Image: The Other Side of Midnight, 2013, hand painted stainless steel. Courtesy Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica.
Most of the Festival works I’ve engaged with this week have awakened my sense of place. This is an especially fragile and contested question for white Australians generally, white Western Australians in particular, and even more specifically white Western Australian artists and audiences - who (to paraphrase Shaun Tan, writing about the ‘stick-people’ in Tales from Outer Suburbia) are constantly asking ‘who we are and what we are doing here’ – on this continent, in this region, in this city, in this theatre or art gallery and perhaps on this planet. For Aboriginal Australians and First Nations peoples generally, the question of place is no less urgent, but perhaps more consciously recognised as such, since land along with language and culture is acknowledged as central to identity and indeed survival.
It’s a question – and a sense – that a festival is well-placed to raise, stimulate and reflect on, since historically festivals take place in, are identified with and celebrate or commemorate particular places and times or events. Last week I wrote about this dialectic of celebration and commemoration in the context of performance works. The focus of my blog this week will be on the Visual Arts program, not only because of its content – which has a great deal to do with place – but because the visual medium itself invites us to spend time with works, to move around them, to dwell with them, and even to leave and return to them (and the spaces within which they are installed), rather than having our spatio-temporal orientation, perspective and itinerary prescribed for us, as is generally the case with performance works and venues.
In regard to the latter, however, it’s worth noting that I’ve spent the past two weeks in a workshop on immersive site-specific theatre with choreographer Maxine Doyle and fellow creatives Sarah Dowling and Conor Doyle hosted by STRUT Dance, exploring non-theatre sites as the inspiration for creation and performance, and culminating in a showing hosted by the Festival at King Street Arts Centre. I’ve also appeared onstage as a guest performer in Iranian playwright Nassim Souleimanpour’s ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ play NASSIM (which I’ll write about in more detail next week in the context of other Festival performance works). So my sense of place and emplacement has also been thoroughly attuned by these experiences.
I spent last Saturday on the Art Adventure: a gallery-crawl across Perth visiting the major Festival exhibitions with a small group of art-lovers accompanied by Festival co-curator Anna Loxley; each visit was hosted by the exhibition curator and/or the artist themselves.
I started at 10am at the John Curtin Gallery, where director Chris Malcolm introduced us to New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries, which features her monumental three-panel video work in Pursuit of Venus [infected] shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The title is an ironic reference to the (nominally astronomical) purpose of Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti (its secret purpose being to continue on a voyage of discovery through the South Seas in search of a mysterious great southern continent); and the work is supplemented by a series of towering portrait photographs representing its titular ‘emissaries’ (played by actors in costume): the expedition’s chief scientist Joseph Banks, the Tahitian Chief Mourner who led Banks on a ritual funeral procession across the island, and a shamanic ancestor figure from the North-West Pacific, representative of later voyages; as well as an array of original antique telescopes with digital transparencies mounted on the lenses; and a collection of historical material assembled by Malcolm. This includes early copies of drawings by Sydney Parkinson, the artist who accompanied Cook and Banks on their first voyage to the South Pacific; the original specimen cabinets made of red cedar harvested by Banks from the east coast of Australia and used to house his collection in London; and a facsimile detail from Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, the panoramic French printed wallpaper panels manufactured in 1805 with designs based on Parkinson’s and others’ drawings, but depicting indigenous people from across the Pacific in a way that made them look more like idealised white people in paintings of classical antiquity by Poussin or Lorraine. It’s this detail – including a representation of the death of Cook in Hawaii – that inspired Reihana to make in Pursuit of Venus [infected].
The supplementary material is a fascinating journey in itself, but nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming visual, sonic and emotional impact of the main work. Approaching it through a darkened vestibule I could already hear music and voices shouting; emerging into the main gallery space I was confronted by a vast panorama scrolling slowly from right to left across three huge screens. Reihana has digitally scanned and recreated in stunning colours the idealised composite South Pacific landscape from the wallpaper and populated it with animated figures and groups of Islanders and European sailors played by actors and engaged in real or imagined activities and episodes from Cook’s voyage. Members of relevant Pacific First Nation communities were consulted about and performed these scenes, which feature dances, songs and other culturally specific practices. Recurring characters include Cook (played by both a man and a woman, in reference to the fact that his gender was unclear to the Islanders because of his clothing and wig); Banks; the Tahitian navigator and translator Tupaia who accompanied and guided them across the Pacific; and an anonymous and increasingly despairing marine. The journey of the panorama follows no particular geographical or cultural logic – we see Australian Aboriginal people and landscapes reappear alongside Polynesian ones – but essentially tells the story of first contact, initially harmonious interactions and then the inevitable mishaps and misunderstandings, culminating in Cook’s death and mourning by the Hawaiians (a haunting song that becomes a kind of lament for the larger catastrophe of colonisation that was already unfolding).
