The art of lockdown

The number of coronavirus infections diagnosed every 24 hours in Victoria is now comfortably within double digits and has been decreasing daily, offering hope that Australia may soon regain the flattened curve that made us the envy of countries struggling with far higher rates of infection and death. The reduction in case numbers also shows that the Stage 4 lockdown in metropolitan Melbourne since August has been effective, despite the barrage of criticism directed at Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. Restrictions are set to ease but will remain in force with a moderation of severity until a return to ‘COVID normal’ in late November, assuming case numbers remain low.

Despite these restrictions and the horror of the pandemic, the rhythms of life in Melbourne have maintained their course, albeit with some adjustment. Artists figure prominently among those compelled to adapt to new constraints, and the need is more urgent than ever to support those who lack a devoted patron, institutional backing or a commercial outlet. Two recent video works by Camila Galaz and Laresa Kosloff, sponsored by a City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grant and Buxton Contemporary Light Source Commission, respectively, exemplify the extent to which such support can encourage creative inquiry in even the most adverse of circumstances. Working in a locked-down Melbourne, neither Galaz nor Kosloff have allowed restrictions on their movement to inhibit their artistic vision and have instead transformed constraint into a source of inspiration.

In Unwelcome Visitant, a 17-minute reflection on her experience of re-reading French author Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), Galaz captures the solipsism and anxiety of isolation with an understated yet captivating intensity. Divided into three parts, the non-consecutive and apparently arbitrary numbering of which implies that these are fragments of a larger narrative, her rhythmic monologue unfolds with a trance-like momentum, keeping time with a comparably mesmerising musical accompaniment. Alternating between day and night as the camera cuts to views of the changing sky, Galaz standing or seated in a suburban garden, and a fleeting glimpse of cutlery sterilised in boiling water, words and tones become increasingly difficult to discern. An animated chickpea making laps of the frame marks time, in a reference to the similar use of peas by a character in the novel, mirroring the pacing of the narrator as she unburdens herself of her thoughts as well as the obsessive twists and turns of these philosophical reflections.

Intimate and confessional, with frequent asides addressed to curator and creative collaborator Sabrina Baker, Unwelcome Visitant seems at times to be an extract from a salvaged video diary, a private memoir recorded to distract from the artist’s loneliness. The notes and emails compiled in the ‘Correspondence’ section of the work’s online platform, however, imply that authenticity and artifice are not so easy to discern in this complex web of intertextual citations. We are led to believe that the apparent sincerity of the artist may be a performance, a persona selected as a fitting counterpoint for her immersion in the world of the novel, much like the carefully repaired 1940s suit which Galaz introduces in the opening scenes of the video and wears throughout.

Unwelcome Visitant recalls the works by Natalie Bookchin and Daniel McKewen commissioned for UQ Art Museum’s ‘Conflict in My Outlook_We Met Online’, covered in a previous post for this blog, which likewise blur the boundary between fact and fiction in narratives of paranoia, intrigue and conspiracy. These works by Galaz, Bookchin, McKewen and other artists included in ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ share several characteristics that suggest a mutual ‘lockdown aesthetic’. Their density and complexity reward repeated engagement in the privacy of the home and seem calculated to provide as many hours of engagement as possible, inviting viewers not only to watch and rewatch but to trace the artists’ sources of inspiration, meticulously recorded by Galaz in an extensive bibliography.

Laresa Kosloff’s Radical Acts invites similar definition and provokes many of the same emotions. While Galaz and McKewen, however, create highly detailed collages of reference and reflection that seem too organic and comprehensive to be deceitful, Kosloff can be more closely compared with Bookchin in her juxtaposition of images and messages that viewers know to be prejudiced or untrue. Composed entirely using samples of corporate stock footage available online, Radical Acts outlines a dizzyingly convoluted tangle of conspiracy and pseudoscience that touches on some of the leading psychoses of our time. Environmental degradation, precarious employment, civil disobedience, managerial schemes for increasing worker efficiency, and the neoliberal ideal of a world driven by conspicuous consumption all play their part in a narrative of distraction and deceit, the alarmist tone of the narrator’s voice and crescendo of the melodramatic score mimicking a political scare campaign.

These two new videos from locked-down Melbourne appear at first to be radically distinct in conception, one making a show of sincerity and self-reflexive transparency while the other indulges in brazen deceit and obscurantist theory. Yet both artists expose the extent to which fact and fiction can be difficult to separate completely, especially during times of crisis and heightened emotion. Galaz and Kosloff also imply that the only possible passage beyond this crisis, as Galaz realised when she first read The Plague in high school, making notes in red ink in the margins, lies in a ‘radical rethinking [of the] priorities of life’. Prejudice, greed and paranoia brought us here; cooperation, selflessness and a renewed confidence in our ability to work together will help us cross the threshold into a new world.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Love and conflict @ the National Portrait Gallery and UQ Art Museum

When Andrew Stephens wrote in our Summer issue (#321) of the new vision that Karen Quinlan has brought as Director of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Canberra, neither he nor our readers could have predicted the crisis into which the world would be plunged by the time our next issue hit the shelves in March. Anticipating a year in which ‘her reinvigorated program for this young and popular institution’ would see the gallery reopen in style after its four-month closure for renovations in 2019, Quinlan noted the blockbuster show ‘Love Stories: Works from the National Portrait Gallery, London’ as a defining highlight for 2020. As the only Australian venue for this touring selection of key works from the English institution – one of several ambassadorial ventures planned during its own three-year closure for renovations – the NPG justifiably regarded this as a major coup. A media release published in December and subsequently removed from the NPG’s website promised an exhibition including ‘portraits of some of the world’s best-known couples from the sixteenth century … to the present’, celebrating what Quinlan termed ‘the multifaceted and often complex nature of love’.

Eight months after the publication of this optimistic vision for the future, however, we find ourselves faced with a more cynical and constricted arts ecology, in which those seemingly unassailable fixtures of the contemporary curatorial landscape – the blockbuster show and touring exhibition – must adapt or risk extinction. In this brave new world, the fate of ‘Love Stories’ is perhaps a sign of things to come: crossing international borders has become an extraordinarily difficult and costly process, so the much anticipated loans from London have been superseded by a more modest display of local faces from the NPG’s collection. The December media release reveals that this display was initially planned as a companion to the main show, addressing the universal themes of ‘passion, friendship, family, community and connection’, but Quinlan likely didn’t envisage an entirely online experience.

Visitors to the section of the NPG website that hosts this ‘amorous online adventure’ will find little trace, at first, of the themes noted above. After a brief introduction, we are invited to select one of five randomly selected ‘love stories’ with evocative and sometimes tongue-in-cheek titles like ‘When the stars align’ or ‘Right-hound man’. Each of these is linked to a page with an image and a short caption, followed by another list of five stories. The captions are refreshing, departing from the standard curatorial description to focus on the humanity of each work and the various forms of love revealed. Some audiovisual content, however, perhaps including recorded interviews with the curators, artists, subjects or gallery visitors, might have provided a more enriching experience. 

Greater attention to the guiding themes of the exhibition would also have been appreciated – these only surface when the visitor receives a personalised ‘love score’ generated by their choice of ten love stories and based on the coding of each story into one of five categories: ‘Devotion’, ‘It’s Complicated’, ‘Lust’, ‘Nearest & Dearest’ and ‘Passion’. Lacking curatorial framing, however, these categories seem little more than vestigial traces of the themes promised last year, while an invitation to share your ‘love score’ on Facebook or Twitter recalls the usual conclusion of clickbait quizzes popularised by websites like BuzzFeed.

The compulsive attraction (and frequent absurdity) of these quizzes is one of many facets of our online lives exposed to a more critical evaluation in another exhibition also conceived before the outbreak of the pandemic and subsequently adapted for web-based display: ‘Conflict in My Outlook_We Met Online’, hosted by UQ Art Museum, Brisbane. While an emphasis on the familiar, reassuring and sentimental in ‘Australian Love Stories’ draws attention to the new forms of connection and community that the internet has made possible, curator Anna Briers frames ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ as a shift away ‘from the utopian impulse of early internet culture to its current dystopian realities’. In the exhibition essay and media release, she asks us to consider the extent to which ‘algorithm-driven communications have exacerbated social division, stoking the fires of nationalism, fundamentalism and the rise of the alt-right’, and to bear in mind the need to guard against ‘fake news, post-truth politics and echo chambers of disinformation’.

