The possibilities of flux at the TarraWarra International

By Quentin Sprague
Five Australian and international artists engage with history, impermanence and decay

Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad (video still) 2015, video installation, 14:16 min. Sound by Artist Dickson Dee. Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

The two-yearly TarraWarra International, currently on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, is not strictly concerned with international art, or at least not solely. Following on from its previous iteration – a very good survey in 2015 of the French artist Pierre Huyghe – audiences are this year encouraged to consider a carefully selected group of Australian artists within a broader international context.

Curated by the museum’s director, Victoria Lynn, and titled All That Is Solid …, the exhibition presents Australians Cyrus Tang, Tom Nicholson and Patrick Pound in light of Cao Fei and Didem Erk, young artists from Beijing and Istanbul respectively. This focus immediately sets the TarraWarra International apart from other recurrent shows of international art. Sprawling exhibitions such as the Biennale of Sydney have long drawn Australian artists into the international arena, but specific relationships are often lost amid the general noise: the previous iteration of that exhibition, in 2016, featured the work of 83 artists from across the globe, a sharp contrast with the brevity on display at TarraWarra.

All this suggests an opportunity for in-depth engagement, and, with the exception of a minor series of work by Patrick Pound, for the most part this is the case. Didem Erk will be unfamiliar to most Australians. At TarraWarra, audiences can see a number of major works, including the newly commissioned Black Thread (2016–2017). In it, Erk collects a group of second-hand books once censored in Australia and performs upon them a compulsive act: carefully sewing a black thread through each word, page by page and book by book. As in a suite of accompanying video works, Erk deploys her ideas in a heavy poetic register: the installation is dramatically lit, theatrical in effect. The approach resonates with much of the work on display, but most clearly with Cyrus Tang’s object-based meditations on history’s impermanence. In the first gallery, her long-exposure photographs record an unfired porcelain model of a city dissolving in water; elsewhere, a careful arrangement of book covers (volumes of the Modern World Encyclopedia) spew forth their pages in clumps. They have been cremated into solid lumps of thick ash, an effective metaphor that speaks of knowledge solidifying over the ages into something illegible.

For all their overt poetry – at times a touch heavy-handed – both practices are deadly serious. It’s a theme that continues into the museum’s most striking gallery, a space dominated by a wall of glass that frames the green hills of the Yarra Valley beyond. Anything installed in this space risks shrinking in comparison, but, rather than compete, Tom Nicholson, whose exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art I wrote about for the Monthly in June, chooses to tread lightly. As with much of Nicholson’s practice, his multi-part work, Cartoons for Joseph Selleny (2012–2017), hinges on detailed research, but is delivered with close attention to material detail. Nicholson has created a gallery-sized wall drawing following a Renaissance technique in which perforated drawings were hung against the wall and then battered with a cheesecloth sack filled with charcoal. The resulting stencil of dotted lines once formed the sketch for a fresco, but here they are overlaid and left raw: a tangle of lines and tonal blurs that once again draws forth ideas of illegibility and decay.

It’s this repetition that displays the downside of such tight focus. An undeniable monotony of tone carries through TarraWarra’s modestly scaled galleries: all the artists are making engaging work, but the counterpoints from one to the next are not as pronounced as they might be. The saving grace in this regard lies with Cao Fei, who imbues her work with a subtle vein of humour lacking in the others. Her video Rumba II: Nomad, from 2015, documents the recently demolished site of the artist’s Beijing studio. It plays as an elegy to the more destructive aspects of globalisation: another “local village” sacrificed beneath the ever-rising skyline of the international city. Fei’s camera pans the ruins. She captures labourers at work, and places an offering of flowers amid the rubble. The soundtrack builds ominously before a retinue of domestic cleaning robots – circular autonomous disks on hidden wheels – move beetle-like into the frame. In the final scenes they ferry taxidermied chickens on their backs and join together in a loose choreography: rise of the machines via Broadway. But although the work is clearly concerned with those who find themselves displaced by Beijing’s constant renewal, it’s less a searing indictment of globalisation than an aesthetic play across its surfaces. This is confirmed by the credits, which reveal that Rumba II: Nomad was originally commissioned by Gucci.

In the accompanying catalogue, Victoria Lynn reaches for big themes. The exhibition is named for the quote “all that is solid melts into air” – originally from Karl Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, and later used as the title for a study by the philosopher Marshall Berman. But Lynn’s ellipsis leaves the phrase hanging. She wants us to think of the possibilities of flux, of how history is driven by inexorable change. It neatly links together the work on display, but there is nonetheless a pressing, and perhaps unavoidable, oversight. TarraWarra is a challenging location for contemporary art. Set amid the region’s neat patches of vineyards, the museum, as impressive as it is, can’t help but seem out of place. Indeed, looking out across the surrounding hills, it’s hard not to picture what All That Is Solid … might have achieved had it been concerned more directly with the specific nature of its site. It’s one thing to be taken with the aesthetic drama of irrevocable change: another, entirely, to arrest it and instead embed us, even for a moment, in place.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad (video still) 2015, video installation, 14:16 min. Sound by Artist Dickson Dee. Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space

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