The effect is somewhat similar to an early Renaissance narrative painting in which the same characters reappear in multiple scenes distributed across the canvas, except that in this case the ‘canvas’ is moving; and this sense of movement is further augmented by the soundtrack, which features fragments of music and dialogue that overlap and cross-fade as the video travels (Banks also collected musical instruments and other cultural artefacts from the places he visited on the voyage). There’s an overall sense of the inexorable flow of time and tide, history and tragedy; and beyond this, perhaps, of some greater cosmic cycle – the entire work is on a one-hour loop (I watched it through twice, from two different places in the room, following different characters, scenes, details and narrative strands each time). The work’s peculiar fusion of space and time apparently invokes the indigenous Pacific concept of Ta-Va or ‘time-space’, which reminded me of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Dreamtime and Einstein’s theory of a space-time continuum. The effect is that one feels as if the entire tragedy is still unfolding, endlessly, as in a dream – as indeed it is, for First Nations peoples around the world. History, as Joyce wrote, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. In short: in Pursuit of Venus [infected] is not only a dazzling technical feat and a brilliant political act of cultural re-appropriation, but an overwhelming emotional experience, and one that will stay with me forever.
After spending two hours at Curtin, I decided to miss the next designated stop on the Art Adventure – Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate at Fremantle Arts Centre – having already spent some time with it the previous weekend (see my earlier post on Week 2). Nevertheless I was haunted by the implicit connection between the two works. Instead I headed on to the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at the University of Western Australia for my next ‘adventure’: Israeli artist Zadok Ben-David’s Human Nature.
On my way, I stopped off at the Sunken Garden on the UWA campus near the gallery to rest and reflect on what I’d seen, and noticed an inscription on a low semicircular stone wall: ‘Tangaroa clear away the clouds that Ru may see the stars.’ I looked it up online, and learnt that Tangaroa was the Maori god of the Sea, and Ru-enua a South Sea Island chieftain and explorer. I wondered what the inscription was doing there. Perhaps the gods and celestial navigators were guiding me; or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. In my current state of political and spiritual ambivalence, hovering between hope and despair, both seemed possible, and perhaps necessary. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, as Gramsci wrote from his prison cell.
Human Nature is a collection of three installations, each in a separate room. Blackfield consists of 20,000 tiny metal silhouettes of flowers planted in a vast square bed of white sand (the installation required the assistance of a large team of Festival volunteers). On one side the flowers are painted black, so that on first approach (and especially when lying down to view the installation at floor level) you have the impression of looking at a miniature landscape of burnt trees after a bushfire, or perhaps barren trees in winter. Walking around the room it becomes apparent that on the other side the flowers have been painted in vibrant, almost hallucinatory colours. The effect is that the landscape bursts into life; and then, as one completes one’s circumnavigation, it dies again.
The Other Side of Midnight is a more sombre work. The room itself is very dark; in the centre hangs what appears to be huge sphere painted with tiny multicoloured forms. As one approaches, the image resolves itself into a disc; the illusion of three-dimensionality is generated by the cleverly painted receding perspective of the coloured forms, which reveal themselves to be miniature human figures with butterfly wings and what appear to be black spaces between them. Walking further into the darkness on the other side of the disc and then turning around, one sees that the reverse sides of the human butterfly forms have been painted black, while the interstices between them now bear the images of white insects, possibly beetles, or cockroaches.
The third room, Conversation Peace, is a video installation intended to mediate between the two other works. Two human silhouettes frame a landscape that changes from summer to winter; human butterflies fly about, fall and turn into white insects, and are then reborn and rise again, endlessly.
Ben-David has a background in magic, and illusion lies at the heart of his practice. As such he belongs to a tradition of the artist as illusionist and trickster with a serious purpose that stretches back to the Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios – the former more literal, the latter more conceptual – and forward to the visual and philosophical games of Magritte, Escher or the installation artist James Turrell. The works in Human Nature are beautiful, intricate and clever, and have an obvious eco-spiritual content: the cycle of seasons, of life and death, the little butterflies like human souls, and insects inheriting the earth. Blackfield felt more optimistic; the future in The Other Side of Midnight seemed grim. Personally I didn’t find the attempted resolution of Conversation Peace convincing. Outside the gallery, the Perth summer sunlight bathed the serene grounds and Spanish Mission architecture of UWA; but in the world, midnight loomed on the Doomsday Clock, as it did on the internal clock of human mortality and frailty.
