The TarraWarra Biennial 2014 presents a powerful sensory exploration of masking, otherworldliness and hidden narratives in Australia and beyond.
Art Radar talks to the Biennial’s guest co-curator Natalie King about ghosts, telepathy, the experimental curatorial platform and her future nocturnal liaisons.
The TarraWarra Biennial is one of only two biennials in Australia dedicated solely to Australian contemporary art. Entitled “Whisper in My Mask“, the fascinating fourth iteration of this signature event is curated by guest curators Natalie King and Djon Mundine. King and Mundine previously collaborated successfully in “Shadowlife” (2012), an exhibition which toured Taiwan, Singapore, Bangkok and Bendigo.
The duo return to Australia to present “Whisper in My Mask”, a multi-faceted, layered and hypnotising tribute to the tradition of the mask. As the exhibition’s press release states:
the Biennial explores the mask’s multifarious forms and functions and the ways in which it both reveals and conceals personas: to protect, beautify, frighten or pacify, universalise or eternalise, and intensify and amplify expression.
“Whisper in My Mask” is currently on show at the spectacular Yarra Valley, one hour away from Melbourne, and runs until 16 November 2014. The exhibition features recent and specially commissioned works by more than twenty of Australia’s contemporary Aboriginal and non-Indigenous artists. Artworks span across sound, painting, video, performance and actions that highlight the exhibition as a participatory and social space.
Natalie King speaks to Art Radar about her inspirations, the collaborative process and her upcoming projects.
Uncovering the Mask
The mask has been the subject of study in visual art every now and then, for example, at the 2011 MET exhibition “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents“. What makes “Whisper in My Mask” unique in its stretching of the subject beyond the mask itself into the whole culture and phenomenon of disguising and concealing? Could you tell us how the idea and theme developed?
“Whisper in My Mask” was the title of a 2013 essay by Djon Mundine on the artist Daniel Boyd published in Art and Australia. We decided to extrapolate and use these evocative lyrics as a trigger for the biennial. The title is a line from a Grace Jones song called “Art Groupie” (1981):
Love me in a Picture
Kiss me in a Cast
Touch me in a Sculpture
Whisper in my Mask
At around the same time, singer and performance artist Grace Jones’ body became a painted surface for New York graffiti artist Keith Haring. She and the flesh graffiti was subsequently photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Just as the genesis of the lyrics is iterative, the biennial is a volatile and evolving event that unfolds over its three-month duration. The biennial commences with the Grace Jones song in the museum foyer alongside two key works from the TarraWarra Museum of Art collection: Howard Arkley’s Tattooed Head (1983) and Robert Dickerson’s The Clown (1958) both invoke bodily inscriptions while referencing masks worn for fun and frivolity. We were keen to use the collection as a prelude to the biennial; the works are visible at the threshold of the exhibition, like a playful deceit to suggest those social masks tattooed onto our psyches.
With your expertise in photography and the moving image, could you talk a bit about the dynamics of the moving image in relation to masks, which are traditionally stationary objects that are considered art objects themselves in museums?
Photography is closely related to moving image and its twin, the cinema. Our curatorial approach has embraced multiple modalities from performance, photography, painting, installation, live art and paper cut-outs. We are interested in masking as a trigger or evocation of secrets, hidden narratives and psychological states with its multifarious forms and functions that can both reveal and conceal.
In particular, inserting a cinematic experience within an exhibition expands the audiences’ viewing parameters, slowing down time. Ragtag (2014), a short film by Aboriginal filmmaker and poet Romaine Moreton, was included in the biennale as a kind of cinematic intervention. We adopted a similar strategy in our previous touring exhibition “Shadowlife” (2012) by incorporating Ivan Sen’s short film Dust (2000) into the display.
How do you see the mask and masking as particularly relevant to Australia, in both the historical and contemporary context?
The etymology of the word ‘mask’ derives from the Latin word for ‘image’, imago, which can refer to the death mask but also to phantom and transformation. Masking suggests altered states of reverie and otherworldliness intertwined with local mysteries and parapsychology.
The TarraWarra Biennial is an important platform for presenting Australian artists in a local, experimental context and we were mindful of the biennial’s significant trajectory. TarraWarra means ‘slow moving water’ in the local Aboriginal language, and we were very conscious of its special location embedded in a verdant landscape in a valley on the outskirts of Melbourne. We conducted research at Coranderrk, the site of upheaval and dispossession on Badger Creek near Healesville, and also consulted an Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Joy Murphy. We hoped to create a biennial that radiated out from the museum and became embedded in the local community and situation.
Søren Dahlgaard’s Dough Portraits (2014) is a great example of community involvement. He produced a photographic series by draping a lump of dough on the heads of people in the region who agreed to participate in this nonsensical but sculptural act. In addition, in investigating the role of water from the Maroondah Dam to the dreamtime story of the Great Moorool, The Telepathy Project (Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples) includes a Town Meeting in the local pub and a libretto to be sung to the lake on TarraWarra property. These will take place as part of the Melbourne Festival in October.
