Black box logic
A snapshot of the contemporary moment; a transcript of what felt pressing and critical at the time. Is that what The National: New Australian Art is? This series of three biennial exhibitions has been pitched as a large-scale and cumulative survey of recent Australian practice. ‘Survey’ is a loaded term. There will inevitably be artists and artworks of significance overlooked by this suite of shows. Artists and artworks that are equally pertinent. Knowing this, how do we rationalise the project’s historical legacy? When this catalogue is pulled from library shelves in 20 years’ time, what will stick? How will it recall this ‘contemporary’, how will it claim this moment?
This moment – a moment steeped in uncertainty and precariousness. As I write (1), the Australian parliament is incapacitated and immobilised, tipping towards a spill. Peter Dutton could be the next Prime Minister, or Scott Morrison, or Julie Bishop. By the time you read this text, the decision will have been made, the urgency will have passed, the headlines will have moved on. Surely we’re used to this pattern by now? Over the last few months, crises have hit in waves. Like the waves of rising sea levels; like the waves that bring refugees ashore (before they’re pushed off once more). Yet in the midst of a swell, how do we steady ourselves? When do we pause and take stock? Today a 12-year- old girl on Nauru tried to set herself on fire. (2)
How do you historicise a feeling? How do you archive anticipation? What does a snapshot of suspense look like? Is it a Twitter feed, the 24-hour news cycle? (I write, continually refreshing the webpages tracking the Australian political drama.) Neither seems capable of preserving the intensity of the moment itself. They’re just spools of thread (of dread?) that keep unravelling as you watch with wide eyes and incredulity, barely able to take a breath.
We need a new metaphor, another way to conceptualise what it means to try to pin down the present. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to do, capture the contemporary?
As I keep turning these questions over in my head, I arrive, again and again, at the image of a black box flight recorder, the device that records the flight stats and cockpit audio from an airplane so that they can be recovered in the ‘unlikely event of emergency’. The black box documents a fall in real time. Though diminutive, when pulled from the wreckage it is used to decode disaster. It preserves collapse in a time capsule. Catharsis and cold comfort.
Perhaps there is something in this allegory that offers an entry point into an exhibition like The National 2019, that allows us to think through artworks that direct their attention to the present moment. If we follow this flight path, where do we land? It might be helpful, or at least anecdotally apt, given the circumstances, to note that the black box was invented by an Australian. (3)
The artists in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) exhibition are sensitive to the inherent instability of the times in which they live. They negotiate the (often-indistinct) line that separates chaos from control and entertain ideas of impermanence and fragility. In their work, precariousness – as a state and a sensation – is examined through political and personal contexts while also being upheld as a poetic proposition, a form unto itself.
How can precariousness function as a form? The artists here offer nuanced answers to this provocation. Their work adopts fluidity and flux as compositional principles and turns its attention to states of change. Nothing feels fixed, all teeters on an edge or at the junction between opposing forces. Movement and stasis; formation and disintegration; concealment and revelation. Taut lines and tensile forces. Fitting, then, that it is the relationship (and alternation) between gravity and suspension that structures the exhibition. Gravity and suspension; levity and collapse. How else do you plot a fall as it happens?
In Mira Gojak’s installation Exhaled Weight (2019), finely delineated metal forms are scattered throughout the gallery space. Some lie low and cling to the travertine, while others arc up. Though inanimate, they appear almost inquisitive and alive as they crawl across the floor. The lithe lines of these metal bodies are interrupted by bundles of blue yarn at irregular intervals. Wound around the metal, this blue yarn anchors each structure. But there is levity here too; the length of yarn used throughout the whole installation, once unravelled, corresponds to a succession of looped distances from the earth to the top of the stratosphere, the point at which the colour in the atmosphere tapers out. It’s a circuit from the ground to blue and back again. Dense yet buoyant, these bundles are fallen filaments, drip-fed segments of sky.
Here, the tension between gravity and suspension, between earth and sky, is pulled tight. While most of Gojak’s sculptures are grounded, one hangs from the ceiling, looming over the others. It hovers, but improbably so; it feels heavy and light all at once. In this work, weight and weightlessness are indistinguishable and interdependent.
The charred chairs in Rushdi Anwar’s Irhal (Expel), Hope and the Sorrow of Displacement (2013–ongoing) also confuse our expectations of material states. Will they topple or hold? Will they hesitate at the edge? These chairs have been burned to a crisp, their basic function frustrated. But instead of being discarded, they have been amassed into an immense monument, an effigy of domestic stability. The chairs have become mere relics of rest and repose. Yet there is resilience writ into this ruin, even as it signals tragedy. In memorialising collapse, Anwar seems to contradict its very terms. An upwards propulsion, a generative force is at play.