From the Lawrence Wilson gallery at UWA I drove into the Perth CBD and parked in His Majesty’s Theatre Carpark for the remainder of my day and evening. This was the first day I’d navigated my festival commitments by car rather than by public transport or on foot, as I would be traversing the length and breadth of the city; and this got me reflecting on how my experience of space and time, place and pace, are conditioned by how I move through them, as well as the environmental impact of doing so. It turned out to be the subject of my next visual art encounter as well.
Perth artist Pilar Mata Dupont is based between WA and the Netherlands. Her exhibition Undesirable Bodies is at FORM Gallery, a WA visual arts organisation focused on nurturing a ‘creative ecology’ between art, arts access and communities.
Undesirable Bodies is an intriguing and meditative three-channel colour high-definition digital video installation. The video content was recorded at Miliyanha pool, a natural waterhole formed by Jirndawurrunha, a freshwater spring in Millstream Chichester National Park in the Pilbara region of northwest WA. Millstream was a pastoral station in the 1920s and is now a popular tourist destination – in part because of the oasis of exotic flora (in particular, date palms, passionflower vines and waterlilies) introduced around the former colonial homestead that was established near the waterhole. Needless to say, these invasive species now threaten the local ecology, which is also of great spiritual significance to the local Yindjibarndi people; the waterhole itself is associated with a powerful Dreaming spirit snake.
After visiting the site, and in consultation with the local community, Pilar Mata Dupont returned with a film crew and two performers, who were initiated by local Yindjibarndi elder Michael Woodley in a welcome and protection ceremony and ritually daubed with mud from the bank of the stream before entering the waterhole. (A fascinating short video accompanying the main installation documents this ceremony, as well as Woodley singing a spine-tingling song by his grandfather Bambardu, ‘the blind one’). Using high-definition-digital cameras (some of which were mounted on aerial or underwater drones) the crew then filmed the (white, and variously clothed or unclothed) bodies of the performers re-enacting activities regularly performed by the local Yindjibarndi custodians in an effort to hold back the tide of invasive species by collecting, gathering, weeding, poisoning and burning waterlilies, passionflower vines and palm fronds.
The action and images are beautifully performed, filmed, edited and juxtaposed across the three screens, and accompanied by a haunting and slightly ominous soundtrack; the 16-minute loop ends with some fragmentary lines of translated text from the song by Bambardu about ‘alien eyes’, which for me simultaneously evoked the white artists and their cameras, the invasive flowers (including the trees when viewed from overhead), and the waterhole Dreaming spirit snake.
There’s a sense of quixotic hopelessness about the staged and actual efforts to turn back time; FORM curator Mollie Hewitt even told us that the local ecology had now adapted to the presence of the invasive species to the extent that removing them completely (even if possible) would lead to further disruption. Indeed there’s a pervasive melancholy to the whole work, which made me think that it was as much about clinical depression or obsessional neurosis as psychological states preoccupied with the impossible task of undoing the past or warding off death, as it was about the history of colonization.
When I asked about the involvement of the actors, Hewitt said they were somewhat intimidated by their task, as even Woodley himself said he would be reluctant to swim in the waterhole because of the spirit snake. She also related that when they were subsequently told the title of the work, they initially thought it referred to their own ‘undesirable bodies’.
Who are we, I thought? What are we doing here?
Across the railway tracks at Perth TAFE Gallery Central in Northbridge, WA artist-explorer Christopher Charles ventures into even more ominous and disturbing territory in an even more intriguing, consciousness-expanding and even mind-altering mixed-media exhibition, Banjawarn: Through the Shadow and Light of a Doomsday Cult. Artfully installed on two levels of the gallery, the exhibition comprises found objects and artefacts, variously framed and treated photographs, archival video material and a 38-minute video installation documenting the artist’s visits to two sites separated across the globe by the Indian and Pacific oceans. The first is a remote abandoned WA sheep station, which was purchased in 1993 by Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo; evidence uncovered there by the artist suggests that they manufactured and experimented on sheep with the nerve agent sarin, which was later used by them in the 1995 gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system. The second site is Kamikuishiki, a village at the base of Mount Fuji outside Tokyo, which was the base of the cult’s activities and the location of their chemical manufacturing plant.
