A man doing a handstand on a desk in a formal meeting chamber
News, Reviews, Video, Visual arts

A timely take on migration and displacement

Candice Breitz & Angelica Mesiti, ‘REFUGE’ ·
John Curtin Gallery, 7 April 2019 ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Splitting the John Curtin Gallery into two distinct viewing spaces, ‘REFUGE’ presents a pair of cinematic video installations that explore the experiences of immigrants and refugees. Curated by Chris Malcolm and Felicity Fenner, and presented in association with the Perth Festival, this exhibition brings together the works of Australian artist Angelica Mesiti, who has been selected to represent Australia in the 2019 Venice Biennale, and South African artist Candice Breitz.

Mesiti’s Mother Tongue (2017) is a dreamy two channel video work featuring members of a diverse range of communities from Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark. Initially inspired by the Danish tradition of communal singing, Mesiti has recorded her subjects in the act of private and communal performances – four dancers link arms as they lunge in sync around a wet asphalt square, a three-piece band plays on sofas in an ornate living room, a man slowly executes perfectly-balanced handstands across the benches of a formal meeting chamber. Presented without didactic information, these strangely beautiful portraits unite to form a hypnotic reverie that encourages reflection on diversity, community, and the practice of “living” cultural heritage.

Mesiti’s evocative imagery is also sleekly edited – the singing of an assembly of enthusiastic Danish school children synchronises with, and then fades out into, the rhythmic wordless drumming of the Ramallah Boy Scouts troupe practising their routine while crowded around a table. This juxtaposition of footage across two screens creates shifting points of cohesion and difference, evoking the lived experiences of migrants integrating into new places after being displaced from their home countries. Despite running at 18 minutes, Mother Tongue is easily re-watchable, with each viewing offering new moments of captured intimacy.

Alec Baldwin in 'Love Story'.
Alex Baldwin in Candice Breitz’s ‘Love Story’ (still), 2016. 7-Channel Installation, featuring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto, KOW and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

In the second half of the gallery is Breitz’s multi-channel video installation Love Story (2016). Approaching this work, gallery visitors are first confronted with a large screen showing footage of famous actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, each recounting extremely personal testimonies of displacement, war, and violence. In an easily overlooked adjoining room, six smaller screens present these same stories – although this time spoken by the refugee subjects who actually experienced them. Cleverly installed as if they are sitting across from you, the refugees on each of these screens recount their stories in long, unflinching detail – in direct contrast with the snappy edited soundbites of the recognisable Hollywood stars.

It is a confronting work for many reasons – the sheer amount of video content, the harrowing stories of each refugee, and the ridiculousness of Alec Baldwin lamenting the difficulty of travelling on a Somalian passport. While Breitz’s provocative use of famous actors almost feels like too much of a novelty, the underlying message is clear – the viewer is challenged to consider which stories and storytellers we privilege, where we direct our empathy and attention, and what we feel comfortable to watch.

In a timely exhibition worthy of sustained consideration, the works of ‘REFUGE’ present a thoughtful and sophisticated examination of migration and displacement.

“Refuge” closes April 18.

Pictured top is  a still from ‘Mother Tongue’, 2017. Two-channel high definition colour video installation and surround sound, 17 minutes 54 seconds. Photography: Bonnie Elliot. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

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