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Ten Days on the Island

March 23 - April 1 2007

 Da Contents H2


maintenance of social solidarity: from the bunker

judith abell

Judith is a Hobart based Graduate Architect and Sculptor who is developing a hybrid practice working between these fields. She writes about art and design for a number of national magazines.

“Even in an academic context I would never talk about the work of et al, still less ‘explain’ it... the process of viewing art provides the explanation, and it is invariably particular to the viewer. The artist is exactly the wrong person to explain their work...”

This statement by dr p mule (sic) on behalf of the collective, et al. is a telling introduction to the show by this New Zealand group entitled Maintenance of Social Solidarity.

Mounted in CAST Gallery, the oppressive atmosphere of the installation is established immediately by the deep grey walls and ceiling. While the construction of individual objects is rough there’s a strong sense of deliberation and formality to the arrangement of elements within the space. At the entry, I’m confronted with two rows of easels facing each other. I hear a kind of chant bleeding from the other side of the room. Each of the easels displays a poster that has been defaced by cut and paste and packing tape then overlaid with thick, dark, handwriting. This text is like an abstract poem that triggers thoughts about war, solidarity and human rights abuse without really saying anything:

Degrading treatment is
Hostility hate
& contempt
day of dooms
a morally

Hanging from each easel is a set of headphones with soundtrack, the overlaid digitised voices immediately reminiscent of Stephen Hawking. These voices relay excerpts of speeches from key figures in the current war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and responses to 9/11. Stripping the actual voice and intonation of the speakers—George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden are featured—places each on the same platform for debate without the prejudice or limitation associated with language or accent. While the idea is interesting, there is a generic quality to the soundtrack –I quickly return the headphones—I feel like I’ve heard it before, another exhibition, other artists.

The remaining elements in the show hang together as one. In the centre of the room a cyclone fence encloses a large projection screen. Twelve chairs sit under a spotlight in their own cell—taped markings on the floor—as if to house a jury or audience at an execution. A desk is lit by a bare bulb like a monitoring station in the midst of the gloom. The chairs and desk also suggest presences that watch and wait. Three more easels sit beside the twelve chairs and on the wall behind them is a grid of images that map mathematical equations, again, defaced by loose, hand written text.

Within the fenceline, the projections are from Google Earth. In digitised tones I hear—“Stockholm”, “Cairo”, “Frankfurt”, “Washington”, “Baghdad.” The projection responds, spinning across the surface of the earth in that familiar Google way before settling just above an airstrip, as if about to land. At first I thought it searched out actual locations, but after a few repeats of the loop, I realised that these were fictionalised places where all else but that which immediately surrounds the airstrip seems blurred, missing or perhaps obliterated. It is as if I am witnessing a series of virtual airstrikes, perhaps from a simulated cockpit. At a certain point in the recording, most notably after “Baghdad” is uttered, the screen freezes and the recording switches to the haunting chant I heard upon entering the space. Given its Middle Easter edge, I read this like a prayer sung prior to attack.

I feel as though I’ve stumbled into a military monitoring or strategy room. From what little I can find about the secretive collective et al., this show is both typical and unique. The consistent aesthetic, the deep grey paint and the elements that appear to be modelled on some militaristic institution are typical. What is not is the minimalism of this piece – the group is known for using a mass of outdated sound and screen technology, quite often to build a cacophonous atmosphere. The use of headphones here allows the sole soundtrack to dominate and the space is easy to read in its arrangement. Given the introduction suggests the work should stand alone, I expected to be able to come to some sort of conclusion about it, but this obtuseness is also typical of et al. While I don’t feel like I’m treading any new ground I am intrigued by this show and the visual imagery—quite beautiful in its own way—stays with me.

et al., Maintenance of Social Solidarity, curator Bryony Nainby; Contemporary Art Services Tasmania, Hobart, Ten Days on the Island, March 21-April 22

Judith is a Hobart based Graduate Architect and Sculptor who is developing a hybrid practice working between these fields. She writes about art and design for a number of national magazines.

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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