Nevertheless, despite their different curatorial aims, the platforms through which we are invited to explore ‘Australian Love Stories’ and ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ are similar in design. Visitors to the ‘Conflict in My Outlook’ website are again faced with a brief introduction and a choice of links to artist pages that present an image, a caption or statement and a short biographic summary. There is once again a lack of audiovisual supporting material, yet the works – with the exception of watercolourist Kenneth Macqueen’s cloudscapes, rather tenuously included as a nod to Cloud data storage – more than make up for this in the overwhelming volume and theoretical density of their content. These are mainly video, digital or web-based projects that reward repeated, sustained viewing and are perhaps better suited for online than onsite display, inviting visitors/viewers/users to engage at their own pace, from the comfort of their homes.

The works cover a broad range of themes, from Xanthe Dobbie’s interactive parody of a clickbait quiz and Kate Geck’s ‘digital spa’ that promises ‘to combat social media anxiety and network fatigue’ through ‘meditative experiences and psychic cleansings’, while ironically using the same technology that causes this fatigue; to Natalie Bookchin’s unsettling but all-too-believable composite narrative compiled using excerpts from alt-right video blogs, and Daniel McKewen’s semi-fictional tale of intrigue and conspiracy told through Gumtree listings, SMS and Facebook messages, archived emails, videos and touched-up images.

Turning our attention from the uncertainty of our current real-world circumstances to the no less anxiety-inducing digital platforms through which are lives are increasingly mediated, the provocative and highly erudite works that Briers has selected expose our reliance on these platforms as a Faustian bargain, with implications yet to be revealed. In return for the promise of online intimacy, community and almost limitless opportunities to indulge our most private fantasies or to create avatars of our ideal selves, we have consented to an amplifying of the voices of paranoia, prejudice and hatred. More insidiously, as Briers notes in her essay, we have also consented to the collection and monetisation of personal data, inaugurating the age of the algorithm, targeted advertisement and unsolicited mailing list. Perhaps this, in the end, will be the future of the exhibition: a clickbait narrative, tailored to our preferences, and readymade to share on social media.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Altered states of consciousness in Mel O’Callaghan’s ‘Centre of the Centre’

The current global pandemic has forced us to interrogate and transform many aspects of our daily lives that once seemed beyond question. The most significant philosophical and ethical lesson for a post-COVID world, however, is undoubtedly the extent to which the coronavirus has revealed just how closely the fate of the individual and the collective are intertwined. In our current issue, Paris-based curator and writer Anabelle Lacroix identifies this relationship between self and other as a central component of Mel O’Callaghan’s solo exhibition ‘Centre of the Centre’, on show at UQ Art Museum, Brisbane (until 16 January 2021 before continuing its Australian tour through Museums & Galleries of New South Wales): ‘Dealing with the origins of life and altered states of consciousness, O’Callaghan’s exhibition places experience at the core of the work’, exploring concepts of ‘movement, experience and duration … as well as that of ambience [as] a position that comes not from but through a field of multiple references’.

It is from this ambience, Lacroix explains, ‘a flattening of hierarchies … in which each part is equally important’, that the radical potential of the exhibition emerges. ‘In an age where our very thoughts and emotions have been invaded by the commodifying logic of capitalism, ideas of altered states of consciousness … have become political’, and the ambient fusion of experiences in O’Callaghan’s exhibition offers a transgressive template for a worldview ‘that celebrates all forms of life, known and unknown, of the ones close to us and those on the edge of consciousness’.

Isolated in our homes and barred from travelling beyond our immediate surroundings, our present state is undoubtedly one with the potential to profoundly alter our consciousness of the world, our neighbours and ourselves. As Lacroix suggests, we are faced with a choice: do we fall back now on our old habits of conspicuous consumption, taking what comfort we can in the material possessions with which we surround ourselves? Or should we use this as an opportunity to explore new modes of being together, and new forms of communication?

In Centre of the Centre (2019), a 20-minute video created over two years in collaboration with Daniel Fornari of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, and music psychotherapist Sabine Rittner of the University Hospital of Heidelberg in Germany, among others, O’Callaghan plumbs the depths of the Pacific Ocean, including the life cycle of the coco worm (Protula magnifica). Projected across the gallery wall, this tiny inhabitant of the Verde Island Passage in the Philippines, the ‘centre of the centre of all marine biodiversity’, assumes spectacular proportions, ‘glowing, vibrating and radiating with diffracted light [that] is truly hypnotic’. This meeting of microcosm and macrocosm is further reinforced by performances of ‘breath-induced trance’ that take place within the adjacent exhibition space, ‘the shaking movement of the performers, their endurance and the increased intensity of breath [offering] a reminder of our own physical limits, as well as invoking the creation of life’.

The message of O’Callaghan’s exhibition, as of the current global pandemic, seems clear: we are all connected, whether we like it or not. From our homes to our neighbourhoods, cities, countries, regions, even our shared species and global ecosystem, we can either continue on the destructive path we have set for ourselves or, following O’Callaghan’s example, we can seek an altered state that puts the origins of life in a broader philosophical perspective.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

‘The photos say they can’t breathe’: Barbara McGrady at Campbelltown

A heavy yet upbeat heart pounds from the core of Campbelltown Arts Centre, host to Western Sydney’s iteration of ‘NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney’, where Ngiyaningy Maran Yaliwaunga Ngaara-li (Our Ancestors Are Always Watching) (2020) is fated to dislocate the dominant white gaze. In this work (created with John Janson-Moore), artist and proud Gomeroi/Murri/Yinah woman Barbara McGrady exposes her 30-year-strong photography practice in a jolting, symphonic, archival assemblage of text, photography and music, full of eye-opening contradictions and realities.

McGrady is ready to perform and to tell us how it is – how Indigenous Australia views the world – through her black lens. An immersive 360-degree kaleidoscopic multi-screen installation fuses imagery and text that pulsate in unison with Tasman Keith’s captivating and Indigenous reality-check hip-hop track, ‘My Pelopolees’ (2018). While McGrady’s powerful images do most of the talking, her byte-size texts, lifted from her regular social media posts and projected one word at a time to the beat of the music, sometimes rapid-fire, convey a feeling of being present at a protest rally, surrounded by placards, calling the audience to action. Each word. Each image. Each imbued with the reality of the human condition …

McGrady’s images conflate past and present events – both adverse and triumphant – deserving of commiseration or celebration. She shows Indigenous Australians at sporting events as well as Mardi Gras, traditional and contemporary performing arts, with family members and at protest events, drawing attention to issues of land rights, racism, connection to Country, Aboriginal pride, traditional customs and oppression …

Ngiyaningy can be likened to a shattered mirror or cubist painting, where shards of contemporary Indigenous Australian history, disjointed yet connected, project a singular subject from multiple angles. The design of the space reinforces this effect, as snippets of the same image slice the viewer’s peripheral vision, complementing an inescapable immersion of imagery, text and sound. McGrady’s black box within a predominantly white cube institution, highlights the intention for Ngiyaningy to disrupt audiences’ perspectives and preconceived belief systems …

Halfway through the work, Ngiyaningy re-routes into a less activist and more intimate personal journey. Witnessing a heartfelt conversation with her passed mother, to the tune of Electric Fields’s soulful song ‘Pukulpa (2016), the audience is reminded to remain strong and proud … As well as speaking intimately with her mother, McGrady communicates with former AFL star Adam Goodes, one powerful word at a time. The artist comforts Goodes with her declaration that she was there, supporting him during the darkest days of the controversial booing campaign, directed at Goodes for speaking out against racism …

Ngiyaningy needs to be experienced multiple times to appreciate its intricate web of stories, events, messages and emotions. McGrady’s images were not photographed with the intention of displaying them in the context of a contemporary art exhibition. Each image was destined for a newspaper, magazine, website, social media post or personal photo album. However, the power of their collective re-presentation in Ngiyaningy provides a forceful and creative narrative …

On entering Ngiyaningy I was stopped in my tracks. McGrady captured the first #BlackLivesMatter campaign in 2015 and declares that ‘THE PHOTOS SAY THEY CAN’T BREATHE’. Five years on and the photographs are alarmingly current. Selected as one of four images to be presented on a massive scale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales during ‘NIRIN’ (until 27 September), and incorporated into Ngiyaningy, the contemporaneity of McGrady’s Black Lives Matter, Martin Place (2015) is both uncanny and intolerable, given the recent death of George Floyd. As I reflect on the work, the unsettling realisation occurs to me that the loop of many unresolved issues, including Aboriginal deaths in custody, is on repeat. Again and again, they keep on happening: ‘OH YES JUST ANOTHER DAY IN THE COLONY.’

