Visual Art

Amid a deluge of data, land and lore tell a compelling story of the actual over the virtual world. By Patrick Hartigan.

Richard Long, Vernon Ah Kee and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

'Born in this skin' (2008) by Vernon Ah Kee
'Born in this skin' (2008) by Vernon Ah Kee

In this story

Over recent weeks I have found reassurance in objects and experiences, in Sydney and its surrounds, that offer pause from the bombardment of information. This reassurance has come from objects and experiences that transcend political agenda and refuse any simplistic interaction of ideas; in objects and experiences that physically and psychically anchor me in actual, rather than virtual, time and space.

The Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, perched high above a vast canyon of blue-green eucalypts, seems a fitting location for Landmarks, an exhibition dealing with the landscape beyond its appearances. The show comprising works from the Kaldor collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is curated by Anthony Bond. A group of modest Christo coverings, the well-worn gesture of whose practice was to parcel massive land formations, dovetailed with current political and cultural “cover-ups” – those pertaining to the pliability of truth and information – and gathered fresh appeal. Wrapped Paintings (1968), a large rudder shape of ageing canvas tarpaulin and rope concealing a few stretched canvases, leaning against a wall, spoke to the many cloaks of religious and artistic practice, those codes and orders running deep through history.

On a plinth opposite, Package (1967), evoked something of the nature of political transparency: a bundle tightly wrapped in clear plastic, the size of a folded blanket, providing insight into further, less decipherable layers – what might have been a tarpaulin or part of a sail, teased with an offering of grave importance or no meaning at all. A wrapped maroon book might have tickled my antennae were it not for a boldly displayed signature and edition number; here the enigma was liquidated.

Leaving the room of objects and sketches I walked around the corner where a couple of works by Richard Long – a land artist who took lengthy walks through the wilderness before shaping his experiences into pieces that have culture and nature meeting in refreshingly direct and unconvoluted ways – returned me to my senses. River Avon mud drawing (1983), a circle of sienna brown mud drawn on paper with short arcing finger strokes, and Spring showers circle (1992), a likewise circular collection of slabs of Cornish slate sitting on the floor, both channel the landscape into art’s jurisdiction while retaining something of its purity – the clarity, depth and beauty of earth’s raw material.

Before visiting Landmarks, I was at home looking at a children’s picture encyclopaedia with my daughter. Page by page we leafed through factual reductions of life on Earth: wind, fireman, blocked nose, the highest mountain, laptops, protein, mardi gras. Earth was a ball of water with a few islands, a crust enclosing a core, at times light or dark. While celebrating unlimited access to knowledge it’s worth remembering what books and the internet displaced, what Walter Benjamin described as the slow, germinating power of oral forms of storytelling. The local Indigenous example, termed Dreamtime in 1896 by the ethnographer Francis Gillen, reveals a form of human knowledge inseparable from the workings of the land so relied upon.

In one of Long’s best-known works, A Line Made by Walking (1967), the artist walked back and forth through a field until a flattened line revealed itself; a black-and-white photograph and simple caption recorded the impermanent impression. Carved by the agencies of time and space and body, Land Art from the 1960s sought to challenge the predominance of museums, galleries and frames. Actions that brought disciplined awareness to a body’s position in, and impact on, its surroundings continue to highlight the folly of nature conceived of as a cheap resource, or pretty backdrop, while also registering as statements of defiance against technological disembodiment.

A work that deals more abstractly with the movement of people across Earth’s surface is currently on show at the UNSW Galleries in Paddington until March 25. In a dark round room that has something of the quality and scale of a small temple, EXIT (2008-15) surrounds the viewer with a “360-degree animated global map” visualising “hard hitting facts about the state of our planet”. A large terrestrial globe rotates around the room while showering the viewer with facts, making bare a world of individuals and communities being uprooted from their homelands and languages.

