October 2017

The Nation Reviewed

The world sneaks in

By Patrick Witton
Take a walk through the TarraWarra Museum of Art’s International exhibition

In the right light, the TarraWarra Museum of Art looks like a shipping container in a Jeffrey Smart landscape. It’s the building’s broad, blockish façade; it’s the shard-like pillars reaching to an inert blue sky. But the Smart reference really hits home when a golf buggy enters stage right, buzzing up the hill on a sweep of bitumen towards the grand edifice. The vehicle’s toyishness is a comical aberration in what is an otherwise stately panorama: the museum, the bold sculpture by Clement Meadmore, swamphens calling from the reeds beside a pond. Even the people in the buggy, being ferried from the lower car park, are a vision of wiry eyewear, durable shoe and magnificent scarf.

Today, they have made the trip to the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne, to take in the third ever TarraWarra International (until 12 November). This seemingly biennial event affords the museum an opportunity to fling off its charter of displaying “Australian art from the second half of the 20th century to the present day” and instead “showcase leading contemporary art practice in a global context”. It’s something of a rumspringa for the 14-year-old institution, and you can sense that those in charge enjoy preparing the space for its expanded purview.

In 2013, the museum’s inaugural International asked half a dozen artists to consider “the profound interconnections between diverse life forms”. It resulted in an exhibition of quasi-bodily functions and machine–bone confections. For those dropping by the museum after a trip to the nearby wildlife sanctuary, it would have been confronting to come across mounted animal specimens and garish steam iron–skull hybrids, especially if they thought they’d be catching a Russell Drysdale.

This year, the International asks five selected artists – Turkey’s Didem Erk, China’s Cao Fei, and Australia’s Tom Nicholson, Patrick Pound and Cyrus Tang – to consider “historical and precarious moments and images”. And as any learned leftie would know, the exhibition’s title, All That Is Solid …, echoes a passage in The Communist Manifesto, so whatever has been conjured will be viewed through a political lens. Perhaps the resulting artwork can function as a substance to be dissolved in the milieu of alt- anti- neo- ideologies that has found its way into the mainstream. Or something like that.

The theme of political upheaval stands in contrast to the scene on the opening day. Guests gather in the museum’s foyer for a rosé and a chance to thumb through postcards from past exhibitions (William Dobell portraits, Bronwyn Oliver curlicues). At one point, founding patrons Marc and Eva Besen swing by for a squiz, a chat and some adulation: theirs is one of the finest contemporary art galleries north of Bass Strait.

But when those present enter the gallery proper, parking their wineglasses on a black table beside the point of no return, the barometer drops. Across the gallery’s long corridor of interlocking rooms, dwellings are razed and erased, automated machines suck up detritus, robot chickens peck around abandoned buildings, rejected Depression-era photos are salvaged, and leather-bound editions of Ulysses are ineffectively censored with hand stitching across every word.

In the centre of one room lie receptacles of knowledge – The Children’s Encyclopedia, The Modern World Encyclopaedia – that have been “cremated” to form lacquered tablets, with only ghosts of words remaining. The ashen yet shiny shapes tempt some visitors to approach with Instagram filters at the ready, prompting security staff to levitate slightly. One employee, when asked if some people get too close, responds, “You’d be surprised.”

Further down the corridor are four concurrently running videos of a black-clothed figure. On one screen she can be seen walking the streets of Cyprus while reading from a probably poignant book and then eating each page. Some gallery-goers shuffle around the middle of the space, searching for a vantage point, or read the subtitles at the base of one of the screens for a bit, but most soon move on to the next room. Here they find a metaphorically and literally moving portrait of a Chinese-Australian who early last century went to live in Shanghai, where she became a couturier and then, post-revolution, a pig farmer. Her face, rendered in ash on water, slowly distorts in imperceptible currents.

By the time the crowd gets to the end room, which has been whitewashed and then flecked with charcoal for a never-to-be-created fresco, there is a sense that a journey through both space and history (well, the theme of it) is complete. Visitors orbit the room slowly, but are soon pulled to a window that frames the outside world like a classic Australian landscape: scraggily eucalypts, lines of vines, the flash of a New Holland honeyeater. And then that buggy filled with happy daytrippers trundles by again, breaking the spell and confirming what artist Patrick Pound has stated: “You put a constraint on something and the world sneaks in.”

Patrick Witton

Patrick Witton is The Monthly’s production editor.

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