Nicole Fiedler Wallace, Sydney

This is an edited excerpt of an essay written in partial fulfilment of a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, responding to Barbara McGrady’s Ngiyaningy Maran Yaliwaunga Ngaara-li (Our Ancestors Are Always Watching) (2020), at Campbelltown Arts Centre for ‘NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney’ until 11 October 2020.

A blueprint for a brave new world at Carriageworks

In the continuing uncertainty of our current situation, as a steady increase in cases of the coronavirus in some parts of the country reminds us that this pandemic is far from over, any good news is a cause for celebration. This is especially true for those of us who make a living in the arts, one of the most heavily impacted sectors of the economy. The doors of many cultural institutions remain closed, while those that have reopened face ongoing restrictions on the number of visitors they can admit and the amount of revenue they can expect to receive. The announcement on Monday that Carriageworks will reopen to the public on Friday 7 August therefore came as a welcome culmination to the saga of insecurity into which this landmark Sydney multi-arts centre has been plunged, offering a timely vindication of the positive change that can be achieved through community solidarity.

After ten weeks of voluntary administration, the benefaction of several private foundations and a commitment from the New South Wales Government to provide five years of funding and a new lease – the longest in the institution’s history – have allowed Carriageworks to emerge from what seemed an irrecoverably dire situation with a renewed hope for the future. The inspiration for these new arrangements derived in large part from what CEO Blair French has lauded as ‘a most extraordinary expression of community support that gave great heart to everyone involved’, a wave of encouragement that he views as a testament to the ‘sheer grit, determination and collaboration’ which inspired the founding of the industrial site over a century ago, ‘born out of resilience and innovation’.

Visitors to the reopened Carriageworks will be able to experience a range of new installations by leading voices in the Australian and international contemporary art scene, including Sydney artist Giselle Stanborough’s ‘Cinopticon’, installed in March 2020 and now set to be unveiled to the public for the first time. In our current issue, curator and writer Stephanie Berlangieri describes Stanborough’s installation – her first major solo exhibition – as a ‘disturbingly apt’ meditation on surveillance ‘and its interactions with commercial interests, psychology, selfhood and the internet’, at a time when the need to reduce the spread of the virus has given government agencies an unprecedented level of access to the details of our daily lives.

The title of the installation, as Berlangieri explains, draws inspiration from social reformer Jeremy Bentham’s (1748–1832) notorious panopticon, ‘an architectural structure comprising a central tower surrounded by cells … [that] enables constant one-way surveillance’, as well as sociologist Thomas Mathiesen’s contemporary version of this, the synopticon, ‘a reciprocal mode of surveillance whereby the many watch the few’. For Stanborough, however, it is the ‘more insidious ways in which we are surveilled today … through biometrics, consumer behaviour and via our peers on social media’ that take precedence. 

‘Cinopticon’ comprises four interrelated works that explore various aspects of the exhibition theme. Cinopticon (Wall) serves as a backdrop for the installation, ‘a frenzied mind map of … words, phrases and diagrams from a range of sources, including Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, internet slang and the artist’s own conversations and musings’. Cinopticon (Voice), a six-channel audio work ‘broadcasting a cacophony of phrases mined from the artist’s online world and academic references’ provides a sonic counterpart to this ‘conceptual web’, while two video works – Cinopticon (Well) and Cinopticon (Mirror) – compel the viewer to confront the often uneasy relationship between self and self-image. As we are persuaded to shift an increasingly larger proportion of our daily lives online, generating not only entertainment and employment but also our connection with others and even our sense of self through digital platforms, Stanborough’s exploration of these issues assumes ever greater relevance.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Where is home: Mavis Ngallametta at Queensland Art Gallery

One of the most important questions an Australian can ask is: ‘Whose country am I in?’ For the late Aurukun artist and Putch clan elder Mavis Ngallametta (1944–2019), this question was central to her immense and intricate canvases as she painted her Country, and her adopted son’s Country in western Cape York, alongside people and moments of significance to her personal life. ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’ at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane surveys her relatively short but important career (she began painting in 2008), offering unique expressions of place from one of the state’s most remote and beautiful regions.

As the adoptive mother to a Wik man, Ngallametta had opportunities to access the dramatic red and white cliffs of Ikalath in north-east Aurukun, an important site for the Wik people and a source for the white ochre in her paintings. Ikalath #10 (2012) features the colourful rock faces abutting the water’s edge. It recalls a specific memory of a time when the artist and her son brought family and friends to collect clay at the bottom of the cliff shown towering above them in Ngallametta’s painting, standing by their small boat pulled to shore.

In his catalogue essay, lead curator Bruce Johnson McLean describes Ngallametta’s approach to landscape as a distinct view, ‘as if looking out from a coast-hugging, low-flying aircraft’ combined with ‘varying degrees of abstraction ... to unify macro and micro worlds’. Her works are also distinguished by her often-used bright blue acrylic undercoat, the inspiration for McLean’s choice of wall colours and catalogue design.

Bush Fire at Kutchendoopen (2014) is another grand, nearly three-metre-tall canvas in powerful charcoals and red and orange ochres, picturing the landscape during and after cultural burning practices carried out by Ngallametta’s family. The work, primed with her signature blue, simultaneously pictures the devastation of fires as well as the flourish of flora and fauna that follows. This greenery takes centre stage in her striking wet-season landscape End Swamp #2 (2017), in which the blue priming layer becomes a body of water covered in a network of soft pink, white and yellow flowers.

The title of the exhibition, lifted from the classic 1925 British song (with words and music by Irving King and Hal Swain), is also a nod to Ngallametta’s place between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. Multilingual artist statements on the wall labels, provided in English, Kugu Uwanh and Wik-Mungkan, elevate a direct dialogue with her kin and community members. In ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’, Ngallametta’s singular perspective, both biographical and monumental, offers an opportunity for all audiences to take stock of the country in which we find ourselves.

Emily Wakeling, Brisbane

‘Mavis Ngallametta: Show Me the Way to Go Home’ brings major works from the late artist’s Ikalath, Kendall River, Pamp/Swamp, Wutan, Yalgamunken, intertidal estuary and bushfire series together for the first time at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 7 February 2021.

Destiny Deacon: Showing colour

When I look at the works of Destiny Deacon I feel overwhelmed and elated, sickened and elevated. If I look deeper into those works, examine them more closely, I am lost in the narrative. Deeper into thought, into myself, with intense examination of the internal self and the external art, I think I can understand them. Deacon’s work is profound and often challenging to unpack …

Despite or perhaps because of their apolitical-seeming, bordering-on-superficial visual content – blak dollies and blacker comedy are frequent tools – the works of Destiny Deacon are intensely political. They speak strongly of dispossession, displacement, death and destruction, of the rape and torture of Indigenous women …

There is a lot to love and a lot to hate about Deacon’s work, and the love-hate dichotomy is so destabilised as to be useless as a tool for understanding. I love the body of work because of the power of the narrative in the works. I hate it because much of it is far from pleasant to look at. I love it because of the meaning I can extract …

Overall, because of the power of the work and because the unpleasantness plays a major role in the overall effect the work has, love defeats hate and the works of Deacon almost always touch me, make me think and enrich my life. The things I dislike are also the things I have passionate adoration for …

Deacon’s ancestry lies among the Kuku people from the far north of Queensland and the Erub/Mer people of the Eastern Torres Strait, and she was born in Queensland. However, she grew up in Melbourne and for the most part that metropolis is home. Politics, the light of the city, the life of the city, the colours and energy of Melbourne: they are all embedded within the work …