There is an interest in ghosts, haunting telepathy, and the mysterious. Some of the inspirations are ‘international’ ghosts, from Malaysia, Japan, etc. Was it an intentional move to include stories from other places in a biennale focusing exclusively on Australian contemporary art?
Many of the artists in the biennale come from complex and sometimes fraught or contested cultural backgrounds. Polixeni Papapetrou, for example, grew up in a Greek-speaking household in Melbourne in the 1960s as the child of immigrant parents, like an outsider. In her work, she flexes her camera’s hold on her subjects: her children are dressed in vintage clown costumes and her photographs have a haunting, otherworldly quality.
Meanwhile, Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s delicate paper cut-outs explore a female ghost from Malaysian folklore and the Ubume, a ghost form of Japanese literature, art and worship. Both are ghosts of women who died at childbirth and are depicted with long, trailing hair. The ghost is a social figure, as Avery Gordon once said. The artists’ explorations of these liminal forces are in fact investigations of sites of histories, narratives and traditions.
A special commission
Please tell us about the commissioned work by Fiona Hall.
We arranged for Adelaide-based Fiona Hall, who is representing Australia at the 2015 Venice Biennale, to undertake a camp in Central Australia with twelve members of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers collective. The camp took place in the bush near Wingellina in Western Australia. Conversations at camp coalesced around the notion of camouflage, a term with no literal translation in Pitjantjatjara, conceptualised as to disguise, hide or deceive.
The collaborators shared materials, including fabric from military garments that Fiona brought to camp and ubiquitous materials from Tjanpi artists, such as native grasses and emu feathers, and used them to weave sculptures of Australian animal species threatened with extinction. These exotic sculptures are then displayed on upturned billy tins.
A curatorial vision
This is the first time that the TarraWarra Biennial has been curated by a collaborative duo comprising of an Indigenous and non-Indigenous curator. How did you balance or manoeuvre the interactions between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous art in the biennale?
It is rare for an Aboriginal and non-indigenous curator to collaborate and exhibit indigenous and non-indigenous artists side by side. Our curatorial modality is an open conversation, with detours and forays into unknown places. We are interested in a porous type of collaboration that is open and generative. We travelled to undertake research to a number of cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and the town of Alice Springs. We found ways for our ideas to converge and coalesce around the lyrics from Grace Jones’ song by including works that are experiential and sensory.
What were your personal favourite piece(s) of work?
I don’t have a personal favourite. I am attached to many of the works, from Tony Garifalikis’ obliterated royalty portraits, to Elizabeth Pedler’s immersive room filled with 4,000 litres of polystyrene beads activated by whirling fans like a giant snow globe, to Søren Dahlgaard’s dough portraits of sitters from the Yarra Valley. Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano have made a new two-channel projection of footage from the surrounding landscape with hand-held filters and mirrors that is mysterious and ambient.
What’s next on your agenda?
I am working as Senior Curator on a temporary architectural pavilion in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens in an arts precinct. Inspired by the Serpentine pavilions, this temporary structure will take up residence in parklands for the peak summer months. MPavilion is initiated by the Naomi Milgrom Foundation and I am thrilled to be working with a nimble but imaginative team.
I am also working on a programme of interventions in the pavilion designed by Sean Godsell called “One Night Stand”, which will include Slow Art Collective and The Telepathy Project (Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples). I am interested in programming at night outside of institutional hours while evoking brief interludes, dreaming and nocturnal liaisons.
What happens after dark in an informal space? What is the role of night-time when the sun goes down? Perhaps our role as cultural workers is to wake people up as a form of inducement. Special things can happen at night.
- Melbourne Art Fair 2014 makes comeback with new talent and steady sales – August 2014 – after a disappointing 2012 edition of the biennial fair, the 25th edition of the Melbourne Art Fair 2014 reinvented itself to make a solid, promising comeback
- Brand new world-class Aboriginal art festival announced in South Australia – July 2014 – a new art festival highlighting Aboriginal art is set to launch in October 2015
- Danie Mellor’s glittering interrogation of Australian history – in pictures – June 2014 – Danie Mellor uses sculpture, mixed-media watercolours and his trademark blue-and-white drawings to challenge accepted perspective on history and explore postcolonial identity
- “My Country”: Indigenous Australian art in Auckland – in pictures – April 2014 – Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand hosts largest exhibition of Australian aboriginal art that explores the artists’ connection with the land, both current and ancestral
- Melbourne on the global art map with Australia’s newest triennial – March 2014 – On 18 March 2014, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) announced the new NGV Triennial, an ambitious initiative slated to launch in Melbourne in 2017
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