By Andy Best

Just as black pigment absorbs visible light, the black flag manages to absorb all meaning. Flown by Quantrill’s raiders (a Confederate guerrilla militia during the American Civil War that included outlaw Jesse James) black flags have also been flown by farmers (revolting during the German Peasant Wars), by ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Jews, by mercantile colonial traders, by fascists and antifascists, privateers warning that they will soon give no quarter, and by naval ships wishing to surrender. The banner of the cruel lord Morgoth, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, was also completely black and without insignia. The Ahmadiyya ‘Black Standard’ of the second Caliphate is sometimes said to represent an absorption of spiritual light. All burnt flags return to the same non-colour of blackness.

Still, a contender for The Most Punk Flag in the World isn’t perhaps a pure black one, nor flown by anarchists, pirates, or raiders. It was made by the 40-odd families of the Bikini Atoll who—under the misunderstanding that they were being given a “second sun”—were instead displaced by atomic testing, from the 1940s to the 1950s. The islanders opted for an approximate yet recognisable version of the US flag, with one white star blackened for each of the islands disfigured by the subsequent 23 nuclear tests.

Black’s unique ability to negate signs enables it to absorb the power of its subject. Its strength is magnified when it makes use of the full possibilities of its infinite associations. Despite claims to be an artistic “zero point”, historic and conceptual readings have always been attached to black monochrome paintings. Malevich’s Suprematist work drew on the associative power of Russian icon paintings in their placement, whilst Robert Rauschenberg added a third dimension, building outwards with paper, then later visually reducing these sculptural canvases with black paint. Conversely, through puncture marks Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale of 1952 sought to unite his monochromes with the walls around them, and ultimately with all space and time.

Like pigment, black clothing is strongly associative, and has been used to signify those enforcing authoritarian order, as well as by those who maintain an allegiance to chaos. Black is therefore a reliable sight during times of upheaval. During this period—containing the destruction of long standing political orthodoxies, market collapse, the stripping of arts funding, and the creation of new art spaces—black fabrics find an ideal environment.

Christian Lock, BLACKFLAG (2017). Image courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide. Photo: Lara Merrington.

If There’s One Thing Life Can Guarantee
It’s In Keeping Its Meaning a Mystery

—Inscription scratched into the vinyl of the 'MinuteFlag' EP

Christian Lock’s latest works seem to contain within them the charged political context of the Parsons School of Design, in New York. Lock’s time there occurred during a period of increased visibility of police violence, that led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Quentin Morris, working during the US Civil Rights era, had already shown simply reaffirming complexity within blackness is an inherently political act. Individual biography and difference are necessarily absent from race-based world views. Lock’s canvases during this New York period use a unique sequinned material that allows the viewer to wipe over and leave new traces in the surface of his works.

This interest in the formal tension between diversity and blackness has long existed in Lock’s practice. In an Australian context, the idea is perhaps particularly resonant—a country made up of over 500 different Indigenous clan groups, and cultures. In Lock’s work this can also be traced back to the music and fashions of late twentieth century Australian surfing culture—particularly through the social allegiances of its punk, metal and noise bands.

Although punk rejected much of mainstream culture, it was never inherently nihilist. Sharing venues with Jamaican ska and dub reggae acts in London, the culture surrounding acts like The Clash featured inclusive and progressive tendencies for the period. This openness extended to issues of gender and sexuality, particularly on the US West Coast – where many prominent gay musicians were pivotal in punk’s early development1. This eventually led to the emergence of Queercore, based around acts like The Need, The Third Sex, Go! and Los Crudos. Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins has called this diversity as central to punk’s early sense of courage and dynamism. Homocore culture was also closely connected to the beginning of the Riot Grrrl scene, through connected zines, bands and record labels like Outpunk.

It has been said that Australia’s national identity is portrayed in such an impossibly macho sense that it has created an equally powerful, alternative narrative. The desert of Mad Max must necessarily also be the home of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Closer readings of artistic countercultures reveal that this is not merely a reactive phenomena, and that there are authentic stitches that bind inclusivity to Australian culture. Lock’s work celebrates this.

The absence of colour in music, fashion and art can also be seen as a kind of utility. Stripped of any extraneous features, time is made for a more focused action or, in Lock’s case, continual artistic production. This always-in-motion ethos is most apparent in Lock’s recent resin and steel sculptures. The works allow the fabrics to travel throughout three dimensional space. We are asked to imagine the possibility of change and fluidity even within a strongly declarative object.

Ad Reinhardt once referred to his black paintings as “a free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icons”. They stood in contrast to the colourful consumer goods that were the dominant visual experience of mid twentieth century America. Our own experience of black is perhaps more complex: Anish Kapoor recently purchased sole rights to the world’s blackest pigment (Vantablack, a color that absorbs 99.96 percent of light).

We should not fear that blackness can ever be fully purchased by commerce, however. Black’s intensity has always come from negation, from those with whom the times have caught up with, and whose blackness includes the power of its associations with authentic and complex cultures.

[1] This did not last. Later co opted by neo-Nazis, punk for a while contained hard to differentiate oppositional left and right wing groups. So subtle were their codes that, at times, groups fought amongst themselves, suspecting other members as belonging to their hated opposites.

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Christian Lock, BLACKFLAG (2017), installation view, ACE Open. Image courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide. Photo: Jessica Clark.

Christian Lock, BLACKFLAG (2017), installation view, ACE Open. Image courtesy the artist and GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide. Photo: Jessica Clark.