The found objects and artefacts in the exhibition include a hunk of sheep wool in a glass case (recalling the work of Joseph Beuys); rows of inverted rusted iron shearing-combs (that look like Paul Klee or Shaun Tan figure-heads with little eyelets and comb-tooth crowns) and plastic ear-tags elegantly mounted on plinths; a sheep’s skull; the sole of a shoe; termite mounds; an electrode cap (which looks a bit like a lifeguard’s bathing cap, but with electrodes attached, and was apparently used by the cult for initiation purposes); a pile of paperbacks by Isaac Asimov (whose work was apparently inspirational for the cult); two open bird cages; and two live canaries (again recalling Beuys and other Fluxus artists) that fly freely around the gallery space, and inevitably evoke the gas attacks, thus making the gallery itself into a potentially lethal site of entrapment. The photos and video works include a series of small blurred colour photos – printed on Fuji (pun surely intended) photographic paper with outsized white frames like projection slides – of Tokyo commuters sleeping (as if dead) on subways, taken at Kasumigaseki subway station (where the opened sarin gas cylinders were discovered); six looped videos on small screens, including archival TV and cartoon footage of the Aung Shinrokyo cult and its leader with his distinctively Christ-like hair and beard, as well as material relating to Nostradamus and his prophecies; a series of black-and-white photos of the landscape of Banjawarn Station, printed from negatives treated with methylphosphonic acid (a by-product of sarin, traces of which were found in sheep’s wool on the site), which produces strange coloured stains on the prints that look almost like ectoplasm emerging from the trees, fences and skies; another series of black-and-white photos juxtaposing images from the two journeys; a haunting black-and-white photo of Mount Fuji obscured by rainclouds from an approaching storm; and a huge semi-abstract bleached and toned cyanotype on canvas of the forest where the artist took shelter from the storm, which he remarked anecdotally was referred to by local villagers as ‘the suicide forest’ (one wonders if they had Dante in mind).
Most striking of all is a video installation in an alcove behind a curtain at one end of the gallery, which I experienced alone on my second visit. One sits on a sofa facing a large video monitor on which a 38-minute video loops; below the monitor is a mirror that reflects the viewer’s silhouette; and behind the viewer is a translucent screen through which shines light from a projector. The video is in three parts: ‘Banajwarn’ juxtaposes video and sound from both locations in counterpoint, and includes haunting video material of more sleeping Tokyo commuters; ‘Analogous Episodic Memories’ juxtaposes footage from both locations of objects in autonomous but resonating or synchronised patterns of movement (for example, a loose panel in the wall of a shearing shed or cupboard doors moving slightly in the wind, intercut with the movement of overlapping metal floor-plates between train carriages or rows of handles swaying on overhead rails); and ‘The Clash of Instinct and Intellect’ subjects the viewer to a barrage of flickering light from the projector bouncing off the mirror while deep bass wave-patterns of sound in fluctuating cross-rhythms simulate the effect of brainwashing; this is followed by more video footage from Tokyo, while a robotic voiceover delivers a (for me somewhat redundant) sermon on the mediation of experience by technology and its social and psychological effects.
If at times bordering on the didactic, at its best this is a suggestive and thoughtfully installed exhibition that responds to the architecture of the gallery – with its wedge shape, large shuttered window frames facing the street and mezzanine walkway – and leaves the viewer to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions. Above all, there’s a pervasive sense of locations, objects, bodies and minds resonating across time and space; tempered by a critical reflection on the excesses of both technologism and spiritualism – or what Kant called ‘the dreams of spirit seers’.
On the short walk from Gallery Central back to the Perth Cultural Centre I followed a trail of street artworks by South Korean-born, New York-based multidisciplinary artist Kimsooja, who is arguably the most significant international guest artist in the Visual Arts program of this year’s Festival. To Breathe – The Flags comprises a series of seven huge translucent, softly coloured, multilayered flags, images of which appear on the facades of buildings around Northbridge. Each image comprises two or more national flags, which have been superimposed.
The images derive from a video sequence with the same title commissioned for the London 2012 Summer Olympics, which shows the flags dissolving in a continuous loop in alphabetical order country by country. That video in turn forms part of Zone of Nowhere at PICA, the first Australian solo exhibition of the artist’s work from her 30-year career. The exhibition includes a breathtaking installation To Breathe – Zone of Nowhere, featuring 30 huge actual translucent silk flags (also derived from the original video work) which hang in rows as if floating in mid-air like rows of washing along the vast central atrium space of the gallery (they can be viewed from below at ground floor level, or from above if one wanders along the first-floor mezzanine). The atrium floor at PICA is also scattered with Kimsooja’s signature bottari sculptures – large sewn bundles of variously coloured bedcovers, which are traditionally used in Korea to wrap and carry personal belongings, especially when moving from place to place
As such the entire exhibition – and indeed Kimsooja’s entire oeuvre – could be viewed as a layered, wrapped and sewn bundle or bottari, in which different materials, media and artworks are superimposed across time and space. Indeed she has described her own body as a kind of needle threading her way through the world; and she herself frequently appears in her work, either in performance on or video, often dressed in black and walking or moving through a landscape with her back to the camera in a manner reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting of The Wanderer – itself emblematic of the Romantic artist as subject moving through the world of nature and politics (Wordsworth’s Prelude being the emblematic example in English-language Romantic poetry).
