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eX de Medici: For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Samantha Littley
Independent writer and curator
Masters candidate, Australian National University

In describing herself as someone who was ‘raised in Canberra’ and who chooses to live in Australia’s National Capital, eX de Medici is declaring her political hand.1 For an artist with an international outlook, the decision to reside in the seat of the country’s government, and the heart of its power, is entirely logical. To view her work is to understand why. Over a forty-year career, de Medici has followed a range of artistic paths, while consistently critiquing the social and political systems that govern our lives. Having begun her career in painting and photomedia, and experimented with performance and installation in the 1980s, she worked for a decade as a tattooist after completing an Australia Council-funded apprenticeship in Los Angeles in 1989. She relinquished professional tattooing in 2000 to concentrate on watercolour, a medium through which she seduces and provokes her audience. 

de Medici has pursued her cause with the resolve of a bloodhound, determined to root out and unmask the deceit at the centre of global struggles for political ascendancy. As she has explained, ‘most of my work is outrage [at] the USA and its historic and ongoing hypocrisies.’2 Her self-portrait Greetings From Canberra 2015, epitomises this impulse. The photograph captures her black-clad figure scouring the ground around the Australian-American Memorial in Russell, overlooked by the colossal obelisk, known as ‘The Eagle’, and the surveillance cameras designed to safeguard the national secrets housed in the adjacent buildings. The bird sits like a sentinel over the precinct, and has embedded itself in the city’s psyche. Most Canberrans go about their daily business negligent of its presence, yet it symbolises Australia’s pact with its most powerful partner, the heavyweight champion of the world. 

The iconography has recurred in de Medici’s work and features, alongside a nest of mobile phone towers, in the panoramic Spies Like Us 2016, and in watercolours such as Pure Order 2017 and Protecting Your Insecurity 2018. In Pure Order, the eagle takes lifelike form. Painted on vellum, an archaic material that de Medici has adopted in recent years, the artwork refers to her propensity to ‘get under our skin’, either with her tattooist’s needle, or the razor-sharp eye with which she dissects the contradictions and inequities that surround us. As academic and curator Ted Colless has observed, in likening herself to a wasp, the artist evokes an insect that ‘lays its eggs inside a living host, whose flesh then becomes fresh food for the brood that hatches inside it.’3

As the eagle surveys the city, so surveillance governs our lives. If we had any doubt about that, the recent scandal of Cambridge Analytica has chastened us all. If there was ever a time that we were aware Big Brother was watching, or that an Orwellian future awaits us, it is now. de Medici aims to wake us out of our stupor, and alert us to the dangers of this New World Order governed by corporate communication systems. The theme has been the subject of previous works, such as Eutelsat Has Turned You Off 2013, a stinging indictment of diplomatic duplicity. Here, the American-style AK47 and the flowers that wend their way around the weapon signify political powers: the cherry blossom (Japan) and peonies (China) are enemies of the (United) States, with the flannel flower (Australia), concealed among them, its emasculated ally. Seen together, they represent the relentless quest for world dominance, with the United States at its core. The interpretation is underscored by the artwork’s title. The France-based, United States-endorsed corporation Eutelsat is one of the world's leading satellite operators, providing coverage over the entire European continent, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas.4 It has provided these services indiscriminately, delivering, for example, communication services to Iran despite the government’s role in denying its citizens ‘free access to information’, and infringing ‘basic telecommunications and human-rights standards.’5 Journalists Shirin Ebadi and Hadi Ghaemi exposed this sham in a 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal in which they called for ‘The European Union and U.S. [to] take immediate and decisive action requiring that [Eutelsat] end their cooperation with these Iranian censors.’6 In a related twist, it should be noted that the Obama government was implicated in the Stuxnet cyber-attack launched in 2009 on Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, with the aim of sending its centrifuges out of control.7

A similar mix of decorative motifs and emblems of power and death colonise the watercolours in this latest series. Guns, gasmasks and ‘expanded ammunition’ are lobbed amongst fields of flowers, silent killers in our midst. Expanded ammunition is particularly insidious. Devised to unfurl on impact, it rips through flesh causing maximum damage, the spent cartridges bearing an uncanny resemblance to flower heads. The ammo is one of a genus, including the equally devastating uranium-depleted bullet, which features in the ironically titled Family Portrait (Birnam Wood) 2017. The subtitle references a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a play about moral weakness and familial decay.

Flame Job (In the Beginning was the Word) 2017–2018 continues the enterprise of Eutelsat Has Turned You Off. The ‘flame’ referred to is the Flamer virus, unleashed by the United States in 2012 as part of its campaign to hack Iran’s nuclear program. Thought to be 20 to 40 times more powerful than Stuxnet, Flamer was established, as journalists Peter Beaumont and Nick Hopkins have reported, to ‘spy on [Iran’s] oil industry’ and ‘is believed to have downloaded vast amounts of information.’8

And for further evidence of the entangled relationship between technology and world supremacy, we might refer to a recent article in The Economist regarding US anxieties about China’s advances in IT, which anticipated the trade war that has erupted between the superpowers. The editorial argued that digital technologies ‘are the basis for the manufacture, networking and destructive power of advanced weapons systems. More generally, they are often subject to extreme network effects, in which one winner establishes an unassailable position.’9

These conflicts rage around us. If data is the new frontier, then cyberspace is the battlefield on which control for it will be fought and won. We should listen to the bells that de Medici tolls, lest we be lulled by technology’s hum into a state of complacency and inertia, dazzled by its ‘bright and beautiful baubles’, and then smashed to smithereens.