I am always struck by the colours Deacon creates in her work. None of the colours is quite what we expect; they are saturated or muted in ways that cannot be arbitrary, in ways that can only be genius. Yellows are never just yellow, reds are never simply red. The palette, coming as it does from photography, from film, from light itself, is surrealist and faintly disturbing …

Red, yellow and black are the colours of the Aboriginal flag, designed by Luritja man Harold Thomas in 1971. Deacon’s disturbed version of those colours suggests the watering down of our blood and culture, the destruction of our country, the legal systems that are pitched so often against us. Even Aboriginal flags, present in the art on clothing and scatterings elsewhere, are stripped back in saturation …

Deacon’s worldview is, to me, well represented by the slightly sick palette: the black not black enough, the red not quite red, the yellows perhaps intentionally unsettling. It could be argued that one role of art and of artists is to unsettle the viewer, and Deacon’s work does that perfectly. Her work unsettles the gaze of the white viewer just as the white people unsettled our people …

Sick diluted blood-red-pink, slick unpleasant yellow, faded black, the colours of our flag diluted, disturbed, distressed. The palette suggests Indigenous disadvantage and the long-term effects of fighting a culture war while in a permanent state of losing. Deacon, with little more than simple props and a camera, can teach us what Australia is, and how that challenges who we think Australians are.

Claire G. Coleman, Melbourne

This is an edited excerpt of the author’s essay commissioned for and published in the catalogue to accompany the (temporarily closed) exhibition ‘DESTINY’, at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in Melbourne until 31 January 2021.

The seen and unseen in Tony Albert’s ‘Duty of Care’ at Canberra Glassworks

Tony Albert’s solo show ‘Duty of Care is the culmination of a six-week residency at Canberra Glassworks. Glass is a new medium for Albert, known for his work in collage, painting, found material and photography. During his residency, Albert worked with a team of glass artists to produce works that explore the concept of care, the invisible forces that bind us, and the possibility that systemic racism might be shattered with the right force.

Sophia Halloway (SH): Devoid of pigment and inherently fragile, the clear glass used for many of your works in ‘Duty of Care’ makes for a particularly radical medium with which to discuss the polemics of colour. In one work, Uncodified (which way same way) (2020), you have etched the words ‘Invisible is my favourite colour’ into the glass. How has this idea of invisibility come to resonate so strongly in your practice?

Tony Albert (TA): The tension between visible and invisible has always been a core theme of my work. When I was invited to participate in the residency, it took quite a while to investigate how my practice could translate into glass. I had a vision, very early on, that if you looked through the window at the show, you couldn’t even see it. I wanted to somehow produce an invisible show. It was an amazing journey to work with the technicians at the glassworks and to discuss the possibilities of clear glass in exploring the seen and the unseen.

SH: Brother (The invisible prodigal son) II (2020) is a stained-glass window featuring the image of a proud young Aboriginal man with a target on his chest, a recurring motif in your work since the police shooting of two Aboriginal boys in Kings Cross in 2012. Recently, the killing of George Floyd in the United States has reignited discourse not only on police brutality but also monuments to contested histories. What do you think is the role of these images in reclaiming the histories of Indigenous Australians?

TA: Memorialisation is something I think about quite a bit. Not only do we live in a landscape that is so barren of Indigenous indicators, but there’s an abundance of memorials to dead white men. How might our mindsets change if our children walk into a park to find Aboriginal heroes represented, women represented? For me, it’s not so much about pulling things down but about historical truth being shared and opportunities for a more important discussion about history. Stained glass has been used to tell stories throughout history but was only ever afforded to rich institutions such as the church or the monarchy. You rarely see these images of people of colour, or women, so I think there’s a subversion in being able to do that.

SH: Language features heavily in your practice and in ‘Duty of Care’. Seemingly innocuous phrases become loaded with meaning once their histories come to light. What do you say to the symbolic power of language, and what is the relationship between language and care in your work?

TA: Vernon Ah Kee has always said: ‘English is my second language; I just don’t have access to my first.’ I think that’s a particularly poetic way of describing the impact of colonisation, but also how we need to consider language. Contemporary culture has seen language evolve with text and shorthand, with the way we translate symbols and images into a word or feeling. I’m fascinated with language and particularly the written word because we can use it in our favour to challenge ideas and ideals about power. For example, Destiny Deacon leaving the ‘c’ out of Blak, or the capitalisation of Black and White – it becomes a state of being, not just a colour. All of these plays become intrinsic to our understanding, a way we can protest every day just in how we converse with each other.

Sophia Halloway, Canberra

Curated by Sally Brand, ‘Duty of Care’ opened at Canberra Glassworks on 13 June for an extended run until 27 September. Sophia Halloway is a 2020 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia supported by artsACT.

Finding a post-internet self

In our current issue, 2020 ANCA Critic-in-Residence Sophia Halloway reflects on the ever greater importance that online forms of communication have come to assume in the past few months, as ‘a lifeline to our loved ones and livelihoods’ and ‘a source of connection’ to a world from which we have been separated by quarantines and self-isolation. In this new environment for the arts, innovative digital platforms created by museums and galleries across Australia – like Griffith University Art Museum’s ‘Lockdown Studio’, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s ‘Together in Art’, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s ‘Artist Voice’ series – have become a regular feature of the Art Monthly Australasia blog. Halloway, however, asks us to turn our attention to the new forms of expression that artists have used and developed to map this unexplored frontier for ‘post-internet’ art.

Halloway defines this as ‘art “since” the internet rather than art “on” the internet’, revealing ‘a state of mind characterised by the ubiquity of internet culture’. This category of practice has, of course, been an emergent feature of the creative landscape for some time, but, under current conditions, has gained renewed relevance. Among the many opportunities for broadening artistic horizons made possible by the internet, Halloway draws attention to the new platforms for sharing work ‘without the usual gatekeepers of an elitist art world’, the ability to ‘loan’ digital recreations of valuable or fragile works to galleries that lack the resources required to borrow the original piece, and the capacity ‘to reach audiences who ordinarily wouldn’t walk in the front door of a gallery’. Those artists who had already started to engage with these post-internet opportunities, she asserts, ‘are uniquely positioned to continue practising in a COVID-19 world’. As current restrictions on movement and public gatherings seem increasingly likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, many more will inevitably turn in this direction as they seek not only to maintain but to expand their artistic practice.

In her prescient summary of things to come, Halloway names Canberra-based artist and Australian National University PhD candidate Jess Herrington as a quintessential example of this new breed of post-internet artist. Herrington situates her practice primarily on social media, using her Instagram account (@jess.herrington) to share filters that augment the viewer’s (or user’s) reality by appending virtual objects to their face, looking back at them from the screen of their phone, laptop or tablet. Social media, Halloway writes, ‘has been criticised for distancing us from meaningful experiences in real life, with the sleek black mirror of our devices being like the glossy surface of Narcissus’s pool’. Herrington’s filters have transformed this ‘common expectation … that selfies are a form of self-commodification’ into an opportunity to ‘interrogate how we perceive ourselves on and offline’, to consider the limits of our identity and to construct new forms of selfhood. While museums and galleries seek to grow audiences and to foster public engagement with the works of art in their collections, artists like Herrington invite us to look within and to consider the personal role we can play in navigating safe passage beyond the current crisis.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Anxiety and allure in the work of Barbara Dover and Robyn Glade-Wright

It is an effective work of art that can engage our emotions and our intellect. But when there is dissonance between that which our emotions find loveable and alluring, and that which our intellect tells is us is abhorrent, then it is a very potent work of art indeed. Far North Queensland artists Barbara Dover and Robyn Glade-Wright’s touring exhibition ‘Disquiet: Ecological Anxieties and Transformations’ exploits this discordance to create a new emotional language for the challenging conversations we are having about our use of natural resources and the destruction caused by plastic pollutants.

Dover and Glade-Wright’s evident intention to highlight environmental issues and ethics has been the focus of their multidisciplinary art practices spanning the last two decades. Acknowledging that human beings don’t like to be told bad news, and that we lack what social scientists call ‘foresight intelligence’ – the ability to recognise and act on perils before it is too late – the artists are exploring the role of art in generating the motivation to act on our understanding of the environment.

