News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intrigue in Thompson’s powerful gaze

Christian Thompson, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

The spaces of John Curtin Gallery have been transformed by ‘Ritual Intimacy’, an exhibition surveying the last 15 years of Bidjara artist Christian Thompson’s career.

Originally curated by Hettie Perkins and Charlotte Day for Monash University Museum of Art, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ has been installed within an intricate floor plan of distinct rooms and resting areas designed to encourage contemplation of Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice.

It’s a dense show with the potential to be discombobulating, but the exhibition design and accompanying room sheet successfully showcase Thompson’s rich practice and the context behind his selected works. Spanning photography, sound, video and performance, these works reveal thematic links and trace the artist’s interests in language, song, ancestry, and living cultural traditions. The exhibition is also be accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on Thompson’s career and work.

Projected onto one wall is ‘Heat’ (2010), a three-channel video featuring the granddaughters of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. Each woman stares straight ahead as air from an unseen source whips their hair around their faces. Intended by Thompson to evoke the feeling of being on desert country, the footage imparts a sense of resilience as the women remain stoic while being buffered by outside forces.

On the opposing wall are five prints from Thompson’s iconic photographic series ‘Australian Graffiti’ (2007), which are stylish self-portraits of the artist adorned with cuttings of native flora; a low-slung crown of banksia flowers, a jaunty garland of grey gum leaves. While his eyes are obscured, Thompson’s posture hints that he can see from under the shadows of his foliage. Forming tensions between strength and fragility, masculinity and glamour, these works reflect on a corporeal connection to the Australian landscape, and the power of the gaze.

The artist’s exploration of identity and representation continues in the Northern Gallery, a large room of stunning C-type prints relating to Thompson’s experiences working with the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Australian photographic collection in Oxford.

In works from the series ‘We Bury our Own’ (2012), Thompson has staged personal reinterpretations of the ‘essence’ of selected photographs from this collection, using costume and symbols to invoke hidden meanings and unseen practices. These works re-inject museological specimens with an intimacy, subjectivity, and uncertainty of meaning, contesting the authority of ethnographic collecting. Thompson terms this process ‘spiritual repatriation’ – a concept that is particularly relevant with the increasing global pressure on museums to repatriate their collections.

Thompson’s challenge to the legacies of colonialism is more explicit in works such as the series ‘Museum of Others’ (2016), in which the eyes of famous ‘dead white males’ (an explorer, an artist, an anthropologist) have been removed and replaced with the artist’s own. Viewing such an evocative array of prints is made even more powerful by the atmospheric leakage of overlapping songs from other nearby works in the show.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ is a rich exhibition in which it is worth lingering to soak up the aesthetic pleasure of this collection of thought-provoking and vital works.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ runs until 21 July.

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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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April 19, Calendar, February 19, Film, Installation, March 19, Perth Festival, Visual arts

Visual Arts: Refuge

12 Feb – 18 April @ John Curtin Gallery ·
Presented by Angelica Mesiti & Candice Breitz ·

Two of the world’s leading audio-visual artists give voice to the world’s immigrants and refugees in these emotionally engaging new video installations.

Acclaimed at the 2017 Venice Biennale, South-African artist Candice Breitz’ s Love Story features Hollywood stars Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin. Their compelling performances bring to life the deeply personal experiences of refugees who’ve fled their countries in desperate circumstances.

Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s latest work also offers unusual insight into the immigrant experience. It is a melancholic journey into the song and music of diverse communities living in the Danish city of Aarhus. Exquisitely captured with the artist’s characteristically dream-like nuance, Mother Tongue reveals the role of music in defining and retaining cultural identity and tradition. Angelica Mesiti is Australia’s representative artist at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Curated in association with Chris Malcolm, Director, Curtin Gallery.
Presented in association with the John Curtin Gallery
Monday – Friday 11am–5pm
16, 23 Feb & 2 Mar 12pm-4pm
Sunday 12pm-4pm

Free Entry

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John Curtin gallery
Calendar, July 18, June 18, Visual arts

Visual arts: Directors’ Cut exhibition

Now showing until 8 July @ John Curtin Gallery ·
Presented by John Curtin Gallery ·

The John Curtin Gallery, at Curtin University’s Bentley campus, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, presents Directors’ Cut, an exhibition of works drawn principally from the Curtin University Art Collection.

