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Night Watchman Portrait #2, Cordelia Beresford, Nightshifters Night Watchman Portrait #2, Cordelia Beresford, Nightshifters
courtesy the artist
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF NOVEMBER, AS TWILIGHT REACHED PERFORMANCE SPACE AT CARRIAGEWORKS SO DID THE WEATHER. THE CHANCE ACCOMPANIMENT OF RAIN TO NIGHTSHIFTERS, BEC DEAN’S THOUGHTFULLY CURATED SHOW OF MOVING IMAGE INSTALLATIONS, SERVED TO HEIGHTEN THE EXHIBITION’S EMPHASIS ON THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF SPACE AND SUBJECTIVITY. A BACKDROP OF ENSUING DARKNESS AND FLEETING SILHOUETTES ALONG WITH THE SEASONAL ELEMENTS ADDED TO THE ROMANTIC MISE-EN-SCÈNE OF THE SHOW’S NIGHTTIME STAGING ACROSS THE FORMER EVELEIGH RAIL YARDS.

Despite the theatricality of the site’s industrial ‘ruins’, Nightshifters did not engage in nostalgic rehearsals of the past. Instead, the eight exhibiting artists were invited to broadly respond to the location, both within the gallery complex and on the grounds outside, in ways that drew upon and extended their existing practices and conceptual concerns. As such, the openness of Dean’s curatorial brief meant that the exhibition’s trajectory didn’t develop into an overdetermined history lesson. The show responded critically to the site’s immediate and comparative geography through a diverse staging of personal memories and public histories, with notable works by Cordelia Beresford, Kate Murphy (with Bill Hogios) and John Tonkin.

Filmed on location at Cockatoo Island and relocated inside CarriageWorks, the architectural kinship of Beresford’s work Night Watchman (2010) threaded subtle allusions to the industrial and cultural histories shared between these sites. Both locations were originally places used by the first Australians, the Eora people, before colonial invasion. In the 19th century the sites were developed industrially; Cockatoo Island went through myriad uses, from convict prison to girls’ reform school and maritime building yard. In a small, free-standing enclosure resembling a cell, Beresford’s three-channel video of still and moving images presented the imagined journey of a contemporary night watchman’s (Djakapurra Munyarryun) encounter with the colonial past of Cockatoo Island. Against a sustained reverberation of vocalised sound, the ritualistic dance performance of the watchman drew forth the ghosts of two young women (Narelle Benjamin, Miranda Wheelan), who appeared as previous tenants of the island’s reformatory. The assemblage of empathic movements shared between the three performers across each screen presented a sombre meditation on the marginalised histories and spaces of Australia’s colonial heritage.

Kate Murphy’s Yia Yia’s song (2010) also drew upon the concept of shared memory. Using an eight-channel video and nine-channel sound installation, the work’s narrative centres upon a found acoustic recording of Diamanda Psihogios, the grandmother of Bill Hogios, Murphy’s collaborator on the piece. Like much of Murphy’s previous work, such as Prayers of a Mother (1999), Yia Yia’s song explores the role of witnessing and memory in response to a central familial figure. The installation of the work within a dark and otherwise empty train shed lends an operatic quality to Psihogios’ singing, as her sonorous tones fill the cavernous space. While it plays, the viewer is able to watch nine video portraits of the Psihogios’ family, filmed listening to a recording of the song. As each recorded face maps and mirrors a series of emotions back to the viewer, the interplay between the filmed and live audience creates an uncanny atmosphere of intimacy and pathos.

When the vocals conclude, Psihogios’ son and daughter-in-law, presented on a raised split screen at ‘the head’ of the semi-circular installation, proceed to reflect on the song’s meaning and relevance to their own lives. Through their analysis, it becomes apparent that Yia Yia’s song was their grandmother’s tale of grief over her children’s migration from their homeland of Greece to Australia. Charting the course of domestic history through a genealogy of embodied remembrances and shifting stories, Kate Murphy’s work traces a compelling exploration of loss and its counterpoint within the home.

Closer: eleven experiments on proximity (2010), by John Tonkin, also placed the viewer’s body in a series of affective encounters with the everyday. Drawing on the unmonumental poetics hidden within life’s daily habits, Tonkin’s two video projections on opposing walls of a purpose-built corridor screen a series of vignettes based on ordinary objects and common spaces. Whether it is a kettle beginning to boil, a plastic water bottle caught in the step-feed of an escalator, or the quiet grace of a young woman’s head resting on a laminated menu in a restaurant, the durational dynamics of each scene are intensified through Tonkin’s placement of interactive sensors within the installation. Building on his ongoing interest in the interstices of time that make up our cumulative experience of duration and motion, the work choreographs the viewer’s body against the changing speed of the scenes as they play. Running or walking, advancing or retreating in proximity to the work serves to change the tempo and narrative progression of each video, from fast to slow, forwards or backwards, respectively. By using the audience as a wayward metronome, Tonkin highlights the body’s liminality in relation to time’s unfolding.

The constant slippage between past and present narratives underpinned the exhibition’s structure as a whole, with each work operating as an internalised conversation across time. This self-reflexive structure offered provocative insights into the performative threshholds of the moving image as well as the opportunity to connect with CarriageWorks as a repository of the city’s living history through its reinvention. Like the imagined world of the somnabulist lost between night and day, Nightshifters gave viewers a way to navigate and reconnect with the changing history of the space against the imagined certainty of life’s waking routines.


Nightshifters, curator Bec Dean, artists Cordelia Beresford, Alexis Destoop, Sam James, Angelica Mesiti, Kate Murphy, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Dominic Redfern, John Tonkin; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 4-13

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 43

© Tanya Petersen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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