On initial viewing of the sculptural and installation works in ‘Disquiet’, we experience sensations of wonder and delight, possibly the same feelings we might have when we are immersed in nature. Our emotions are engaged by the simple beauty of the objects, or because the artworks remind us of good things – thongs discarded on a beach to make the dash across hot sand for the water, a swimming race to a bobbing buoy, a turtle paddling underwater, a crab spotted in a rock pool. We understand and recognise the exhibition’s quirky urchins and quickly develop an affection for them. When our intellect takes its turn and assesses the artworks – takes in the materials used, reads the didactics, processes the ideas – we feel genuine alarm. This is the power of art at work. We can be told that by 2050, the weight of plastic in the ocean will be greater than the weight of all marine creatures, and we will chew our lip as we add the information to our mental store of doom data. But when something we love is threatened, our likelihood of retaining the information and possibly even acting on it is heightened.

Sculptures such as Dover’s ‘Decoy’ and Glade-Wright’s aptly titled ‘Choke’ series (both 2018) engage on aesthetic and emotional levels as we enjoy the pleasing arrangements and their connotations of jewellery and precious things. When we become aware that they are made of fishing detritus that is dumped by the tonne on our beloved beaches, the discord hits like a light coming on that is felt, not seen.

Through their heartfelt and intellectually rigorous approaches, Dover and Glade-Wright bring us highly resolved artworks with an elegant whammy of a message.  They have taken time, care and thought to generously produce for us these ‘treasures’ from the ocean that we can wonder at, think on and feel deeply about.  This year has shown us that the unthinkable can happen on a global scale. Perhaps now it is time to notice our feelings about the things we hold dear and act on them.

Andrea Huelin, Cairns

Supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, ‘Disquiet: Ecological Anxieties and Transformations’ premiered at Artspace Mackay in January this year and will tour to NorthSite Contemporary Arts in Cairns (6 August – 26 September 2020), Umbrella Studio Contemporary Arts in Townsville (29 January – 28 February 2021), and Gatakers Artspace in Maryborough (7 May – 27 June 2021).

Decentring whiteness: ‘Wansolwara’ and the need for critical diversity

When The Sydney Morning Herald announced the five emerging culture critics chosen to receive funding through a new initiative led by the Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas in early May, we were delighted to see Art Monthly Australasia regular Chloé Wolifson named as one of these recipients. With Melbourne-based writers Bec Kavanagh (The Australian, Meanjin) and Tiarney Miekus (Art Guide Australia), and fellow Sydneysiders Jack Callil (Australian Book Review, Meanjin) and Cassie Tongue (Time Out, The Guardian), Wolifson gained access to a AU$150,000 cultural fund for the publication of arts reviews and criticism in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WA Today.

The stated aim of this fund is to introduce ‘important new voices to the landscape of arts criticism and review in Australia’ and to offer ‘new perspectives on contemporary Australian works that will spark interest, curiosity and debate in the wider community’. The five writers chosen as beneficiaries, however, while extremely talented and deserving recipients, are also notable for a certain uniformity of complexion and cultural background. Not long after their names were announced, writing for Overland, Shirley Le drew attention to this uniformity in an extended discussion of the need for greater diversity in Australian critical coverage of the arts. Other prominent public voices, including Osman Faruqi, Ruby Hamad and Michelle Law took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their surprise – the message seemed clear: ‘The monocultural face, voice and gaze of the Australian arts reviewership is here to stay.’

This erasure of difference, Le notes, ‘is one of the most persistent and ongoing conversations in the Australian arts industry’. In a report published in August 2019, Diversity Arts Australia revealed a shocking lack of culturally and linguistically diverse representation on the executive boards and award panels of our country’s arts institutions. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that these issues came to the fore in a conversation between early-career writers Mitiana Arbon, Winnie Dunn, Enoch Mailangi and Talia Smith after the opening of ‘Wansolwara: One Salt Water’ at UNSW Galleries and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, transcribed in our current issue. For Arbon and Dunn, this gathering of over 20 artists, writers, performers and filmmakers ‘connected by the Great Ocean’ foregrounded ‘the problem of negotiating our cultural identities in spaces where we’re not a majority’ and provided a valuable opportunity ‘to see Tonga spread out in a place like UNSW Galleries’. Smith, too, spoke of her ambition ‘to see myself in these places, and [for] exhibitions to start reflecting things that I know my family feel’.

The inclusion of artists without Pacific or First Nations heritage in an exhibition dedicated to the cultural networks of this region, however, prompted some critique. Echoing Le’s remarks, Dunn observed that, ‘if white artists took a step back and just let other voices in … it would change what we consider art today in this country’, while Smith explained her personal approach to issues of equity: ‘if I think I’m not the right person to tell a particular story, then I’ll pass it on … It’s about learning when you should give the mic to someone else and not just take every opportunity.’ Last week, Kavanagh and Callil demonstrated their shared commitment to this approach when they voluntarily resigned from their new roles, citing their realisation of this ‘missed opportunity to support non-white voices in arts criticism in Australia’ and asking for their share of the fund to be ‘redistributed to non-white writers’. A comparable aspiration animates ‘Wansolwara’, which Mailangi views as an opportunity to see ‘who Pasifika artists are when they’re not busy responding to whiteness or colonisation … to see Pasifika art when it’s not centring whiteness’.

As Creative Producer and General Manager, respectively, of Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, Le and Dunn are united by their mission to accomplish this decentring of whiteness in the critical landscape of Australian arts and culture. Through projects like ‘StoryCasters’, Sweatshop has positioned itself alongside other organisations like Djed Press, Liminal, Mascara Literary Review and Peril Magazine, and as a much-needed advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse writers, musicians, podcasters and filmmakers. Yet the responsibility for ensuring diverse conversations about the arts in this country cannot be delegated entirely to organisations like these – mainstream validation is also essential, and it is here that larger organisations like the Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas can show their support. Without belittling the achievements of Callil, Kavanagh, Miekus, Tongue, Wolifson and the many other white critics across Australia, true change, writes Le ‘cannot happen unless artists of colour are supported by the rest of this industry’.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Floating, absorbent, expansive and free: Lynette Wallworth’s 'Awavena'

After experiencing the work Awavena (2018) by Lynette Wallworth at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in February, I reread a pamphlet by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess published to record a lecture given at Perth’s Murdoch University several decades earlier. Naess writes of the moment when he realised the correspondence, the equivalence, of human and animal pain. He had watched the accidental death of a flea that had fallen into a drop of acid he was observing under his microscope, and witnessed the enormous silent horror of its suffering.

I wanted to return to this text after an interval of 25 years, not because Wallworth’s Awavena conveys the suffering of the natural world, or even because of the Yawanawa, who are the film’s subject, but rather because I wanted to verify – in relation to it – my recollection that Naess had indeed felt that accident to be a moment of deep insight. I was also interested to recall that period of my life in Perth when I read, all those years ago, what is now called ecophilosophy.

The week before this viewing of Awavena, the gallery hosted a ‘long-table’ event to which a range of intellectuals engaged with eco- and First Nations activism had been invited for a discussion of the issues raised by Awavena within the local context. There was, at one point, that moment, typical of conservative Perth, when the intersection of its politics and the issues of Awavena came to the fore. Sampson McCracken, the Perth spokesperson for School Strike for Climate, proposed that more determined action should be taken against a number of oil and gas companies that have their headquarters in the city. There was then that silence that I recognised so well from decades past.

Awavena is, in a sense, two films. The first is in a more straightforward documentary mode, describing the relationship of Tata and Hushahu, the older shaman and the younger shamaness-to-be, with a feminist twist. The second shorter film principally aims to convey the literally hallucinatory experience of drinking a sacred tea and witnessing the Amazon forest while entranced by the tea’s effects.

This is what most impressed me: the sensation of being in space, floating among the atomised universe of the rainforest trees, while having the sense of being disembodied, of being part of those other living beings who, whether trees, animals or other people, are just as embodied as I. As with Naess’s killing of the flea, there was a definite trans-species identification, a kind of empathy.

This sensation of being particulate, floating, absorbent, expansive and free remained with me for subsequent days, even when I would drift off to sleep. This is what they mean, I suppose, by the cliché ‘feeling part of nature’. Yet I was haunted, too, by that familiar, local, pragmatic silence.