Directors’ Cut is curated by JCG Director, Chris Malcolm, in collaboration with the two other curators who have led the JCG since it opened – John Barrett-Lennard (founding Director, 1995–2000) and Professor Ted Snell (Dean of Art, 2001–2009), reflecting their distinctive views of the Curtin University Art Collection.

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Top: Directors’ Cut, Installation View, John Curtin Gallery, 2018

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Lisa Reihana Emissaries
Film, Mixed media, News, Photography, Reviews, Sculpture, Visual arts

A rich and tender alternative

Perth Festival review: “Emissaries” by Lisa Reihana ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Lisa Reihana’s “Emissaries” takes as its starting point a tapestry made in 1805, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. At the time, the popular tapestry provided an escapist-style insight into the lives and cultures of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific – told, of course, through the eyes of the white colonialists.

Reihana, who is of Māori and British descent, seeks to redress this one-sided depiction by reimagining vignettes of early contact between the First Nations peoples of the Pacific and European explorers. I had already seen this work at the Venice Biennale, so I was surprised to discover that the show has expanded, the more spacious and modern venue giving it room to breathe. The sleek rooms of John Curtin Gallery provide a series of antechambers, and, walking deeper into the show toward the rumbling, creaking soundtrack of Reihana’s epic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], I felt that I was entering the hull of a ship.

As an entrance, the first room shows portraits of certain ‘emissaries’, including Joseph Banks, astronomer and explorer, and the Chief Mourner of the Society Islands, a mysterious figure who can move between worlds. It is clear that these emissaries aren’t just from another time, but another place – otherworldly shadows. Reihana’s digital photography gives the figures a contemporary feel, whilst their garb and formal attitudes hearken back to Enlightenment portraiture. These are augmented by historical material from the Kerry Stokes Collection, a series of original eighteenth and nineteenth century works on paper depicting Captain Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific. History and fiction are combined to create a more complex narrative of colonialism, discovery, and myth-making.

This first two rooms provide an elegant introduction to the cinematic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. You can hear it echoing through the gallery, but you can’t see it until you face the single shadowy portrait of a Nootka ancestor and totem and enter the final room.

Here, the suggestions of Enlightenment values, colonial histories and reclaimed narratives become strikingly clear. The panoramic video uses modern imaging technology to digitally animate moments of Pacific life at the time of the original tapestry’s inception. It’s hypnotising and incredibly rich in detail.

Many of the stories show people simply living their culture: dancing, sparring, and singing. There are moments of humour (a grown man pretends to labour and joyfully birth another grown man) and, frequently, moments of confusion, violence, and awkwardness that come with groups of people with no common language or culture meeting for the first time. Sometimes they interact by exchanging tokens and gestures of friendliness. Sometimes the Europeans are shown to be painting the Pacific Islanders, presumably to bring home the taxonomic images we’ve just seen in the previous room. And sometimes it ends in unspeakable violence – lashings, murder, a disembodied limb.

As the soundtrack grows louder, the vignettes reach a breaking point – with weeping and agonised screams, and waves are breaking loudly nearby. But everything keeps on moving. Even the satisfying moment of Captain Cook’s murder by a Hawai’ian doesn’t stop the slow march of history. The moment of the fatal blow reverberates for just a minute – the people recoil and sit in stunned silence – before the moment rolls by.

“Emissaries” is a richly woven tapestry of its own, retelling historical narratives with inventiveness and tenderness. It’s a comment on what we think of as history, how we come to accept narratives, and who gets to tell these stories. Just as the narrative of In Pursuit of Venus [infected] cycles through its story without a clear beginning or end, Reihana’s work is never-ending.  Time is not linear, and history is always repeating itself – the implications of colonialism are always continuing in both new and old forms. Reihana’s work seeks to redress an imbalance, and to correct the record. It is, of course, partly fictionalised, but then, who is to say the accepted narratives we already think we know are real?

Emissaries runs at John Curtin Gallery until April 29.

Top: Lisa Reihana, detail in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Ultra HD video, colour, sound, 64 min. Image courtesy of the artist and New Zealand at Venice.

Miranda Johnson is an arts worker from Perth. She spent the past few years in London working as a record store clerk whilst studying an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Upon returning to Perth, she has been working for some of Perth’s major contemporary arts institutions, as well as co-directing Moana Project Space, an artist-run initiative. Miranda also sings in indie-pop choir Menagerie and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories.

For the duration of Perth Festival, Miranda is part of its customer service team.

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