Reviews/Visual Art

Complex puzzles at play

29 November 2022

Fragmented narratives range from playful to frustrating in a pair of exhibitions at PICA, finds Jaimi Wright.

‘Las Hormigas/The Ants’, Pilar Mata Dupont, and ‘A Puzzlement’, Nathan Beard ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·

There are complex puzzles currently at play at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), where exhibitions by Argentinian-Australian filmmaker Pilar Mata Dupont’s “Las Hormigas/The Ants” and Thai-Australian artist Nathan Beard’s “A Puzzlement” each grapple with racial identity and cultural heritage.

Unreliable narrators often make for captivating narrative devices, and this is mostly true for these two exhibitions.

Dupont’s Las Hormigas/The Ants (2022) and an earlier body of her work La Maruja (2021) occupy the bottom floor of PICA’s gallery space, and so are the first exhibitions encountered as one enters the atrium.

Las Hormigas is presented in the first room on a two-channel video installation with chairs and beanbags available for audience members to use during its one-hour duration. This recorded performance is the first iteration of Las Hormigas, called A Table Read (2021), which took place at De Hillevliet with WET, a Rotterdam based production company (live performances of Las Hormigas are available at PICA to the public every Saturday).

A Table Read tells the story of a young girl picnicking with her family on a riverbank. Abandoned by her brothers and cousins, the girl is ordered by her father – a military officer – to cut the ants encroaching on their picnic in half with her mother’s sewing needle. Intended as a metaphor for the violent acts committed by the Argentinian military between 1976 and 1983, the story is told by three performers. In an almost bare room in de Hillevliet, the actors improvise and shift between their own identity, the identity of the artist, and the artist’s family.

An installation photo of Las Hormigas - two women sit on cushions, watching two giant screens. A different woman's face is on each screen.
Pilar Mata Dupont, installation view, ‘Las Hormigas The Ants’, 2022, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), courtesy the artist and Moore Contemporary. Photo: Miles Noel

The product does feel fractured, as Dupont intended, but almost to the point of inaccessibility. The layers and layers of disjointed narrative techniques – the shifting identities of the actors, the story shrouded in metaphor and the bare-bones set – are confusing, alienating the viewer from the story and intended message. It begs the question, who is the performance really for?

Far more concise and engaging is Dupont’s earlier work, La Maruja, which plays on repeat on a single channel video installation in the room behind Las Hormigas. La Maruja is a film of intercut scenes exploring the mysterious death of Dupont’s great-great grandmother, María Cristina. After her son Fito was taken from her and given to some childless relatives, María developed a bacterial illness, associated with the trauma of losing her son. She died without seeing him again.

Dupont’s film effectively articulates the brutality and strangeness of these events, as the voices of her family members recount this story over eerily lit shots of the interior and exterior of the ranch. Intercut with these accounts are Dupont’s staged vignettes in various peculiar costumes, including a headdress worn by her grandmother. In graphic shades of blue and apricot these photographs are displayed on the walls of the gallery. In comparison to Las Hormigas, La Maruja is an absorbing oral history, and though similarly fragmented, is nonetheless affecting.

Nathan Beard, ‘King Mongkut (1956)’, 2022, courtesy of the artist and sweet pea

Upstairs, the two wall displays and sculptural piece that form Beard’s A Puzzlement have a thoughtful and playful eloquence that begins with the exhibition’s title, taken from a song from the musical The King and I. That famous stage play and film ended up defining Western media’s representation of Thai identities, despite its obvious theatricality and historical inconsistencies.

In the song “A Puzzlement”, King Mongkut (played by Russian actor Yul Brynner in the film), sings about the dilemma of not knowing what is true. This idea is the departure point for Beard’s exhibition and his exploration of Western history as an unreliable narrator for Thai identities.

Beard’s first installation is comprised of four large, black and white composite photographs of public figures who have informed Western visions of Thai identity, including film production stills of the characters in The King and I. Each of their faces has been encrusted with Swarovski Crystals in hues with names that include the antiquated term “Siam”.

In highlighting the commodification of Thailand by the West as shorthand for exotic beauty, Beard effectively critiques the embellishment of Thai cultural identities for Western benefit.

At the centre of the room, Beard’s five sculptural pieces – replicas of Westernised Thai objects composed of 3D printed, gold painted plastic – also deconstruct Western myths about Thai identity. Connected precariously, replicas of Thai objects in the British museum and Thai fast food figurines form a modern makeshift shrine that re-examines and refashions Thai identities.

Dupont’s “Las Hormigas” and Beard’s “A Puzzlement” both explore the idea of the unreliable narrator in relation to cultural identity and in doing so make for an interesting pairing. Though Beard’s exhibition is more concise and engaging, Dupont’s scale of vision is to be commended.

“Las Hormigas” and “A Puzzlement” continue at PICA until 8 January 2022.

Pictured top: Nathan Beard, installation view, ‘A Puzzlement’, 2022, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). Photo: Bo Wong

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Author —
Jaimi Wright

Jaimi is a Development Coordinator for ARTRAGE and your friendly neighbourhood arts writer. She also writes for Art Almanac and ArtsHub as she cannot keep still. Her favourite piece of play equipment is the roundabout even though her stomach should know better.

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