There are other ruins that resist collapse in the AGNSW exhibition. Linda Marrinon’s plaster sculpture obliquely references a historical anecdote that pivots on a tale of near – or momentarily withheld – destruction. On 15 January 1915, during World War I, the statue of Mary carrying an infant Christ that stood atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières in Albert, France, fell sideways after it was hit by a shell. Mary and child stayed suspended in midair, parallel to the ground, until 1918, when the whole tower was destroyed. The Leaning Virgin of Albert, as she would come to be known, held fast to her ledge for three years, prolonging the fall to come.
Marrinon’s figure, an evocation of that era and an imagined protagonist in the legend of the Leaning Virgin, alludes to instances of delayed devastation and the face-off between resilience and wreckage even without invoking historical precedent. Plaster is brittle and easily broken. The sculpture is branded by the delicacy of its material, but is no mere maquette. Working in a much larger scale than usual, Marrinon gestures towards the monolithic, the heroic.
Hard and soft, fragile and invulnerable, Andrew Hazewinkel’s work treads the same line. A series of identical busts of a Western European male becomes a constellation of patrician authority in the AGNSW’s Entrance Court. As you approach each figure, you realise their faces have been ruptured by fault lines, their aquiline noses out of joint. And then the busts are fractured even further. These stoic masculine statues, we discover, are not impervious to erosion.
Nicholas Folland’s installation Flirt (2019) also forecasts fragility where it is not often (or not often enough) identified. An abundance of cut glass and crystalware is suspended from the ceiling, disguising its domesticity as it morphs into a mountainous mass. A topography that twinkles. Here, Folland invokes the sensibility of the romantic landscape tradition – for who can help but stare in awe at these glistening peaks and troughs – while reminding us of the inherent vulnerability of the natural world. Glass doesn’t just sparkle, it also shatters.
Domestic glassware re-appears in Koji Ryui’s work. That which was suspended in Folland’s piece – drinking vessels and vases, and lots in-between – is strewn across the toppled columns and plinths that map out Ryui’s installation. Caked in and encasing sand, Ryui’s reworked found objects are pulled into delicate arrangements that together play out a poetry of form in space. Placed ‘just so’, each object has been shepherded into its structure with a tentative touch. One feels that these sculptures could shapeshift at any moment, as if they’re not quite fixed, not quite secure. But if they remain mutable, fluid forms, what are we witnessing? their gestation or their destruction? Is this an origin story or an archaeological dig?
Sand and glass are kindred materials. Sand, or silica, is the primary constituent of most glass. To cover glass in sand is to fold a process back on itself. It is to create a loop, much like the one that extends between Ryui’s work and Folland’s, placed as they are at different ends of the exhibition’s pathway. Moving from one work to the other, we hover between states of levity and anchorage, caught mid-fall.
It is precisely this moment – the fall in real time – that a black box captures. And like so many of the works in The National 2019 at the AGNSW, a black box delivers and delineates a temporal and experiential loop. It preserves a moment, a feeling, in playback.
What is the raw material of that loop? What has been recorded? Data, sure, but also sound; not just the crash upon collision but the voices of the pilots themselves. A black box recording constitutes a kind of immediate and instantaneous oral history. And like any oral history, it is designed to retrieve information and answer questions about the past. But language can be slippery. It can mislead and deceive, be misinterpreted or mistranslated. A black box doesn’t always deliver the narrative we need. Illegibility and erasure haunts its testimony.
Many artists presented at the AGNSW are not only aware of the instability of language, they anticipate and exaggerate it. As you move through the exhibition you encounter language that dissolves (Tony Garifalakis); language that disguises itself (Tom Polo); language that misfires (James Newitt); language that reveals itself over time (Robert Andrew); language that has been excised from the page (Sandra Selig). There is also language that is forthcoming and diaristic, as in Sally M. Nangala Mulda’s paintings, which document life in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) with intense observational acuity. Whether it’s women drinking tea or an uneasy interaction between the police and the Indigenous community, Mulda elevates the everyday to the status of memorialisation. In isolating an instant, her paintings are quasi-photographic.
