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Past and present simultaneously

Liz Bradshaw


Victoria Hunt, Day of Invigilation Victoria Hunt, Day of Invigilation
photo Heidrun Löhr
Complex, rich, sophisticated, funny and critical, Travelling Light is a collection of collaborative projects that makes eloquent and intricate connections between past and present, cultural and personal histories, cultural inheritance and colonial practices. It also explores our multi-layered ideas about identity, inheritance and migration.

Interference travelling light by Jonathan Jones and Jim Vivieaere, an installation comprising plastic plants, a chandelier and the sound of waves coming languidly to shore, makes reference to our cultural constructions of nature and the fakery of history and myth, highlighting the objectification of all three. The work inhabits the ‘viewing cube’ of the Museum of Sydney, site of the colonial view, of property and real estate (a hot topic elsewhere in the Museum), taking on the logic of both the gaze and commodification. The work is at first deceptively simple, its elements then setting up a rhetorical cascade of images that traverse history, colonialism, nature and culture. By creating a kind of spatial and temporal vortex, the work both enters into and withdraws from the past and present; history and the street; landscape and culture.

Against this backdrop—the screen of the city—and especially at night, the space becomes a glowing hothouse, a deck encased in glass, and a specimen cabinet all at once. The plants included Asia Pacific generics (gums, wattles, palms), making reference to the bush and the tropics. These plastic imitations functioned as signs of a nature/culture reversal. It reminded me of tree works by Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik, only Interference is ironic, even cheeky, inhabiting the space with both humour and a critical edge. It calls the viewer to bear witness to a contradictory and not easily assimilated present. The sound of waves lapping the shore is seductive, mesmeric and embedded in a kind of aural authenticity broken only by the irregular sound of buses lurching their way to Circular Quay. It transports me into a concept of nature. A nature that is, however, purified, abstracted and represented—acculturated and signified.

Bright faux candles burn in the antique crystal chandelier (sign of European proto-modernity) and conjure the faded, nostalgic glitz of the ballroom. This direct allusion to the 19th century and its defining colonial practices undercuts the postmodern seriousness of museum practice, not only qua museum, but qua architecture. It presents a clash of history and kitsch; a wrangle for the ‘facts’ of the site, of which this space, though slightly hidden, is paradigmatic—elevated, privileged, and a cipher for the scopic/mastery paradigm. The historiography and museology of the site is made apparent, and the viewer is drawn by the context into a present conditioned by fragments, quotations and fact files from the past.

The other works of the exhibition were all staged at Performance Space. Wish you were here by Hilda Ruaine, a collection of images, includes snapshots from the 40s, black and white images from perhaps earlier, washed-out 70s Kodachromes and old fashioned portraits. They depict sports days, holidays, lounge rooms, landscapes and groups of friends. It is part family photography, part postcard collection; intimate, personal, yet, as with all photographs, marked by time and place and the emanation of the referent.

The work traces correspondences: between family; between faces and photos; between personal private history and photographic codes. As an archive it documents the evolution of life, of time, of relationships. Aesthetically, the images also show the signs of subtle distortion and changes in scale and focus, simultaneously partaking of the ‘documentary’ nature of the analogue image, and the myth of memory. The images are affecting in a slow, modest way, a testimony to identification and difference.

Take Taki Tiki by Keren Ruki, hung from the opposite wall, is a series of oversized cast Tikis. By changing the scale and colour of the familiar icon, remaking it and drawing attention to its origins, the work challenges the uses and politics of kitsch, tourism, exploitation and commodification, of the object detached—and perhaps reattached—to its symbolic and cultural content. The reappropriation of the Air New Zealand souvenir proved, not unlike some of Destiny Deacon’s work, that there is a compelling critique to be made of the relationship between the forces of racism and the aesthetics of appropriation, commodification and the trivialisation/symbolic evacuation that ground kitsch.

Stripsearched again by Haro consists of a carved base on wheels and a lamp with the artist’s signature tag. It references design, domesticity, furniture, and the language of identification that is available only to those familiar with a particular kind of belonging. In some ways it sat on the cusp of the signature as that which is most personal and most abstract, most singular and most general at the same time.

These 3 discrete works spoke a common language of personal memory, lived experience and symbolic exchange, demonstrating a refreshing stillness and directness.

The projection Pacific washup, by Rachael Rakena, Fez Fa’anana and Brian Fuata, is part performance document, part short film. Floating on the waves of Bondi are a group of people in large plastic checkered bags. Coming to shore, they are washed up like beached sea creatures, resting, rising, walking out of the ocean. The sequence is a contemporary narrative of migration, undercutting historical and anthropological discourse with culturally located signs that are commodified, anonymous, temporary, disposable, functional. Simultaneously full and empty, the imagery evacuated expected meanings and the weight of personal and cultural baggage.

Also at the Performance Space, Day of Invigilation by Victoria Hunt and Brian Fuata with consultant Barbara Campbell, is a compelling exploration of ethnography and identity. Five pairs of busts inhabit the room, its walls painted in panels of brown reminiscent of a 19th century museum. Four pairs are backlit and made of tissue paper—delicate, descriptive and seductive, caught up in the rhetoric of historical object, discourse and power. The paper figures trace a lineage and a naming process, the relationship to language always doubled by exhibition discourse. They demonstrate that there are always 2 versions of identity, one objectified and one lived experience. The work accentuates the realities brought about by a clash of discourses and places of enunciation, and it directed a challenge to both museum and viewer.

The fifth exhibit—‘live’ performers encased to their shoulders in plinths—is startlingly visceral. Representational and individual at the same time, they implicate the viewer in the colonial gaze and in the construction of identity and representation as an always-political act. Hunt and Fuata re-made themselves as bodies simultaneously of the past and the present, subjected to the objectification and ‘othering’ of exercises of power.

This inspired critique of anthropology and history lays bare the falsified objectivity that is not only an historical violence, but a personal encounter. Profoundly affecting, the work speaks of the reality of an embodied, internalised gaze through living, breathing portraits. It distills the real, the image and our ideas of representation, and quietly demonstrates why really good performance work is so powerful.

I was fortunate to see the performance during which Hunt cried, her tears leaving a wet trail on her cheek: a deeply moving moment that in turn brought tears to my eyes. It would be significant to see this work re-staged somewhere like the Museum of Sydney. It was a terrific show—I hope you saw it.


Travelling Light—Collaborative Projects by Pacific Artists, curated by Blair French and Fiona Winning; Performance Space, Nov 20-Dec 11; Museum of Sydney, Nov 13-Dec 5; Pacific Wave Festival 04

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 11

© Liz Bradshaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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