Art

The Tangible Trace, the TarraWarra Museum of Art’s new exhibition, has works of subtle beauty, but ultimately asks too few challenging questions of its audience. By Andy Butler.

TarraWarra International 2019: The Tangible Trace

Hiwa K’s Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) at The Tangible Trace.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

Wood-framed vitrines, holding fragments of clay and rock on softly lit shelves, dominate the entrance to The Tangible Trace, the latest exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art. In this work, Domino Theory, Singaporean-Australian artist Simryn Gill evokes a sense of looking back on ancient history, of examining traces of a former civilisation catalogued and assembled according to various taxonomies. One shelf displays something like a miniature Stonehenge; on others, cubes of varying sizes are arranged like building blocks.

These fragments are bits of brick, tiles and cubes of termite clay collected from around Gill’s studio in Port Dickson, Malaysia, near the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes and trade routes in the world. These pieces of brick and tile are traces of the movement of capital and power. The titular domino theory was a Cold War-era concept used by the United States to justify intervention in South-East Asia: according to the theory, if one country fell to communism, others in the region would follow like dominoes.

The vitrines are accompanied by Passing Through, a series of photographs and monotypes made in an abandoned seaside motel, also in Port Dickson. The town was a holiday place for an aspiring middle class in the ’70s and ’80s; people from Kuala Lumpur would spend weekends there. After being bought out by foreign speculative investors, it fell into ruin. Gill’s photographs capture light shining onto rubble-strewn hallways, and trees poking through glassless windows. For the monotypes, she placed coloured inks on the small white tiles of the motel, producing imprints of its surfaces in a small and poetic gesture of creation.

The Tangible Trace, curated by Victoria Lynn, is a group exhibition that places the work of Australian and international artists in dialogue. It also includes Sangeeta Sandrasegar (from Australia), Francis Alÿs (Belgium/Mexico), Carlos Capelán (Uruguay/Sweden), Shilpa Gupta (India) and Hiwa K (Iraq/Germany).

The artists are brought together around the idea of the ‘trace’ – imprints, shadows, remnants of a past that still shape our present situation. In the works and perspectives here, these traces are made tangible as an engagement with the West’s legacy at a time of an increasing sense of doom and collapse. The works wrestle with topics such as displacement, war, colonisation, consumption, decay and ruin – all the perspectives are from artists who either are based in the Global South or have a cultural heritage from those countries. These are artists looking from the outside into the centre.

Hiwa K’s video work Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) follows on from Gill’s. In an extended performance, he walks through parts of Greece with a contraption of motorcycle mirrors balanced on his nose, a narrative told over the top: “To remember, sometimes you need to find new archaeological tools, tools with which you can dig upwards, to see your fragmented scattered parts, or other tools, with which you can excavate silence.” He retraces part of the journey he made some 20 years ago, when he fled conflict in Iraq and eventually made his way on foot to Berlin. As he looks upwards, he sees the landscape and surroundings only through reflection, in fragments and incomplete.

The work is deeply poetic but also absurd – what is the point of art in the face of war, violence and displacement? A resonant line: “The only burden I had, the Western art history (with which I was quite unfamiliar).”

Pre-Image feels like the work of an artist at the height of his powers, and seeing it is worth the trip to TarraWarra alone. It uncovers and unfurls many possible meanings as the images from his walk resonate with or diverge from the story he tells. In one part, which speaks most strongly to the other works in the exhibition, Hiwa K approaches a ring of ancient statues in Athens, peering at them sideways through his mirrors, as if trying to uncover some hidden meaning: “Why don’t they run anymore? ... Maybe they just froze in their velocity, overdosed on their beauty.”

Carlos Capelán’s Implosions, a newly commissioned series of paintings, similarly considers a European cultural legacy that is beginning to show its cracks. He paints oblique and distorted self-portraits and bodies over a patchwork of shapes inspired by Cubism and Geometric Abstraction – great movements of European Modernism that appropriated the work of the other. The faces stare back at you, only becoming clear as you move around the paintings – it’s the Global South looking back, says Capelán in his artist talk. The faces look through the viewer, never meeting their eye, but with a feeling of intimacy as opposed to defiance.

The work gives neither answers nor a vision of where we will be after the collapse; rather, it tracks the demise in which we find ourselves. This is a common thread through The Tangible Trace – these works all show us, in their own way, a world in ruin, and the artists offer subtle interventions with its remains.

There’s a grace, beauty and poignancy to the exhibition. Francis Alÿs’ Paradox of Praxis 5 shows the artist kicking a flaming soccer ball through Ciudad Juárez at night. A border city in Mexico, Ciudad Juárez has been ravaged by drug cartel violence, the government’s war on drugs and an inordinate amount of femicide. At the peak of its crisis Juárez was the most violent city on earth, and more than 200,000 people left. Alÿs’ gesture is beautiful, this ball of fire illuminating the streets of the city – it’s both full of meaning and difficult to pin down, and he offers no answers but produces an arresting work.

While all the works open a space of deep reflection on some defining issues of our time, the exhibition’s centring of the poetic and gentle gesture asks too few challenging or unsettling questions of the audience. It demands nothing of us. It feels as if the viewer is being handled with kid gloves, in the politest terms possible.

This lets in a feeling of acquiescence across the curated works – that all is lost but at least it’s beautiful. It feels untimely, especially given the heated discussions happening worldwide in cultural institutions and further afield: we know old structures of power and ways of being are fading into irrelevance and people are agitating for action.

Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s Things fall from view brings much of this uneasiness to the surface. A textile and sound installation, it plays with the light and the view in the museum’s Vista Walk hallway, where one would usually look out over the picturesque valley, vineyard and winery. Sandrasegar has covered the view with scrims of Indian silk and cotton, dyed with indigo pigment and Australian native cherry. While beautiful, it is too gentle to reckon with the complexity of our colonial history, and the role of the non-Anglo diaspora within it.

A classical music recording accompanies the work – Symphony No. 1 Da Pacem Domine by Australian composer Ross Edwards – and reverberates through the whole exhibition. An intense piece composed in response to war and environmental devastation, it mixes traces of Buddhist chanting with the Lord’s Prayer, mirroring the threads of cultural hybridity in Sandrasegar’s practice.

The architecture, the music, the view, the sense of an end of history in the exhibition – Things fall from view brings all these together in a way that unironically feels like the final scene of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, where a European upper-middle-class family builds a “magic cave” to see out the end of civilisation. The Tangible Trace leaves the impression that this is all we can do, glass of wine in hand.

Shilpa Gupta’s work comes closest to unsettling the audience in a pointed, complex way. In one corner sits an outline of Australia traced in copper pipe – distorted, folded, transformed into a sculpture that looks like it may collapse. Next to it is a large concrete slab, smashed to pieces, with the phrase “The markings we have made on this land have increased the distance so much” repeated in various global languages.

The audience is invited to take a piece of the work with them as they leave. It thus becomes an act that straddles a difficult line between a poetic, earnest gesture and a criticism of consumption. Gupta is a major global artist, shown in prestigious institutions and biennales worldwide. The same contemporary structures born of the traces of power and history critiqued in the show bestow significant cultural capital on this work. Those at the opening pick over it and walk safely into the night, lugging highly covetable pieces of concrete. None of this artwork will remain by The Tangible Trace’s end.

The Tangible Trace is showing at TarraWarra Museum of Art (313 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville, Vic) until September 1.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Trace against time". Subscribe here.

Andy Butler
is a Melbourne writer, curator and artist.