Turning of the Tide

Abigail Moncrieff


Connectivity through difference is a key thread in The National 2021 at Carriageworks, highlighted through works that reflect sociality, kinship, connectedness or collaboration. The exhibition reflects on the importance of language, conversation and connection. Collectively the exhibition asks us to consider who is speaking? What is really being said? How can we speak? How can we be together? And in what places? While the works presented here arise out of the artists’ individual and abiding practices and concerns, they are also messages or a warning from a fractured present, works from a world in flux. As a consequence, they bear a sense of urgency and often attitudes of resistance.

Karrabing is an Emmiyengal word that refers to the point at which the tide is lowest, poised before it turns back in, a return. The Karrabing Film Collective is a family-based arts and media group who live among vast saltwater flats in north-western Northern Territory, stretching from Belyuen to the waters that hug Anson Bay some 200 km south-west. Bound closely together, the Karrabing ‘all get up for each other’. They articulate a sense of belonging in an expansive worldview, linked by coastal and ancestral relationships. They present an ecological consciousness or way of thinking where the health of the land is inseparable from the health of the people. This co-active obligation is not restricted to one language group or one Country – the Karrabing are connected yet differentiated. Their collectivity moves across countries and place, not determined by government strictures or land rights areas. Karrabing is also a concept that articulates a deep sense of emerging and re-emerging; connection through crabbing, fishing, the opening up of the mangroves and the reefs. The connection across Country is foundational; shared relationships of people to their coastal eco-scape, which is also an ancestral and totem (or Dreaming) scape most critical. These are relationships more vast and complex than human hierarchies.

Their filmmaking is both responsive and resistant to conditions of white settler capitalism. It entails a set of land-oriented filmic practices that embody an ongoing resistance to the State’s effort to create divides between Aboriginal peoples. Ancestors are within the world of their work and its people. Drawing from the artists’ lived experience in Belyuen under the Northern Territory Government Intervention, the five chapters making up A Day in the Life condense a 24-hour time period. The work draws explicitly from archival sources to build a story of a present informed by extractive capitalism and dissociation from their land, the Stolen Generation, and the experience of being dispossessed of their own Country.

The voices of the Karrabing Film Collective call through the main space of Carriageworks. A preoccupation with language animates the exhibition, both literally and in a more formal sense. For example, an ocean of text is presented by Agatha Gothe-Snape as a virtual-reality environment made in collaboration with Andrew Burrell and devised as a conceptual response to being invited to participate in all three iterations of The National to date – to somehow forge connections across the sites and historical moments of the exhibitions. A green Corten-steel base supports a large vertical LED screen, acting as a portal into the artists’ virtual world. Placed adjacent to the entrance to the main gallery it literally becomes a doorway into both the exhibition and the artists’ imaginations. Fragments of handwritten black text morph within white digital space. Gothe-Snape performs remotely, appearing at Carriageworks as an avatar, a green blob, on the screen. The performance is an incantation, a dream, an apparition – a summoning of recollected thoughts and utterances. When Gothe-Snape is not activating the work, it is motored by a daemon. Textual fragments undulate, giving a sense we are swimming through words. If this universe was a body, we would be right inside the artists’ heads.

The green Corten steel of Gothe-Snape and Burrell’s work is echoed in the green backdrop of the performance installation by A Constructed World through the main door of the exhibition. Situated somewhere between a studio and an archive, their work is animated by performances that are formed relationally through dialogue rather than instruction, including songs, script readings, conversation and exercises of ‘failed telepathy’. Open to both interpretation and chaos, the artists introduce ‘not knowing’ as a shared space – the performances operate from a series of devised actions intended to bring people together. Their Philosophical Sandwich performance involves a sandwich, a philosophical text and ‘a brief inoperative moment when people eat and speak together and think about where they are’. Performances will take place throughout the exhibition at random times, prompted by the participation and willingness of the audience.

The portal motif introduced by Gothe-Snape and Burrell continues within the exhibition with Darren Sylvester’s three neon windows, set architecturally into the walls of the gallery. A simulacrum of urban psychic shopfronts, Sylvester evokes unknown or dreamlike states, transforming the gallery into a streetscape of sorts.

Creating a world of his own within this ‘street’, Mitch Cairns has harnessed personal familial relationships, building a brick wall with his best friend from childhood and his father, a professional bricklayer. Within his installation are three gently apocalyptic paintings and text works, reflecting a sense of uncertainty and anxiety in the face of a changing world. Domestic in setting and psychological and intuitive in context, the paintings use Cairns’ now familiar layered and refracted style of painting. 

Michelle Nikou’s monochromatic sculptures include familiar and tender objects cast in bronze: a stack of plates, chocolate bars, food cans, a pair of worn shoes. Like line drawings, delicate neon tubes formalise the scene, tying the installation together. Nikou’s poetic practice expands the potential of relationships and conversations between objects. The deeply personal observations in her work disrupt notions of truth and objectivity in a complex world.