Where Mulda’s paintings flirt with photography by holding a lens up to life as it is lived, those artists who work with photography in literal and non-metaphoric terms resist revelation and skirt straight representation. There are Eliza Hutchison’s layered images that stutter and strobe into a hallucinatory rush of visual data – the chaos of the contemporary laid bare – and Izabela Pluta’s neo-baroque drapery across which pictorial fragments fold in and out of visibility. There are also Peta Clancy’s spliced landscapes; photographs that subtly trick the eye as they bleed into one another, concealing more than they disclose by portraying the same site over and over, both within and beyond the frame, unable to ever truly image, or exorcise, its history.
These photographs bear witness to the turbulent and troubled world around us, not through objective disclosure but through ambivalence and ambiguity. They embrace uncertainty as a mode of address.
The camera-less lumen photograms produced by Selma Nunay Coulthard, Noreen Hudson, Clara Inkamala, Reinhold Inkamala, Vanessa Inkamala and Gloria Pannka from Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre in Mparntwe also capture forms in flux. In the lumen process, plant matter is overlaid on photosensitive paper and exposed to light. When the paper is fixed, the forms leave a ghostly silhouette. These semi-abstract photographs are intimately tethered to place; to Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the East MacDonnell Ranges, in particular. They articulate a relationship to Country that is mediated by the physical contact between the plant and the paper. This haptic exchange extends the narratives these artists tell through their painting practices. But what these photographs also chronicle is a state of change. The native plants impressed on these prints are at risk of extreme degradation, threatened by the introduction of buffel grass to the region and other violent acts of intervention. To imprint the trace of a plant on paper is to hold its disappearance at bay. It also a way to refute the assumption that a photograph is made to glorify a single instant with the click of the shutter. These photograms record protracted durations; a black box narrating its fall.
The push and pull between an instant and its durational extension is articulated elsewhere in the exhibition, specifically by those artists who work with dance and its echoes. nova Milne coax choreography out of time travel and trap gestures in a temporal loop, re-performing them over and over. Yet the synchronicity of this rhythmic rotation doesn’t quite hold. Instead, it unravels like an off-kilter pirouette.
Rhythms that unravel, that collapse before the dance begins again. We encounter the same aberrant pattern in Amrita Hepi’s performance piece The Tender (2019).
The cyclical structure of Hepi’s choreography finds its physical and sonic echo in the repetitious ‘thwak’ of a skipping-rope (and, for what it's worth, the structure of the exhibition itself). The movements Hepi animates are eruptive, much like the destructive dance that explodes across the screens in Pilar Mata Dupont’s Shuffle (2017–18), toppling towers of earth and fine china. To buck, to skip, to topple – these are agitations that reflect the tone of the times with intensity. A fall, a turn, abruptness itself. But in this work there is also release. The reverberations of these actions endure long after they first materialise.
Fayen d’Evie also catalogues gestures that endure. Through a practice shaped by her own experience of blindness, d’Evie rejects the emphasis placed on ocular perception and explores the expressive potential of the non-visual. Her installations and performances are activated by (and exault) tactility. Transcriptions of the phrase ‘We call to you with vibrational poetics, and so the story carries on, and on ...’ have been carved into rock faces in both Braille and a typography derived from gestural poetry, like sign language translated into calligraphy, developed with the deaf dance artist Anna Seymour. To ‘read’ this work we must enter into a kind of choreographic exchange. We must trace its topography/typography with our own hands and re-perform its signs. Like dance notation for non-verbal poetry, d’Evie’s rocks are texts for the future.
And what of the black box recording? Is it not sound for future ears? A memorialising missive for those who want to make sense of what is, what has been, now? So, then, what can we make of an exhibition like this? What does it leave for future ears and eyes and minds, for those with the luxury of knowing what happened next?
It’s impossible for us to know, while poised on the precipice, how the trajectory we’re on will ultimately be understood. For now, we feel the flux. We wait, cautious, on the cusp of change, holding onto what we can, to a piece of string, to the (charred) chair in front of us. Entrenched in the contemporary, we dance with uncertainty and flirt with fragility, not yet knowing if we’re in freefall or full flight.
(1) Thursday 23 August 2018.
(2) As above.
(3) David Warren, a research scientist at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory in Melbourne, began developing prototypes for the black box in the mid-1950s after being involved in investigations relating to the crash of the Comet, the first jet-powered commercial aircraft. The design was finally presented in 1958 and later demonstrated in England and Canada. Following the crash of the Fokker Friendship in Mackay, Queensland, in 1960, Australia became the first country in the world to enforce compulsory inclusion of the black box on all airplanes.