Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office’s In Absence
In the sculpture garden behind the Great Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria International, the winner of the 2019 NGV Architecture Commission, a collaboration between architectural studio Edition Office (Aaron Roberts and Kim Bridgland) and artist Yhonnie Scarce, holds its own in a face-to-face conversation with Roy Grounds’ Brutalist gallery facade.
Conversation consists of dialogue where information and ideas are exchanged. In this one, a symbiotic relationship of forms – Grounds’ bluestone and geometry; Scarce, Roberts and Bridgland’s stained Tasmanian oak and cylindrical shape – asks probing questions about the short history that divides them: How do we occupy space? Can we materially acknowledge our own history in architecture? What function will this form find?
A corridor splits the cylinder of Edition Office and Scarce’s collaboration, forming two columns, welcoming visitors inside. Titled In Absence, the nine-metre-high structure appears as a form that has arrived as new from an unknown destination – either terrestrial or sci-fi. Who, indeed, are the visitors?
Through space and form, In Absence creates a place for people to experience presence and time, rather than image. It dwarfs the Willem de Kooning Standing Figure bronze that sits to its north, and accidentally mocks the infantilising bronze commission Gone by KAWS occupying the nearby NGV foyer. It appears ever-present and enduring, devoid of a pre-existing known narrative.
The NGV’s $250,000 architecture commission is now in its fifth cycle, with this round receiving 100 submissions. Architecture commissions that need not address a specific purpose or program are rare, and in this case Edition Office took the opportunity to work with Scarce, a contemporary Indigenous Australian artist, and together begin a conversation addressing the complex and painful history of colonisation in Australia.
Born in Woomera, Scarce is a Kokatha and Nukunu woman who has witnessed the ongoing effects of the Maralinga nuclear tests and the military base – economic, physical, environmental and cultural – in the region. Her work addresses the past and present effects of colonisation and genocide around the world, in particular nuclear colonisation as evidenced in those nuclear tests. Her 2015 work Thunder Raining Poison consists of 2000 hand-blown glass yams, hung in the form of a nuclear blast. Materially addressing the real presence of history – the red sand at the Breakaway test site was turned into a thin layer of glass – Scarce’s work forms a constellation that is as strong and fragile as our connection to place.
The conversation between Edition Office and Scarce, coincidentally, began when I was travelling with her in Georgia – a country that has only been independent from its colonisation since 1991. Scarce had invited me to join her research of sites affected by nuclear disaster and colonisation, and sites of trauma, memorial and architecture. The work took us to well-documented sites such as Hiroshima, Chernobyl and the World Trade Centre site in New York City, as well as lesser travelled places such as Fukushima, Tbilisi and Yerevan.
On one trip, we drove some 10,000 kilometres through the Balkans and as far as Buzludzha, a peak in Bulgaria that once hosted the country’s Communist Party headquarters. We were in search of the spomeniks commissioned not by Josip Broz Tito but by a range of government and community institutions in Yugoslavia between 1960 and 1980, while it was heavily decentralised into six republics. These UFO-like forms were once thought of as a means of unifying a country, but as we crossed the immense landscape of the former Yugoslavia, the purposes of these monuments were revealed to be as vast and varied as the landscape they inhabited.
Spomeniks are conflicted forms: they can be monuments to anti-fascism in places that are experiencing a resurgence in right-wing politics, or memorials of massacres in places since further torn apart by war. Their value, though, is in the complexity of this narrative. On a continent where the land has been turned, exploited and used for atrocities and excess production, there is the argument that, as architect and writer Dubravka Sekulić suggests, a better way to engage with these monuments would be “to use them as a tool to reconnect to the near past in which, as a society, we did not see space only as a commodity”.
In some ways, this is a call for a right to place – a riff on Henri Lefebvre’s famous call for the right to the city. The right to place recognises, as Lefebvre observes, that space is fragmented by states that seek to control and homogenise it. The movement calls for space to be abstracted, as it is in the spomeniks we visited, or in Scarce’s collaboration with Edition Office.
The corridor of In Absence invites you to enter and discover its interior, which presents a new rendering of the form – reminiscent of smoking trees, birthing trees or the Indigenous domed architecture discussed in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. It opens out into two circular internal chambers, also expertly finished with dark-stained Tasmanian oak: rooms that face one another and are lined with 1600 of Scarce’s hand-blown glass yams. The yams are black, fixed to the walls just out of reach so they appear to be making their way to the sky while also returning to us. They glisten – another constellation – and when you sit on one of the two bench seats in either space, there is a waft of new eucalyptus leaves. As you move through the two spaces, this scent mixes at times with a denser, smoky smell. Sombre yet beautiful, the structure supports the body. This is a place of reverence, the darkness of the stained oak neither a void nor a dominant marker; strangely neutral, her muteness speaks loudly.
Last month, following complaints, including one from Senator George Christensen, two works by the artist Abdul Abdullah were removed from an exhibition curated by Yhonnie Scarce and Claire Watson in Mackay. Christensen claimed Abdullah’s work – paintings of anonymous armed servicemen, overlaid with abstracted smiling faces reminiscent of emojis – was an attack on soldiers. Abdullah has said this work was created as a means of generating discussion about the representation of returned soldiers, the conditions under which they serve and how their experiences are rendered homogeneous in their emotive form, like the emoji. Rather than being an attack, the paintings aimed to pose a question to the society they were produced in. But it is fragile power that strikes out most bitterly when challenged.
I recently came across a quote from Bruce Pascoe, in an interview with Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor, Lorena Allam: “The country is sick. It’s in pain. It’s thirsty.” He refers, of course, not only to the physical landscape but also to the complex linking of culture, nature, land and law. When cultural institutions are undermined and sites of conflict and censorship are created, dissolving discourse and the possibility for the discussion of difference, the symptoms of a sick country are rendered visible. It is clear the complexity of our own political situation demands the same consideration the spomeniks demand.
Terra nullius is not merely the classification of land; it feeds into an ideology and doctrine that has seeped into our psyche and our systems, evidenced in interventions, agricultural practices, architecture and social policies that continue to actively separate Indigenous people from each other and their lands.
The consequences of terra nullius affect us all – it colonises the past and the future. It renders land uninhabitable and history unspeakable. It generates a cultural condition that is devoid of analysis, reflection and dialogue: no place = no people = no art = no culture. In Absence addresses this silence with a structure that attempts to reconnect destroyed bonds.
Taking its lead from Pascoe, In Absence asks us to begin reconstructing the language between us that has been lost, and a history that has been falsified. The reverent interior promotes a kind of quiet, filtering in the birdlife of the surrounding Yarra and urban domain: songs of Indian mynas mix with those of the white-plumed honeyeater, and we realise we are in an architectural form for listening.
From above, the two arcs of In Absence create two circular forms. The view is very much like eyes, or binoculars – an interlocutor between earth and ancestry and the vast sign system of the sky, referenced for millennia by Indigenous Australians. Memorials can be mistaken for passive markers of a past. Colonisation makes us choose between oral and written cultures, generating a gaze that can sometimes be predetermined. For a long time, Yhonnie Scarce and her peers, such as Megan Cope, have worked as mentors and advisers for younger and emerging artists, curators and civic institutions – exchanging ideas, sharing the past, hearing the present. In a similar way, this building acts as mentor to an emerging culture and a burgeoning sense of responsibility to many histories. In Absence is looking to the sky and listening for another future.
In Absence is at NGV International, Melbourne, until April.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Absence-minded". Subscribe here.