Visual Art

A new exhibition explores the dichotomy between the real and the abstract, the free-flowing and the solid. By Patrick Hartigan.

Concrete ideas at MUMA

Concrete blocks feature in Kader Attia’s series of photographs 'Rochers Carrés' (2008).
Concrete blocks feature in Kader Attia’s series of photographs 'Rochers Carrés' (2008).
On a frosty morning in Berlin recently, I was in a park walking up a winding path, past some joggers, a woman walking a small dog, a man in a red parka lurking furtively behind a tree, to the top of a hill which, I was later informed by my host, was a large pile of rubble left over from the war. The rubble had belonged to buildings – specifically the watchtowers defending this city – that were bombed; it was then piled into a park and covered with soil, becoming a hill and something of a new monument.

A related moment occurred in Japan while looking for the grave of my great-great-grandfather. Where a cemetery had once been – not his, as it turned out – I was surprised to find a car park. This is something of a theme in a country that has fallen and risen so frequently: elsewhere in Tokyo people launch golf balls atop the graves of shoguns. Things get built, things fall apart, things get built again and life goes on.

Concrete is a composite material that a great deal of the built environment has been created from, since its first use thousands of years ago. It is also a word relating to specific or definite things such as those used “in evidence”. In philosophy it exists in a dichotomy with abstraction: real stuff versus the stuff of ideas. When thinking about this material and this word I feel the slippery terrain of language but I also begin to see something consistently defensive: concrete defends by holding things together.

This philosophical seesaw is not the focus of the writing accompanying Concrete – an exhibition curated by Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), until July 5 – but it was what was, over and above the material, most engaging. While concrete and its historical resonance form the main concern of this exhibition, it is, by virtue of all its monuments and the histories they signify, most appealingly a show about abstraction.

Kader Attia’s series of photographs Rochers Carrés (2008) shows large concrete blocks – monumental Lego playthings – along a shoreline in Algiers. The blocks are in fact a fortification aimed at deterring boat people arriving from other parts of Africa. The men perched on them, staring out to sea, are oddly romantic in attitude but also scale – somewhere between Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) and the dwarfing environments of a Canaletto painting.

Paper, in the hands of a couple of artists, has a reassuringly concrete presence in this exhibition and Tom Nicholson’s Comparative monument (Palestine) (2012), with its diagonal row of stepping stone-like stacks of prints, was a work of lingering merit. The prints document through image and text nine monuments from around Melbourne containing the word “Palestine”. The text teases meaning out of obduracy, delving into the historical strata upon which these monuments sit – namely World War I when Australian troops fought in Palestine – while drawing a dotted line towards and through that distant place.

The German author W. G. Sebald once pointed out that following World War II there were 43 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden but in “no time at all … peaceful deep-set country lanes” could be observed running straight through the trauma. Nicholson’s text, with its strange convolutions and repetitions, keeps you reading by eking meaning out of hard and distant monument subjects. The sentence “The low sun picks out the confusion of rocks and rubble and worn headstones scattered through the expanses of bare earth and long grass” transports us, as Sebald so often did, into a realm of particulars that are necessarily generalised by the monuments and histories we might walk past every day.

While reading, shuffling, reading again – trying to pick the gist out of the word rubble – one hears the repetitions of a photocopier next door in Nicholas Mangan’s installation Some Kinds of Duration (2011). It’s a work combining physical, visual and aural elements relating to specific histories but not relying on the knowledge of these histories, nor the work’s entirety, to engage. I found myself fixed upon a small slide projection, low to the ground, containing images of surfaces and materials – conglomerates suggesting the copying and repeating processes that define both facsimile and architectural forms of production. The over and over again sound of a page being copied by a photocopier, a monumental-seeming thing among the more emaciated forms of recent technology, chants to the over and over again chapters in history, of moments becoming memories and monuments.

In another corner I remained captive to Jananne Al-Ani’s film Shadow Sites II (2011). As with the above works, it engrosses with its repetition, oscillating between the abstract and real or concrete. I was being both lured and held back by desert landscapes, unknown and unidentified, but all resonating ominously with those “weapons of mass destruction” satellite shots we were constantly fed prior to the invasion of Iraq. The work plays on this connotation but ultimately just hypnotises with its detail, sets of tyre marks and so on, and the painterly traces of humanity. It’s a work that reminds us of the sinister allies of abstraction, our engagement with war amounting as it usually does to the narcotic of news, that eerily casual form of nightly entertainment.

In the room next door hangs a group of photographs, all depicting Anzac monuments, by Laurence Aberhart. This was another germane coupling: the straight-on angle and suburban poise of Aberhart’s photographs provided a curious landing to the aerial awareness of moments ago. Zoomed in like this, how strange it was to suddenly be staring into scenes of prudent suburbia, into things – as much the “Digger” statues as their physical settings – so very concrete: light falling on the bark of a gum tree, cut and uncut grass, road signs, telegraph lines and a brick wall. Aberhart’s photos, like Nicholson’s low sun, inflect their deferential and abstract monuments by opening the aperture on the contexts they exist in. The photographs are likewise monuments: produced with the care and appreciation their equally finite subjects embody, they remember our remembrances.

While at times not energising with its selection and range of work, Concrete is a thoughtfully arranged exhibition. On the theme of lives lost, abstracted into stone, no work sits more dramatically – it’s impossible to not walk past it at least twice – than Ricky Maynard’s non-monumental Death in Exile (from the series Portrait of a Distant Land, 2007). A simply shot black-and-white photograph, it shows what we learn from the accompanying text to be an Aboriginal grave. On the small plinth of mortar and rocks sits a plaque, the words, if there were any, now gone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 21, 2014 as "Concrete ideas ".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.