Franck Gohier | Artist Statement
July 19, 2017
1917: THE GREAT STRIKE
The Australian ‘Great Strike’ of 1917 holds a particular resonance for me and my personal family history. During the Paris protests/riots of May 1968 I was ‘in utero’ and present. I was due to be born in August 1968 into a new, post-social revolution France. At the time, my mother was a University student at Sorbonne and my father worked as an administrator in a Parisian hospital where he was also a union delegate for the miscellaneous workers union. Discussions of politics and religion were de rigueur at the family table.
While the Paris riots closed France for several weeks, via general strike, that is where the similarities end between that event and the Great Strike of 1917. Paris may have been encapsulated in a utopian impulse but the Australian situation was clearly a product of untenable extremes. This spontaneous revolt was a lethal cocktail of both local and imported ingredients. With the background of the Russian revolution, World War I with its senseless slaughter, the inevitable associated wartime sacrifices, divisive debate over conscription, economic discontent, and class tensions it was only a matter of time before something gave way. At first glance seemingly innocuous, the introduction of the new ‘card system’ in the Eveleigh & Randwick railway workshops was actually a draconian measure that would ignite the first spark in events.
As a visual artist I am naturally drawn to the objects and ephemera of the times, as well as the cultural detritus. In this instance I really responded to the excellent collection of union history at Trades Hall Sydney, in particular the trade union banners. These iconic and impactful banners with a tradition from the late 1800s were hand painted by local signwriters, coach-painters and decorators. Prior to World War I, union banners usually only came out once a year to commemorate the 8-hour day in what was then Australia’s greatest annual celebration. Many examples that have survived today were passed on from their Victorian origins, retouched and embellished by later artisans.
The iconography of union banners gives us a fascinating glimpse into the pre-World War I culture. The banner designs include symbols from heraldry, biblical stories, popular traditions, secret esoteric societies and of course the popular 888, signifying 8 hours’ labour, 8 hours’ recreation and 8 hours’ rest. In my own practice as a printmaker I have collected and restored many letterpress machines, printing blocks and cabinets of moveable type. Among this archive, mostly by chance, I have acquired a large number of Freemasonry printing and heraldry printing blocks that echo this imagery.
For this project I have handprinted all the elements, using antique wood-type from my collection for all the figures and text, sourcing fonts from the 1800s to 1915. The motifs are gleaned from my personal library of art publications and ephemera. As a general visual pattern I have given this installation the appearance of a large ‘Snakes & Ladders’ game. This popular ancient game originated in India where it was used to instruct Jain and Hindu disciples in aspects of morality and karma.
1917: The Great Strike – daily 10am-6pm, until 27 Aug
More information on the exhibition