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In 1992, Michael Riley made a key work called Sacrifice. It was first shown in black and white at the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney. This work represents another turning point in Riley’s work and life, created in a particularly fruitful year for the artist. This conceptual series employed one of Riley’s favourite subjects and closest friends: Darrell Sibosado. Though a person of very few words for much of the time, Riley’s subjects trusted him implicitly, and most recall very little in the way of discussion before a film or stills shoot commenced. Riley nominated Sacrifice as the moment where his work deviated from the classical studio set-up, and his imagination was freed to create a new visual language.
Sacrifice has a languid, sultry air, bordering on putrification: everything seems over-ripe, bleeding – literally, in the image of the stigmata – or about to ferment. The black-and-white works were printed with a colour process, hence the luscious tones,and were exhibited at Sydney’s Hogarth Galleries in Riley’s third solo exhibition. The series had an immediate impact, drawing the attention of major public institutions. The National Gallery of Australia acquired a full series, this being Riley’s first acquisition for the national collection.
It is in Sacrifice that the symbol of the cross – that most potent of Christian symbols – first appeared, looming large against a turbulent sky. Christianity is a subject to which Riley returned again in later work, such as flyblown, Empire, and his last and most potent series of photographs, cloud (2000). Biblical elements abound in Sacrifice – the cross laying on the chest and standing out sharply against the sky in an unseen cemetery; the shimmering skin of the fish, in stark contrast to the parched earth on which it rests; the oozing liquid in the dark palms of the Black Christ-like figure, evoking his struggle on the cross; the granules of sugar, flour and coffee echoing the rations metered out to Aboriginal people on missions, and hinting at the struggles present-day communities face with the onslaught of drugs.
Sacrifice was an overtly symbolic and ambiguous series of shots of objects and bodies, constructing a complex allegory of sacrifice. Riley interposed a black male torso in place of Christ and turned spoons of the sacraments towards the heroin crisis.
The principle message in both Poison and Sacrifice focussed on notions of loss – the loss created by various addictions and substance abuse. In these transitional, experimental works, Riley developed and explored new imagery, which became the mainstay of his visual language.
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