A beautiful and deeply moving example is the installation Sewing Into Walking, currently on view an upstairs room at the Art Gallery of WA just across the Cultural Centre from PICA. This is a much earlier work from 1994 (which was purchased by the Gallery in 1998) and like To Breathe exists in a series of layers or incarnations. At the entrance to the room are three old box-shaped TV sets stacked on top of each other – the stack itself forming a kind of ‘bundle’ – displaying three short looped silent slow-motion videos of the artist at three different locations. In the video on the bottom screen, ‘Sewing into Walking – Kyung Ju’, she’s gathering large colourfully patterned bedcovers that have been laid out on a forest floor at the edge of a stream and bundling them over her arm; in the middle video, ‘Sewing into Walking – Yang Dong Village’, she’s depositing them in the otherwise deserted central courtyard of a village or dwelling-place, and then departing; and in the top video, ‘Sewing Into Walking – Mai Mountain’, she’s in a long dark coat, walking away from the camera along a road with a mountain in the distance.
Passing into the room, which is dimly lit, one comes across a number of old bottaris scattered across the floor or piled up in corners like garbage-bags, some of which have become worn and even split open at the seams, revealing the bundles of old clothing inside them; according to the Gallery’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art Robert Cook, the artist’s instructions for the installation were to literally hurl them across the floor. On the wall at the far end of the room is a large-scale projection of the central video featuring the slow-motion image of the artist gathering up bedcovers in the forest: the scale and corresponding pixilation of the image enhances the granular texture and exquisitely framed composition of the slowly moving tracking shot, which ends with the dark silhouette of the artist partially obscured by overhanging leaves forming a unified pattern with the printed cloths, the leaves on the ground and the dark river in the background. The juxtaposition of the bedcovers in the video with the bundles on the floor of the room lends an added materiality and poignancy to the work; and this poignancy intensifies when one learns about the events commemorated by the work (which the exhibition itself doesn’t mention): Kyung Ju (or Gwangju) was the site of a democratic protest again the military government of South Korea in 1980, which led to the deaths of hundreds of protesters.
Kimsooja’s work thus reveals itself to be a deeply political as well as spiritual practice; and this political spirituality (which needless to say is at the farthest remove from the ideological spiritualism of Aum Shinrikyo) is evident throughout the works on display in Zone of Nowhere at PICA. Alongside the implicit pacifism and anti-nationalism of To Breathe: The Flags one might cite the mixed media sound-installation Mandala: Zone of Zero, a brilliantly coloured jukebox of concentric red and yellow circles playing a mix of Tibetan, Gregorian and Islamic chants and made in response to the US invasion of Iraq; the humanist compassion of Bottari Trucks: Migrateurs, another silent looped video-work in which the artist (again with her back to the camera) appears to float through Paris on a truck laden with bottari in a filmed performance commemorating the eviction of African refugees from a Parisian church; the images of brightly coloured cloth garments, coverings and bundles photographed in sites of extreme poverty in the series Mumbai: Laundry Field; and the minimal but haunting (and once again silent) looped video-work Bottari: Alfa Beach, filmed at a Nigerian slave-transportation site, but inverting the horizon-line so that the waves of the sea appear to rise and fall above instead of below the shifting clouds of the sky.
Touching on themes of war, violence, oppression, displacement, inequality and women’s work, but bearing witness mostly in silence and without commentary, these and other works on display are also marked by an extraordinary beauty and infused with a sense of inner harmony and peace, which makes them at once acts of commemoration and healing. Perhaps this derives from the artist’s philosophy, which draws together strands from many religious and cultural traditions. Many of the works are site-specific or deeply connected to a sense of place and time (hence the intrinsic importance of video as a medium), yet at the same time they seem to transcend both – and indeed the preoccupation with identity that drives so much artistic, cultural and political activity today. The artist’s choice of a one-word name, Kimsooja, hints at this, since as she writes on her website: ‘A one-word name refuses gender identity, marital status, socio-political or cultural and geographical identity.’
Next week Humphrey reviews and reflects on the final round of performance works in the Festival.