The third exhibition in the TarraWarra International series presents five artists grappling with questions of history in the 21st century.
Art Radar takes a look at the group show now ongoing at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Australia.
Taking its cue from the Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the exhibition “All that is solid…” showcases works by Didem Erk (b. 1986, Turkey), Cao Fei (b. 1978, China), Tom Nicholson (b. 1973, Australia), Patrick Pound (b. 1962, Australia) and Cyrus Tang (b. 1969, Hong Kong). Bringing together diverse backgrounds and practices, the third exhibition of the TarraWarra International series at the TarraWarra Museum of Art presents an exploration of contemporary installation works, video and photography, running until 12 November 2017.
The title of the exhibition “All that is solid…” references the phrase “all that is solid melts into air”, coined by Marx and Engels in their seminal book Communist Manifesto, and then made popular by American philosopher Marshall Berman. Berman’s text of the same name, published in 1982, took a hard look at the processes of social and economic modernisation in the context of urban society, attempting to reconcile Marxist and leftist principles with the developments that were rapidly reorganising society in the modern era.
In a deliberate choice to punctuate the works on view with a sense of open-endedness, the exhibition title drops the last half of the seminal phrase, replacing it, instead, with an ellipsis. “All that is solid…” is a creative exploration of current social situations happening around the world, supplying insights into a multitude of narratives in ways that are expressive, and at times, poetic. According to Victoria Lynn, Director of the TarraWarra Museum of Art, and curator of this exhibition,
Conscious that we live in the midst of dynamic change, each of the artists in this exhibition considers historical and precarious moments and images… the artists present the transformation of all that was solid into their own unique 21st century visions.
The Past, Memory and Personal and Collective Histories
The works on show address the past, memory and how personal and collective histories are constructed. Confronting issues that are often at times thorny, the exhibition bridges the past and present, bringing into focus narratives from before that still affect our world today. As Lynn puts it, some of the artists “have used an historical event or archival fragment as a starting point for their work, imagining connections between the past and the present”, whilst others “depict the current social changes, turbulent conflicts, and altered political and urban landscapes with a new imaginative filter”. The exhibition leaves the visitor to encounter a whole range of works, from sewn books, robotic vacuum cleaners, and depictions of ruins across video and photography.
Didem Erk’s two channel video installation I Wish I Could Not Be Traced in The Archives (Sırkıran I Secret Decipherer I Mistiko Spastis) (2013) depicts a performance that the artist developed in Cyprus. Holding a book in her hand, Erk is seen walking and reading out loud, pacing through the streets of the city Nicosia. Written by a Cypriot writer, the book interweaves childhood trauma and fiction together, expressed through the language kept within the pages of the book itself. Erk’s simultaneous act of walking and reading appears to free the very text from the book itself, questioning the sites and forms through which stories, tales and experiences are stored, and consequently, encountered. The archive, it seems, silences more than it gives voice to, with Erk’s reading aloud in the streets of Cyprus being a way to circumvent the altogether stultifying properties of the archive itself. The past is addressed by Erk as something that lives within these faculties of medium, memory and forms.
Erk’s work is not the only one that approaches the topic of the past from the notion of the archive: Cyrus Tang’s The Modern World Encyclopaedia Vol 1-8 (2017) is an installation of cremated book ashes and book covers. Contemplating the disappearance of text itself, the viewer is confronted with the vulnerable nature of knowledge: it only exists inasmuch as its vehicle does. Tang is no stranger when it comes to using media that reflect a sense of materiality and intangibility: the artist’s works incorporate materials such as snow and steam. The ash that Tang uses in this work evokes similar notions of transience and impermanence, questioning the longevity of the archive.
Grappling with the history of Australia, Tom Nicholson’s work Cartoons for Joseph Selleny (2014) takes a similarly archive-driven approach in its conception. Presented as a three-part series, the work comprises monumental charcoal drawings, a wall drawing, and an artist book filled with fictional letters. Investigating the figure of Joseph Selleny, whose Austrian imperial vessel, the Novara, was in the Sydney Harbour for six weeks in 1858, Nicholson’s work is a look back on a legacy of colonial violence. Made through the method of ‘pouncing’, where the charcoal drawings are perforated, and then dusted with charcoal to create a wall drawing, Nicholson’s work is an evocative, dream-like piece that traces out the figures of colonial soldiers. Accompanying his drawings is Nicholson’s artist book, filled with letters that weave together the encounters of the Novara ship and Nicholson’s own experiences of his modern-day project.
Yet another similarly intriguing work is Patrick Pound’s Cancelled Archive (2017), made up of found photographs from FSA negatives held in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Pound’s archive of old photographs depict scenes of everyday life: a woman standing at a doorway, old houses surrounded by shrubbery, as well as men in suit jackets. Yet, each of Pound’s photographs are frustratingly obscured by dark holes or blobs, obscuring the full image. Pound’s work is one of incompleteness: facts remain, irritatingly, out of our reach, even if they appear to be of mundane, everyday life. Pound’s Cancelled Archive is another extension of his artistic practice, which revolves around the gathering of objects and things to piece together a fragmentary truth of the past.
Perhaps the most off-beat work in the exhibition is that of Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad (2015). Addressing the rapid development that modern Beijing is going through, Cao’s work looks at the sites on Beijing’s geographical fringes. Scenes of destruction, detritus and other rubble accumulates at the fringes, the result of modernisation itself. Cao’s work depicts vacuum cleaning robots – the Rumba – being released in the demolishing area, sucking in particles left behind. A mesmerising, enigmatic work, Cao Fei’s video presents, in a quirky manner, the effect that sprawling urbanity has over current landscape and geographies.
The third installment of the TarraWarra International series takes a hard look at the shaping of the various legacies that our world grapples with today, and the flux and flow of the forms of such narratives. As Lynn puts it, the artists explore the “notion that what may be considered ‘solid’ is in fact fluid, changing and in a continuous state of dissolution and reforming”. Reflecting on the past, as well as on the present, ‘”All that is solid…” leaves visitors with questions to ponder.
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