If Wallworth would like those who have experienced the virtual and real insights ‘gifted’ to us as viewers by Tata and Hushahu to act on the experience of this art, surely we need to be able to somehow articulate and confidently confront those aspects of our present reality – mining companies, local, national and global politics, and so on – that are now obviously incommensurate with life. We need to realise that First Nations are not that flea under the microscope’s lens.

Now we are all that silent screaming flea.

John Mateer, Perth

Lynette Wallworth’s Awavena was screened as part of the Perth Festival at the Art Gallery of Western Australia from 7 February until 2 March 2020. London’s Barbican is hoping to present Awavena in early 2021.

Artists in isolation, the ‘Lockdown Studio’ and a COVIDSafe arts ecology

As galleries and museums across Australia tentatively reopen, what was once envisaged as a return to normality seems more like the unfolding of an entirely new chapter in the progress of the pandemic. The most visible signs of difference are the ubiquitous antibacterial handwash stations and public health signage, yet a more optimistic indicator of change has been the continued dedication to online programs. These initially developed as a response of necessity in the face of dwindling revenue, but are now driven by a recognition of the opportunities that such programs offer for new forms of public engagement. Many of these initiatives have focused on providing channels for artists to speak directly to their audiences, sharing their personal experiences of the global crisis, their visions of a post-COVID future, their advice for those struggling to come to terms with current realities, and, of course, their art.

Griffith University Art Museum in Brisbane took an early lead in this space and has continued to set the tone for other galleries and museums seeking to join the conversation with the ongoing ‘Lockdown Studio’ series of artist videos, initiated on 20 April and updated weekly. In contrast to the high production values and carefully curated adherence to an institutional narrative that distinguishes related projects like ‘Together in Art’, overseen by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, these videos make a virtue of low-tech intimacy and unscripted immediacy. Collaborating artists are given the freedom to choose their topic and format, with the one condition that they use a mobile phone to record in a single take, but with no bars to further innovation beyond this simple instruction.

Like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Australia’s ‘Artist Voice’ series, ‘Lockdown Studio’ offers a glimpse into the private lives and thoughts of collaborating artists. These participants, however, represent a much wider sample of the arts community, including younger emerging artists as well as more established voices. The initial motivation for the series was the need to support front-of-house and install staff at the museum by increasing the public visibility of their artistic practices. In the first uploaded video, former Sculptors Queensland resident artist Tiana Jefferies sets the tone for the series with a discussion of the ‘threshold between public and private spaces’ and the forms of contact we share even in isolation from friends, family and community. Both Jefferies and Brisbane-based photographer Patrick Lester, the second contributor, note the opportunity that isolation has brought to adapt their usual methods, forcing them to engage with new technologies and settings for their work. While they talk, candid and unrehearsed, the natural chorus of Brisbane provides a steady accompaniment, though the hum of passing cars and human voices is conspicuously absent.

For Richard Bell, one of the more well-known contributors to the series, this absence has been a welcome relief, a calm before the storm of ‘desperate economic times’ ahead. Bell introduces us to a series of monumental panel paintings that offer a prescient foretaste of the crisis now unfolding, ‘a conglomerate of protests around the world’ that he has likely found occasion to greatly elaborate in the past few weeks. Bell and other established contributors to ‘Lockdown Studio’ also starkly illustrate the differential impact of this crisis – while emerging artists like Jefferies and Lester are forced to adapt, he admits that ‘isolation really hasn’t affected me that much’. Lindy Lee gives a comparable assessment, glossing isolation as a fantastic opportunity to prepare for her upcoming survey show at the MCA and introducing her two studio assistants, about the same age as Jefferies and Lester. Also evident in Lee’s contribution, however, is the intimacy of the working relationship between artist and assistant, shedding light on the usually invisible networks of mutual support and reciprocity that animate the arts community.

It is this insight above all that distinguishes ‘Lockdown Studio’ from other online public projects. Each video in the series stands alone as an intimate portrait of an individual coming to terms with the constantly shifting conditions of our shared isolation. At the same time, as a collective endeavour, these videos map a complex constellation of careers, professional roles, social and cultural backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, united by a shared commitment to artistic expression. Raised in unison and speaking from the heart at a crucial moment on our path out of crisis, the voices of those involved offer a template for mutual understanding that dissolves the artificial boundaries too often imposed between the arts and everyday life. 

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Compelling and urgent: Artist initiatives in a New York under crisis

As a curatorial intern in the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art, I was only supposed to stay in New York until April. But it was clear by mid-March, with the Australian borders closed and unpredictable flights, that I would remain quarantined here indefinitely. It has been a strange time, being in a city relatively new to me, observing as an outsider how things quickly unfolded. By late March, New York had become an epicentre of the pandemic with a staggering number of deaths. Studies have revealed that the virus has disproportionately affected black communities at a rate nearly two times higher than other ethnic demographics. There were public outcries at how the pandemic has amplified existing injustices and left the marginalised more vulnerable. These outcries, however, were soon subsumed by a harrowingly familiar incident: the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers in broad daylight. The death of George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was met with immediate outrage, sparking #BlackLivesMatter protests that continue to resonate worldwide.

Poster House and Between Bridges, two cultural organisations that launched creative communal projects in response to the pandemic, have since shifted their focus to different forms of activism, amplifying the voices of black creatives in support of police reform initiatives and calling for solidarity against racial injustice. Their projects represent a microcosm of grassroots responses by New York artists to the socio-economic impacts of the ongoing crisis.

Among the first New York museums to close due to the pandemic, Poster House initiated one of the largest COVID-19-related projects. An ongoing city-wide public art campaign, #COMBATCOVID commissioned over 20 designers to produce posters of ‘love, gratitude, and solidarity with New York City’s frontline workers’, as well as messages of public health and safety. The posters have been displayed on nearly 1800 digital screens, including the iconic billboards of Times Square. In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Poster House took to Instagram to emphasise their mission of collecting work by BIPOC artists and designers. Most notably, they showcased two 1969 posters by Emory Douglas, the African–American graphic designer who worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, and contextualised these works within a long history of black activism. As a museum with an educational mission, Poster House also dedicated their Instagram Stories platform to share resources relating to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, continuing their commitment to engage and inform the broad public of significant social issues that posters visualise and communicate.

2020Solidarity’ is a fundraising project by Between Bridges, a non-profit space founded by artist Wolfgang Tillmans in 2006. For this initiative, the Turner Prize-winning German photographer invited over 50 international artists to each contribute a poster design to be sold at a set price of US$50, with all proceeds going towards supporting independent spaces and publications threatened by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Between Bridges prints and distributes the posters free of charge and encourages non-profits to participate. Major New-York based organisations like Artists Space, ISCP and Visual Aids are among some of the many spaces that are involved in selling the posters to fundraise. On his Instagram feed following the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, Tillmans highlighted Marlene Dumas’s poster of the late African–American writer James Baldwin (2014, from the ‘Great Men’ series), a new print being sold at London’s Black Tower Projects, with all proceeds going to police reform and educational campaigns in the United Kingdom. Such initiatives follow Tillmans’s own activist commitments in the area – he took photographs of one of the first #BlackLivesMatter protests in New York in 2014, one of which, an image of a hand raised in the air, prominently featured on the cover of Artforum’s March 2017 issue Show of Hands. Six years since that photo was taken, the image and the issues that first prompted the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement remain as compelling and urgent as ever.

Annette An-Jen Liu, New York

Annette An-Jen Liu is a 2020 Critic-in-Residence at ANCA, Canberra, in a special project partnership with Art Monthly Australasia supported by artsACT.

Seen and heard: ‘Monster Theatres’ at AGSA

At the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, the pre-lockdown media preview for ‘Monster Theatres’ was conducted in the midst of Karla Dickens’s A Dickensian Country Show (2020). A play on the artist’s name, and an apposite link with the Victorian-era chronicler/critic of the class system and advocate for social reform, the work conjures the atmosphere and itinerant nature of circus and carnival culture to give a piercing commentary on politics, gender and race. It is one of the stand-out works in this 2020 iteration of the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, for which curator Leigh Robb has invited 24 artists and collectives to make present the monsters of our time.