Hung in long lines stacking up the wall, the hundreds of narbong galang (string bags) in Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s monumental wall work stand as repositories of knowledge and wisdom. At first glance, the work appears like sheet music; a stanza with musical notation dancing off the page. Or perhaps rows of cryptic language or text. Fashioned from industrial waste and scrap metals, the narbong galang are precarious, spiky and difficult to touch, unlike the traditional version fashioned from soft, organic reeds and grasses. The act of collecting materials is described by the artist as ‘taking back Country’, with an emphasis on the importance of only taking what is needed, an act of caregiving to Country.

Elsewhere in the space, industrial materials are used by Sarah Rodigari. Twelve twisted steel forms inhabit a stage, positioned in abstract formation, a physical articulation of the artist’s exercising of institutional critique. Her practice is driven by an urgent desire for transparency about the social, economic and political dynamics of art. Language, communication and miscommunication are important to Rodigari, and her mercurial practice addresses gaps and dissonances in communication, while keeping open the possibility for humility and humour. During November and December 2020 Rodigari conducted twelve one-hour interviews with Carriageworks’ casual front- and back-of-house staff. In exchange for a participant fee, they walked together throughout the building engaging in conversations reflecting on their experiences as casual employees during Carriageworks’ period of COVID-19-enforced closure and voluntary administration. Rodigari has subsequently processed and recalibrated the twelve hours of time and dialogue through language, gesture and costume, sending these thoughts back out into the ether as a performative ‘atmosphere of time’.

All around us are a multiplicity of voices and energies all speaking, attempting to make sense of the world, to make new worlds, to renew the world. The artists in The National at Carriageworks navigate the measure and texture of our actions and engagements with the world around us. Brendan Van Hek, for example, has formed an environment within which the formal quality of materials are poised between the act of coming together or breaking down/falling apart. The walls in his installation are unfinished with yellow edges, suggesting an interrupted process of being painted out. The carpet of the room is unfixed and an active, volatile surface where the movement of the audience will affect the work, smudging and staining its colours. Is it falling apart or coming together?

Alana Hunt’s photography examines the casual forms of colonial violence perpetrated in Australia today, exploring the impact of non-Indigenous culture on Aboriginal Country. Hunt presents selections from two bodies of work, one in colour, the other in black and white. Her colour series is bright, tropical and voyeuristic, depicting unknown subjects/bodies swimming and climbing in and out of a hot spring on Miriwoong Country in the East Kimberley. The black-and-white series is stark, depicting gashes and cuts in the landscapes – gravel pits that are violent and stark in their beauty. Her work will be accompanied by a series of conversations between Hunt and a group of respondents, exploring the personal, social and political milieus that inform these images. This exchange of dialogue will be published in text form, serialised on the Carriageworks website for the duration of The National, encouraging access to art and ideas through a framework of deep conversation.  

The work presented by Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley employs multiple cultural and symbolic citations that speak to a contemporary narrative of crisis around climate change. An over-sized graph modelling the rise of global temperature over time is presented in red, yellow and black tape. Beginning in 1850, the timeline continues through to the present and then hypothetically forward to 2100. Looking back and then forward, the graph showing the speed with which temperature has been climbing since 1850 is overwhelming, indicating not only a troubling present but a devastating envisaged future for the Earth.

In contrast, Isadora Vaughan’s installation presents organic materiality in a more symbolic and ambiguous way. Jelly wax forms ooze, pool and seep, bathed with natural light from the nearby glass doors. Her work continually shifts and resettles, a material flux that hints at transformation but also a burning out: of the individual, of the social body, of the planet. Vaughan’s forms and the relationships between them are based on Steinerian principles of the movement of water (circulating, filtering, catching), on the chaotic intellect of the natural world and indeed our imaginations.

An ecology of interacting life forms, the natural world is always active and turning, never at rest, never static – a complex web of interconnectivity. Think of ‘the’ ocean for example, composed of many interconnected bodies of water; the whole and its dynamic set of components.

The warning cry of a bird draws us back to the ecological and social troubles of our present. Developed in Broome, Western Australia by artist Vernon Ah Kee in collaboration with dancer Dalisa Pigram and the performance company Marrugeku, Gudirr Gudirr contains a warning, an invitation to listen. The call of the guwayi bird signals the change in tide for the Aboriginal people of far north-western Australia, warning that the tide is about to turn back to the shore and so ensuring safety from the dangers of the ocean. In Gudirr Gudirr the call urges us to listen to the rhythms embedded in nature and to the knowledge passed on by Elders. It is a cry in response to the devastating impact of colonisation on the Aboriginal people of this country – in response to histories of massacres, forced separation and intergenerational trauma that reverberate through the present – and a warning alarm regarding the future.