June 2019

by Julie Ewington

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale
The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Angelica Mesiti, Assembly, 2019 (production still); three-channel video installation in architectural amphitheatre. Photograph by Bonnie Elliott. Commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts on the occasion of the 2019 Venice Biennale; courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Australia and Galerie Allen, Paris.

Angelica Mesiti summons the possibility of harmonic cohesion from disparate sources. Working with dancers, gymnasts, musicians of all kinds, even virtuoso whistlers, she has become in the last decade the country’s most accomplished interpreter of the fragile beauty of dialogue across cultural and linguistic divides.

Mesiti’s latest three-channel video work, Assembly, commissioned by the Australia Council for the Australian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, has David Malouf’s poem “To Be Written in Another Tongue” as its starting point. From this rumination on the improbability of translatability and the pathos of human communication, Mesiti convenes an exquisite gathering of protagonists. Assembly begins with an Italian parliamentary stenographer transcribing Malouf’s text, and it continues with various musicians playing a commissioned score for piano, viola, clarinet, Persian santūr and Zulu flute, as well as dancers, a troupe of Lebanese drummers, a choir and young people releasing fireflies into the night sky. The theme of transliteration takes us through transitions from text to music, to gesture, and back again. Harmony is a key motif, no matter which mode of expression is employed.

Assembly is simultaneously sober and ecstatic. It presents musical and danced perambulations through the corridors of power of both the Italian and Australian parliaments, advancing and sometimes retreating from meaningful correspondences between the various modes; the energetic beat of Lebanese Zaffe drums is universally infectious, for example, while the hand signals of the Occupy protest movement are less than a decade old. The thread throughout is a critical distance from conventional political processes, sourced in the diverse youthful communities of contemporary Australia. As curator Juliana Engberg writes in the catalogue, Mesiti’s convened performers “represent an emerging and strengthening cosmopolitan culture that can grow upon itself and create an assembly of participation that strengthens the democratic ideal”.

Once again, Denton Corker Marshall’s Australian Pavilion shows its versatility with this installation. Mesiti’s three screens are set into a shallow red-carpeted arena that references the rich crimson of the Roman and Australian senates, suggesting the universality of circular assemblies. Immersed in music and performance, viewers are implicated in collective public action. Indeed, the exhibition invokes the antiquity of public political debates about order and chaos, with the final long shot held on the 19th-century Italian painting of Cicero speaking in the Roman senate against Catiline, in the dying days of the republic.

In a Biennale haunted by images of environmental destruction and political impasse, Mesiti has summoned the fragile possibility of cooperation across social and political boundaries. It’s a subtle, complex work, a slow burn rewarding several viewings. Will Venice crowds give it the time it requires? In its opening week I saw absorbed audiences seated in Mesiti’s Venetian assembly room. With the National Gallery of Australia acquiring Assembly, and committing to touring it nationally in 2020, this scene will be repeated many times across the territory of our own contested democracy.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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