Megan Cope’s interactive and intricately constructed sonic installation Untitled (Death Song) (2020), for instance, offers a critique of ecological mismanagement through the mournful note of the bush stone-curlew, endangered by loss of habitat. Issues of intolerance and abuses of power, of forced migration and the refugee crisis are addressed by Aldo Iacobelli, who references the work of contemporary writers such as Italian poet Erri De Luca (‘the voyage on foot is a trail of backs’). And at the Adelaide Botanic Garden, Yhonnie Scarce’s glass installation In the Dead House (2020) makes visible the gruesome history of the nineteenth-century mortuary building as a site for the illicit collection of Aboriginal remains.

A serpentine mass of richly purple ‘suckered’ tentacles, Julia Robinson’s sculptural installation at the Museum of Economic Botany is a hybrid representation of the monstrous Scylla of Homer’s Odyssey and Beatrice, the beautiful but cursed protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 gothic short story. From Medusa to the terrifying Xenomorph in the Alien film series, the dangerous female – an historically disruptive force in literature, art and cinema – almost invariably meets a grisly end.  In a David Lynchian amalgam of the domestic and the abject, Erin Coates and Anna Nazzari’s 15-minute film Dark Water (2019) disturbs comfortable notions of the home (and by extension the nation) as a place of sanctuary and stability. Their meticulous recreation of a 1950s Australian domestic interior rapidly descends into an aquatic and startlingly visceral sci-fi horror film, recalling classics of the genre such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). 

With the reality of a global pandemic, works such as Abdul Abdullah’s almost deserted theatre, Brent Harris’s ‘Grotesquerie’ series (2001–09) and, in particular, Mikala Dwyer’s biohazard banners and discomfiting sick bays, have acquired a more loaded resonance. Her beaked and hooded hospital gowns (a reference to the protective attire worn by medieval plague doctors) strike an especially ominous note.

Critic Andy Butler identified the Wiradjuri words for ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ on the interior of a megaphone-like form in Dickens’s installation. Indeed, in accordance with Robb’s admonition to ‘listen to our monsters, and attend to their cautions, as we move into … a precarious and uncertain future’, sound and/or performance works – by APHIDS, Mike Bianco, Cope, Julian Day, Mike Parr and Stelarc – constitute a significant component of this biennial. Here and elsewhere, Robb allows for the possibility of a redemptive counter narrative to be heard and made manifest.  

Wendy Walker, Adelaide

The Art Gallery of South Australia and satellite venues at the Adelaide Botanic Garden reopened on 5 June for an extended run of ‘Monster Theatres’ until 2 August.

Decolonised gaze: ‘Terra inFirma’ at Blacktown Arts

As Blacktown Arts’s response to the 250 years since Cook’s arrival in Australia, staged across multiple iterations, ‘Terra inFirma’ weaves a narrative of British colonisation and its rippling devastation beyond the confines of the Australian coastline. The first exhibition (on view at the Leo Kelly Blacktown Arts Centre until 10 July) was produced in close consultation with local Darug elders, and features works by Kristone Capistrano, Jumaadi, Shivanjani Lal, Venessa Possum, Teivao Pupu Tamariki, Judy Watson and Fozia Zahid that reflect the diverse local populations and communities within Blacktown. While the British colonial project was one of violence and horror, the exhibition employs soft tones and gentle non-graphic imagery with multiple perspectives to provide a shared narrative grounded in common experience.

The exhibition resides within the high-ceilinged, reverent hall of the former church building. A simple curatorial hang disperses the works evenly throughout, allowing them to breathe and inviting prolonged attention. Situated in this way, the works not only map narratives but also the geographical progression of British settlement. In Murura – Pathways (2020), Possum explores the colonial landscape through the layering and weaving together of old tea towels. Representative of colonial possession, the cloths are reclaimed through illustrations that demark the natural environment. This process of reclamation, also reflected in Watson’s documentation of Indigenous massacres in her video witness tree (2018), aims to decolonise and provide alternative maps to the possessive Eurocentric formula.

The storyboard created by Zahid in her recent series of seven miniature paintings charts the violent history of British colonial rule in India using intricate illustrations in a traditional form also used in the artist’s birthplace of Pakistan. This narrative is continued in Lal’s artwork I am not an island, I am an archipelago (2020), in which khadi paper is stained by burnt turmeric to trace the movement of Indian people to Fiji, brought by the British as indentured labour to work on sugar plantations.

By presenting such mappings that have been largely absent from the Australian public view, and by giving them space to breathe, ‘Terra inFirma’ shifts focus away from the official colonial narrative to gently illuminate the importance of community, collective memory, memorialisation and resilience.

Nikita Holcombe, Sydney

The second iteration of ‘Terra inFirma’ will be exhibited from 5 September until 1 November 2020, with the project continuing into 2021.

Crossing continents and time: Daniel Thomas on the incomparable Christo

On 31 May, the Art Monthly Australasia team and many other art lovers across the world were sad to learn that the incomparable Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020) had died at his home in New York. By an uncanny stroke of coincidence, while planning our current Winter issue back in March, we had occasion to include an article from our archives by the equally incomparable Daniel Thomas, first published in December 1991 (AMA #46) and dedicated to Christo’s six-year undertaking, The Umbrellas: Joint project for Japan and USA (1984–91).

As Thomas makes clear in his recollection of the project’s reception, The Umbrellas wasn’t one of the most successful installations that Christo and his artist-partner Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935–2009) developed over five decades of collaboration. The planned three-week duration of this ‘vast bi-continental diptych’, for which thousands of hired labourers installed 1340 umbrellas in Japan’s Satogawa Valley and another 1760 in Tejon Pass, California, at a cost of US$26 million, was cut short in both locations by tragic twists of fate. In Los Angeles, a spectator was killed by an umbrella caught in a sudden gale, while in Japan one of the workers on the project succumbed to a fatal electrocution. This was despite the exhaustive battery of safety tests and approvals on which the artist had insisted prior to installation.

Even before the early closure of The Umbrellas, Christo faced strident criticism from arts writers at Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine, who accused the artist of pandering to mass appeal. As a self-professed ‘Christo groupie’, however, Thomas refutes these accusations and rescues the ill-fated project from the purgatory of critical disapproval with an erudite reappraisal that illustrates why he is justifiably one of our most beloved arts writers while also demonstrating why Christo, even in the direst of circumstances, remained a consummate artistic innovator throughout his long career.

For Thomas, the public spectacle of The Umbrellas wasn’t its defining or even most distinctive quality: it was the artist’s sensitivity to the settings chosen for his work and the implications of their juxtaposition that set the project apart in the crowded field of global installation art. The blue of the umbrellas in the Satogawa Valley, he writes, ‘exactly matched the Sato farmers’ covering for fertilizer and heaps of soil, their blue gauze for protecting grapes, their blue-painted sheds and equipment’, its watery symbolism suggesting a new addition to the local calendar of seasonal festivities. In California, yellow umbrellas were perfectly suited to the arid desert landscape, shimmer of the sun and vivid blossoms of the sagebrush. For Thomas, these installations indicate a sincere empathy ‘for the settled peasant farmers of a backwater valley in Japan [and] for the peculiarly American nomadic culture of the long-distance highway’. In the joining of these communities he finds a revelation of our shared responsibility for and grounding in the natural environment: ‘Travel light and you escape the earthquakes. Move on and let used land regenerate. Nomadism could be the best future.’

Those who’d like to read more of Daniel Thomas’s canon-defining contributions to the history of Australian arts writing will be pleased to know that 77 of his most influential pieces – including his thoughts on ‘Being a curator’, published in AMA #123 (September 1999) – will be compiled in Recent Past: Writing Australian Art, a magisterial anthology due to be published by the Art Gallery of New South Wales later this year.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Familiarity and intimacy: ‘Together in Art’

Writing at the start of April about the indefinite closure of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in the first instalment of an ambitious project inspired by this almost unprecedented eventuality, Director Michael Brand called for action. At first, he conceded, ‘our initial actions might be quite small in scale but they will set the tone for what will follow as we set out larger and longer-term strategies’. In the two months between the gallery’s closure and its scheduled reopening on 1 June, the elaboration of this project – aptly titled ‘Together in Art – through the contributions of artists, educators, performers, gallery staff and art lovers across Australia has more than fulfilled Brand’s aspiration. As visitors return to the physical space of the gallery, this virtual space of ‘creativity, passion and commitment’ will remain a monumental achievement, offering ‘humour, delight, curiosity, beauty and artistic uplift’ not only to those unable to visit in person, but even to those who spend every day within the gallery’s walls.

