‘Endless Circulation: 5th TarraWarra Biennial: TarraWarra Museum’,
Frieze Magazine, No. 183, November 2016
5th TarraWarra Biennial
TarraWarra Museum, Australia
19 August – 6 November 2016
‘Endless Circulation’, co-curated by TarraWarra Museum Director, Victoria Lynn, and the co-founder of Discipline journal, Helen Hughes, stays close to its moniker. While a circle may imply repetition in perpetua, it does not determine directionality. The exhibition plays on this flexibility by contrasting the circulatory patterns of mega-events, such as biennials, with journals and text-based publications. This model frames two sub-themes around which the 27 selected artists cluster, pertaining to the past (Australia’s colonial history and the memory-life of materials) and motion (artworks that circulate, either literally or metaphorically).
A cameo of Australian history appears in Helen Johnson’s painting Empire Play (2016). Its scene of supplicating figures derives in part from Soldiers of the Cross (1899–1900), an illustrated lecture produced by the Salvation Army narrating the birth of Christ and the early martyrs, in a blunt act of Christian proselytizing. The image has the compositional solemnity of a Giorgione painting, undercut by Johnson’s mordant appropriation. Conversely, Vincent Namatjira’s untitled suite of new portraits of Australian Prime Ministers infuses political history with wry wit. The seven portraits have their expressions of rote congeniality undone by Namatjira’s blistering painterly style: the faces are transformed into cartoons, their smiles distorted into grimaces, as if held too long for a photograph.
Wukun Wanambi’s HD video Nhina, Nhäma, Ga Ŋäma (Sit, Look and Listen, 2014), is more celebratory, depicting ceremonial performances in the artist’s homeland of Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. However, the montage of six vertical channels is tightly cropped, as if the details of each scene are deliberately withheld. The soundtrack – the rhythmic beat of clapsticks against a backdrop of ocean waves – binds the sequence and atmospherically embodies the theme of endlessness.
Robert Andrew makes colours metaphoric in Transitional Text – BURU (2016). Three panels covered in white chalk have their powdery surfaces attacked by an electromechanically operated water gun formed from the components of a 3D printer. As the water abrades the chalk, a layer of red ochre is exposed. Over time, the purged areas spell the word ‘Buru’ – Yawuru for ‘country’. (The ochre is sourced from Yawuru in Western Australia, where the artist’s forebears hail from.) The paint recalls bullet holes and the water trickling down the surface indents the chalk, revealing a line of blood-red ochre: it’s unmistakably a response to the history of Aboriginal genocide. Material transformations are also evident in Julia McInerney’s The light, and the light – Virginia Woolf Piece II (two anchors melted down and recast) (2014): two shallow baths filled with salt water installed on the museum’s floor. Akin to Andrew’s work, the whiteness of the salt water variously suggests whitewashing or muteness, a blankness masking suppressed histories.
The circulation of matter structures Masato Takasaka’s mouthily titled new installation (which is too long to include here); essentially an oddball assortment of studio objects, some betraying the artist’s Japanese heritage (including junk-food packaging), others tracing Takasaka’s long-standing interest in constructivist design. The whole ensemble is a work-in-progress whose components are open to continual remix. Known for moulding objects to be carried by participants through urban environments, Bianca Hester similarly relies on a practice of mobilization. In July 2015, the artist recruited performers to carry long metallic sticks to beat a path between Te Kopuke/Mount Saint John and Te Tokaroa/Meola Reef in New Zealand: the footage of the performance forms the dual-channel HD video, Constellating Bodies in Temporary Correspondence (2015).
Within the coherence of ‘Endless Circulation’, the Melbourne Artist Facilitated Biennial (an exhibition of 24 artists nested within the TarraWarra Biennial, led by Christopher L.G. Hill) seems incongruous. An ad hoc aesthetic governs the disparate collection of works and, while some are charming, their very provisionality sits at odds with the curatorial tautness of the rest of the biennial.
If circulation is the biennial’s explicit leitmotif, invisibility is its implicit one. For every work that dramatizes an historical event or a material transfiguration, there is an indirect acknowledgment of that which remains hidden from view. In keeping with the parlance of circularity, you might say, two sides of the one coin.
Helen Johnson, Empire Play, 2016, acrylic on canvas, fabric, painted steel, 300 x 220 x 30 cm.