This is a review by Darwin-based barrister & curator Koulla Roussos of recent works by Darwin artist Matthew van Roden at pirrie space in Darwin.

“… Do not let us despise the word. After all it is a powerful instrument; it is the means by which we convey our feelings to one another, our method of influencing other people. Words can do unspeakable good and cause terrible wounds.” Sigmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis

There are many forms of discipline exerting and leaving impressions over the human body. Words and images, visible texts, intangible ideas shape, twist and distort the individual body and body politic. Practices, customs, discourses, ideas are generated by institutional actors with direct impact on body, memory and identity for institutional aims and objectives.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John 1:1

With sharp observation and with clinical precision in the use and arrangement of his materials, Darwin artist Matthew van Roden scrutinizes the institution of religion, the institution par excellence which has enforced its domain over the human body since time began with weapons and with words.

Van Roden presents you train your child a suite of new works arising out of his Masters of Visual Arts practice at Charles Darwin University. The works are expertly installed and presented inside pirrie space, a new  art space in Darwin’s more interesting suburbia.

Within the corpus of meaning proliferation there is always Michel Foucault (1926-1984) a leading French intellectual who singularly deconstructed his queer body as he searched through the annals of human history looking for the birth, the infancy, the maturity, proliferation and simulation of the instruments of dominion and social control:  the church, the clinic, the school, the prison, the academy  leaving behind a plethora of theoretical and canonical texts for an inquisitive meaning maker like van Roden to employ.

Materials used in making art are equally “texts”, each with its own context, culture, syntax, history.  With power & pleasure (flesh becomes words) [ figure 1 and 2] , van Roden presents two square panels, synthesising  all the primary materials he used in the execution of the work: wooden panels,  gauche, graphite wax and paper, and religious text in the font of a standard school letter stencil.

There are many languages, syntaxes, orthodoxies which can be utilised by a meaning maker de-textualised and re-presented to convey in another language multiple meanings. Turning to post-modernity’s enormous treasure chest of lexicon, tropes, and methods available to today’s artist/writer/image/ text/meaning maker, van Roden returns to the historiographical relevance of the scriptures to conduct an inquisition on the word.

Wax is particularly interesting, since this material is imbued with religiosity. Wax as an encaustic material attached gaudy colours over the marble statues in the temples of antiquity. The wax candle in the Christian ritual, as it burns and melts symbolises both the transience of the body and transcendence of the soul. Molten wax has also a sensual texture and erotic associations, offering divergent desires an ecstatic sublimation by conflating pleasure with pain.

Religion as an institution has a long pre-historical claim to authority over the human body. Two powerful instruments for corrective religiosity have been the weapon and the word. Religious institutions correct transgression. Religion imprints the word on the body with corrective instruments, leaving behind a trace, stamping its authority with the word.

The absurdity of a mass produced item for parental discipline is captured by a sequence of 18 spanking paddles in van Roden’s you train your child ( words become flesh) 2017.

For van Roden, growing up within a Pentecostal Christian family, biblical verses and ideas were imprinted at a young age. “ The spanking paddle, a manifestation of scriptural text, held within it the promise of keeping one’s children on the straight and narrow, a tool to guide them through the follies of youth; to temper the demonstrations of original sin.  Disobedience of parents was rebellion against God and this scriptural inscribed spanking paddle would play its part in the righteous life.”  *

The application of white wax on a pink coloured marine-ply board synthesises van Roden’s exhibition narrative. The minimal colour spectrum employed materialise ideas such as the pink stain mark left behind by spanking, as well as the pink after stain left behind by wax on the body.

Cleverly this work captures the ubiquity of mass consumption and the little accidents which in the detail present the notion and nature of the cliché, that hiccup like  accident in the mechanical printing process of reproduction lending the work  the aura and authenticity that radiates from a singular original work of art.


With untitled, 2017 van Roden returns to the restrained elegance of abstraction.  As an iconoclast, he liberates the body of this work from the confines of the word, achieving pure aesthetic pleasure by producing a work of art without words, a pleasure achieved from the materiality of all the ingredients and the method of his material studio practice.    The text is rendered superfluous. The infinite and unknowable universe requires an intelligent body at once present with a mind negotiating meaning in the face of infinite possibility, or as van Roden said: “[with] a queerness that spreads itself over the surface of things until nothing is- anymore- clear.” #

As such Van Roden concludes his excision from the logocentric body. Just like the title, there are no words in this work. The simplicity and elegance of a circle, an orb, a globe, pinned to a white wall, it hovers inside the space of an infinite white square.  Platonic and ideal form at once finite in its precise imprecision and infinite in the dreamy contemplation it invokes of all that is and remains unknowable.

Mathew van Roden, you train your child

pirrie space

By appointment only: [email protected]

* # Matthew van Roden, you train your child // artist statement.


For an interesting artist floor talk:

This post was first published at Koulla Roussos’ webpage here. Well worth a look for more …