With the support of various scientists and “Statistician Artists”, EXIT was created by New York designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It was inspired by a previously unpublished essay called “Stop eject” by French cultural theorist Paul Virilio, who appears in a separate video walking towards the viewer articulating global population trends. The work found its way here after City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore saw it during the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris in 2015. Her council is a sponsor of an event that aligns closely with the policies and interests of its university host, we are told. After sitting for 45 minutes in darkness I walked outside, squinted in the sunlight, and checked my phone for messages. Eager to be exposed to the “reality check” promised by this event it was unnerving to be left with a swarm of data that, in real terms, had no purchase.

With EXIT’s myriad droplets sliding off my back I noted, while sitting on buses and trains travelling home, the mundane ways in which people are bullied and besieged through hand-held devices and public screens: the “threat” of rising interest rates, sharemarket “volatility”, housing “booms”. The problem with mass media and media culture – besides the fact that its transmitters occupy and take humans out of their bodies, away from their surroundings and fellow people – is the generic form of its transmission and marriage to commercial interests. Consumer wariness and the overexposure to disembodied facts produce something like a vaccine whereby the information pathogen becomes denatured and unable to cause effect.

Interestingly, Virilio has for many decades developed ideas that give voice to my technophobic anxieties. In a 1995 interview with German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, he referred to the “information bomb” – wars being won or lost according to the speed of communication – “technological fundamentalism”, “information monotheism” and “a caste of technology-monks is coming up in our times”. While a work about science, the environment and innovation concurs with the policies of main campus, Virilio’s scepticism holds up an interesting mirror to an art department brimming with technological ambition and optimism. EXIT is full of important information, to be sure, but in not questioning assumptions lying beyond its data stream, it simply disappears down the larger, anaesthetising river.

Not an Animal or a Plant, the title of Vernon Ah Kee’s exhibition at the National Art School, concerns the forebears of algorithmic charting and data worship: the epistemological assumptions that made the moment of this land’s white occupation such a violent one. Ah Kee deals with the theme of scientific classification primarily through large-scale graphite pencil portraits of Indigenous elders and family members. Unlike the victim-specimens of his ancestors, however, these subjects stare directly at the viewer.

A less mannered, more potent work can be found in Born in this skin (2008), comprising a collection of toilet cubicle doors originally “claimed” from disused facilities on Cockatoo Island for a work commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney. This is an edited version comprising six of the doors that were once both barriers of privacy and battlegrounds of graffitied insult between shitting shipyard workers. The doors, hinged to two walls in their own space, appear as double-sided paintings might in a European picture gallery. An obvious metaphor appears between these sides: the outside is blank, an empty frame or cover, while the inside – scarred with anger and hatred – startles with an idiosyncratic emptiness all its own.

The word LOVE crowns a tangle of lines and all too familiar currents on one door: ALL BLACKS & AFRICAN BLACK AUSSIES ARE FUCKEN HEADS; I thought Fucking was a town in China; GO HOME WOGS; boofheads go home. Further down there is a sketch of a woman’s spread legs and along the bottom, in large bold letters, as if taking control of the situation, the symbols and words for ALPHA PHI OMEGA – America’s largest collegiate fraternity, I later learn.

I found in a toilet door the violent and tender, obscene and hilarious skid mark that is humanity. Like Richard Long’s simple gestures, Born in this skin provokes a genuine reality check. We live in an era built on the Enlightenment assumption that more and more knowledge equates with progress. But a knowledge paradigm is only as worthy as its freedom from corruption and its capacity to critically reflect on itself. If art is to have any relevance to society, it will be as its sage, not its slave.


1 . Arts Diary

VISUAL ART Louise Hearman

Tarra Warra Museum of Art, Victoria, until May 14


Sydney Opera House, until March 31

LITERATURE Perth Writers Festival

Venues throughout Perth, February 23-26

MUSIC Cobargo Folk Festival

Cobargo Showground, NSW, February 24-26


Regal Theatre, Perth, until February 25

Last chance

FESTIVAL White Night Melbourne

Melbourne CBD, February 18-19 (7pm-7am)

THEATRE The Year I Was Born

Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, until February 18


Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until February 19

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2017 as "Reflective surfaces".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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