Alongside Brand’s heartfelt reflection on ‘the power of art to connect people in times of crisis’, visitors to ‘Together in Art’ can now read short articles on a diverse range of subjects from ‘the shapeshifting foxes, living teakettles and otherworldly beings of Japanese art’, to the social role of self-portraiture in the twenty-first century. We can browse a selection of ‘pocket exhibitions’ featuring key works from the AGNSW collection, brought together in response to themes that reflect the whole spectrum of human experience, from the reassuringly prosaic to the mind-expanding and sublime. Those seeking to discover creativity in confinement can turn for inspiration to new work by artists Mitch Cairns, Tom Carment, Emily Hunt, Jumaadi, Thea Perkins, Tom Polo, Jude Rae, Marikit Santiago and Jelena Telecki, commissioned ‘to create an image of something familiar and intimate – the view from their window’.

Familiarity and intimacy can also be found in a series of instructional videos, offering lessons in the making of collage portraits, shadow projections, flower patterns, toilet-roll dolls, monsters, dada poems, faces and the solution of problems through diagrams. Artists Marian Abboud, Tony Albert, Adrienne Doig, Deborah Kelly, Desmond Lazaro, Nell, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Ben Quilty take up Brand’s invitation to ‘speak from the heart’, inviting younger family members to join them in their step-by-step demonstration of projects that have likely brought together many families across Australia. Like the ‘Artist Voice series initiated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, another Sydney-based institution scheduled to reopen on 16 June, these videos offer a glimpse into artists’ daily lives, dispelling some of the inhibitions that might dissuade those less familiar with the arts from engaging with their work.

As we move into the next phase of our transition into a COVIDSafe Australia, initiatives like these give us some idea of what to expect in a reopened and revitalised arts community. Long before the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent closure of museums and galleries across the world, curators, educators and public programs coordinators realised the value of digital platforms. Many had already started to develop online resources and virtual experiences to attract and retain diverse audiences, seeking to entice younger visitors through their doors while fostering new ways of engaging with art outside the bricks-and-mortar gallery. Digital platforms will never completely replicate or replace the experience of seeing a work of art in the flesh, and the ghost exhibitions' of Brand’s imagination will soon be filled once again with the invigorating murmur of hushed conversation. These months of solitude and closure have shown beyond a shadow of doubt, however, that this collective search for meaning, our desire to come together in art, extends far beyond the physical space of the gallery.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

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This week has marked our first cautious steps out of lockdown and into a 'with more likely on the way soon.

MAGNT Darwin, the Museum of Central Australia, Megafauna Central and Lyons Cottage opened their doors on 18 May as part of the second stage in the Northern Territory Government’s ‘Roadmap to the New Normal. Discovery Centres in Darwin and Alice Springs, the Defence of Darwin Experience and Fannie Bay Gaol remain closed, and all reopened venues must enforce strict physical distancing and hygiene measures, but many in the territory will undoubtedly find great cause for celebration and reassurance in this sign of change, perfectly timed to coincide with International Museum Day. Another sign of things to come is the continued commitment to online initiatives reaffirmed by MAGNT Director Marcus Schutenko, indicating that a dual approach to exhibitions and public programs will likely remain a defining feature of our arts landscape for some time yet.

Despite the closure of galleries and museums across Australia and the possibility that visitor numbers will be down for some time, the pandemic has inspired an expansion rather than contraction in other areas of engagement, with podcasts, video tours and interactive encounters opening collections and exhibitions to a broad diversity of regional, interstate and overseas audiences.

In Sydney, AGNSW is scheduled to reopen from 1 June, while AGSA Director Rhana Devenport ONZM has announced that the gallery in Adelaide will reopen from 8 June, again with strict physical distancing, capacity limits and increased hygiene measures in place in both cities. ‘While attendances will be diligently monitored and the safety guidelines outlined by Government adhered to’, Devenport assures, ‘we are so pleased to welcome a limited capacity of visitors … reopening windows to other worlds through art’. Brand makes similar reassurances, appealing to the solace that art can offer as ‘a source of hope and inspiration in difficult times’. Like MAGNT, both galleries will maintain a commitment to their online resources and an active social media presence, with Brand emphasising that AGNSW ‘will continue to affirm the power of art to connect people’ through the Together in Art project, an ‘open, heartfelt and responsive [initiative that] continues to offer a daily boost of art and imagination online’.

For the arts, as for other sectors, our first tentative steps out of lockdown and into an uncertain future have revealed the extent to which the medical and economic devastation brought about by COVID-19 compel a reassessment of our priorities. It cannot be denied that many people and institutions have suffered greatly and continue to suffer as the crisis intensifies elsewhere in the world – a reminder that we cannot become complacent and must remain cautious in our efforts to recover. Yet for those who have had the good fortune to weather the storm, this has also been a lesson in the need to adapt and innovate, to make use of new technologies, and to share our advantages and resources with the widest possible audience. It is this commitment to diversity, transparency and accessibility that offers our best hope for a better future.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager

Artist conversations 'dig deep within the soul'

The place of the arts within Australian cultural life has become a recurrent topic of discussion for journalists, arts administrators and commentators in recent weeks, with the threat of insolvency prompting impassioned calls for additional government assistance and a renewed recognition of the central role that works of art can play in our quest for self-understanding. One chorus of voices who have often been excluded or overlooked in these debates, however, are those of the artists and creators whose livelihoods and lifestyles have been most radically affected by our current circumstances.

With ‘Artist Voice’, a new series of audio-visual and written conversations with contemporary artists around the world, curators at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney seek to remedy this situation. This ambitious program offers an alternative platform for leading artists who are currently isolated in their homes and studios to share their strategies for dealing with lockdown and their thoughts on the issues now facing the arts sector globally. The series also showcases the close working relationships that MCA curators enjoy with many contemporary artists, capturing moments of great empathy and intimacy that provide a welcome antidote to the existential anxiety with which many of us are now struggling.

In the first conversation of the series, Anna Davis speaks with Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro at their home in the Blue Mountains, where the scarred and blackened landscape still bears witness to the catastrophic bushfires that seemed incomparably devastating earlier this year, but which have now been all but eclipsed by an even more overpowering crisis. Surrounded by such devastation, but comforted as well by the rapid appearance of new growth, Healy and Cordeiro share their hopes that the pandemic will be ‘a wake-up call to our relationship with the environment’, that politicians and policy-makers around the world will recognise the increasingly urgent need to safeguard the health of the planet as well as that of the people who call it home. On a personal level, they confide that our enforced isolation could provide an opportunity for self-reflection, ‘to dig deep within the soul’, finding in art, music, books and film not only some refuge from the tragedy unfolding around us but also inspiration and hope.

Other thoughts and visions for the future take form in conversations with Rushdi Anwar at his home studio in Chiang Mai; Sydney-based artists Mitchel Cumming and Gemma Smith; Karla Dickens and Megan Cope in Lismore, New South Wales; and Lee Mingwei, speaking from one of the most heavily impacted epicentres of the virus, downtown New York. The full series of 17 conversations is scheduled to unfold over the next few weeks, covering a range of topics and a broad spectrum of experiences.

The impact of COVID-19 for the visual arts will also be the focus of Art Monthly Australasia’s upcoming Winter bumper edition, featuring the work of Brian Fuata, Pat Hoffie, Giselle Stanborough and Jemima Wyman, among others. With the future of the arts and cultural industries in Australia and across the planet looking increasingly uncertain, the importance of attaching a human face to what can too easily become a spreadsheet of facts and figures assumes vital importance. Now more than ever, even while we may seem isolated by the need to distance ourselves from others, the value of our human connectedness and the role that art and artists play in communicating this mutual empathy have become all too clear.

Dr Alex Burchmore, Publication Manager