(Nobody knows).sort


activate the work by interacting with the particle loops

(Nobody knows).sort is an experiment in reconfiguring the meta-materiality of a painting, in this case one of Sidney Nolan’s earliest known works from his famous Kelly series, titled Ned Kelly, “Nobody knows anything about my case but myself” 1945 (Heide Museum of Modern Art). In 2016 the painting was scanned at the X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) Beamline at the Australian Synchrotron particle accelerator in Melbourne, by particle physicist Dr Daryl Howard, Art Gallery of NSW head of paintings conservation Dr Paula Dredge and Heide Museum of Modern Art curator Kendrah Morgan.

The XRF scanning was able to penetrate the layers of Ripolin paint that Nolan began experimenting with around the time of the painting’s production. Four elemental maps were produced that described the distribution of chemical elements across the surface and underlayers of the painting. They revealed a fully formed head painted beneath Kelly’s mask that had compositional similarities to a Nolan self-portrait painted around the same time, as well as a resemblance to images of Kelly’s death mask, which Nolan would have been familiar with. The XRF maps revealed new insights into Nolan’s practice and at the same time generated hauntingly beautiful new digital materialities from the original that are both part of the original work and not.

(Nobody knows).sort conceptually reconstructs this elemental data to describe the visual relationships between the painting’s material core. Data from each of the maps is re-parsed into concentric particle systems that correlate to the density of the distribution of the four chemical elements in the painting. On occasion the particles collide, triggering a random fragment of speech from Kelly’s trial for murder in 1880, the transcript from which Nolan’s original painting takes its name. When viewers click on one of the particle streams, they form into a nucleus, which, when fully formed causes Kelly’s final speech to be played, after which the nucleus explodes and then reforms in an endless cycle.

Sidney Nolan, The Galaxy, 1957-8, 193.0 x 256.0 cm synthetic polymer paint on canvas on hardboard, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

The motif of spinning sub atomic elements is a visual reference to their production in the particle accelerator, and as well to the cyclical way in which Nolan began to consider and work with familiar mythologies that he believed structured Western cultural history, and which he found in Australian historical figures such as Kelly, Miss Fraser, and others. The form of (Nobody knows).sort is a nod to another Nolan work, The galaxy 1957-8, one of the first of a new series of works about Gallipoli that he painted for two decades. He conceived of this work as the interior of an atom. Painted in the post-war era, it was directly influenced by his feelings on his brother’s death in WWII, the nuclear spectre of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and his own pariah status as a deserter from military service. The author Patrick White convinced Nolan to re-conceive of the painting on the macro scale as a galaxy, to function as a mythological work linking Gallipoli to the Greek myths and all of human civilisation.

Post script:

This strong sense of biography pervades not only Nolan’s practice but my own responses to it. As part of the research team that visualised the XRF data from Ned Kelly, “Nobody knows anything about my case but myself”, I created a virtual reality installation that allowed visitors to peer through the layers of the original, while inhabiting the ghostly, historic rooms of Heide I, the house in which Nolan painted his Kelly series. The Galaxy featured as historical intervention in a small collection exhibition I curated with Natalie Wilson, curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, titled Mad through the darkness: Australian artists and the great war. The Galaxy subsequently became the subject of a new media performance work by artist Hahn Rowe, Ghost telephone 2016, curated for the Biennale of Sydney by Adrian Heathfield, Anneke Jaspers and myself.

(Nobody knows).sort 2017
3D and VR Design: Andrew Yip
Interactive coding: Nicola Best
Voice actor: Anneke Jaspers

Thanks to the Australian Synchrotron, Heide Museum of Modern art and the Conservation Department of the Art Gallery of NSW!