flag time: Marat at his last breath, at Ocular Lab, 26—27 January 2006, and in the exhibition Ghosts of self and state, curated by Geraldine Barlow, 5 April—10 June 2006, at the Monash University Museum of Art. A 16mm film from the project, 15 November 2005 (Len 335.43), was exhibited in the Ocular Lab exhibition Trinity Nine at Trinity College, Melbourne, in August 2006.


The curator, Bridget Crone, commissioned the artist to write a short text on the project included bellow. 



The project Flags for a Trades Hall Council has evolved over the past twelve months around the four flagpoles on top of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the grand late 19th-century building built to house Victoria’s peak union body. 

Four flags will fly from these flagpoles during the exhibition The body. The ruin, and a second set of four will hang horizontally inside the museum. 

The flags draw on the face of Marat from David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793).  My interest in Marat’s face partly originated in its curious horizontal frontal orientation, as well as its function as both death mask and public declaration (it was painted immediately after Marat’s assassination and displayed publically in the courtyard outside the Louvre as propaganda for the authority of the revolution). David’s image draws attention to Marat’s last breath, a last movement of air suspended by the “stilling” of the painting.

The flags are produced using the same technology as the flags which are familiar along Melbourne’s streets as advertising for spectacular events such as the Grand Prix, or along thoroughfares such as the Hume Highway as retail signage. 

The course of the project has evolved largely through drawing. Three large charcoal drawings have been worked and reworked over many months and photographed at different stages of their development, generating images for eight different flags. 

This use of drawing follows a common soviet methodology, in which hand-made images were reproduced mechanically for mass circulation as propaganda. 

The system of working and reworking in charcoal is a potentially endless elaboration of the image, and one that is echoed by the activation of the flags by the movement of air, which infinitely refigures the face into different forms. 

The flags have evolved partly against my earlier work with banners, though with both forms the declarative character of the form is set against a kind of image which has a different way or pace of disclosure. 

Flags for a Trades Hall Council has also developed in response to Australian political life. 9/11 and the “war on terror” have established the conditions for the proliferation of Australian flags, assertions of nationalism but also of a particular idea of sovereignty and agency.

The 9/11 one year before, (a.k.a. S11, the blockade of the 2000 World Economic Forum at Crown Casino in Melbourne) articulated a radically different idea of sovereignty and agency. Organisation of the blockade was decentralised into a loose relationship between different “blocks”, small self-organising groups. Although most of these groups shared with marxist traditions a commitment to internationalism and radical economic change, their organisational model owed more to anarchist impulses than to the centralising tendencies of marxism.  One of the most visible props was the flag, usually black, always mobile, portable. 

At the time of writing, the Howard government was preparing radical industrial relations legislation.  This attack on the ability of workers to organise and act collectively will have concrete effects: the conditions and wages of workers. It is also an attack on another important function of trade unions: to articulate symbolically – through images, words, actions – a conception of work, indeed all economic relations, alternative to that which dominates under capitalism.
October 2005.



The two photographs which are part of the installation at the Ian Potter Museum of Art were taken by Christian Capurro.

Tom Nicholson would like to acknowledge the support of the Victorian Trades Hall Executive, and in particular, Peter Marshall, Michelle, O’Neil, Nathan Niven and Brian Boyd, as well as Adam Bandt, Christian Capurro, Clare Land, Bridget Crone, Joanna Bosse, Bala Starr, Chris McAuliffe, Shelley Marshall, Mary and Peter Nicholson, Jacob Greck.

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