Despite its high production values, the 2021 TarraWarra Biennial Slow Moving Waters is an exercise in restraint. Many of the works are large-scale and yet they don’t scream at the viewer for attention.
Almost immediately upon entering, we encounter Yawuru artist Robert Andrew’s Continuing Depths of Connection (2019-20), a kinetic installation in which an extraordinarily long piece of string coated in Yawuru ochre – likely hundreds of metres in length – is gradually coiled to form the word “inala”, which roughly translates to community or resting place. The formation of the word is so slow that the viewer needs to watch unblinkingly for some time to register its motion.
The unhurried pace of Continuing Depths of Connection is an ideal index for Nina Miall’s curatorial aim of exploring the logic of slowness in response to the flow of the Birrarung (Yarra River), which passes through the TarraWarra estate. The biennial has been a tradition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art since 2006, and this year’s curation suggests slowing down is a form of defiance. According to Miall’s catalogue essay, the exhibition deploys slowness as a tool of resistance to “the processes of speed and efficiency that govern contemporary life”.
And yet it occurs to me that often the works on display deploy slowness as a kind of melancholy – a process of mourning with no end. Art historian Amelia Barikin once said that the temporality of melancholia hinges “on a schism between finitude and infinitude”. To put it another way, melancholia is the persistence of the past in the present.
Jacobus Capone’s Sincerity and Symbiosis (2019), shot over six weeks but compressed to a 36-minute video, is perhaps the epitome of this sentiment. The three-channel video work shows Capone navigating a plantation forest in Japan. While mourning the natural environment cleared to make way for this artificial site, Capone also affords a tenderness towards the plantation trees that will be harvested for human consumption. The weeks and minutes of the video seem negated by its narrative-free atemporality – a melancholic representation of the effects of human time on the landscape. Nature as we remember it is over, but it simultaneously continues.
Of the 25 artists presented in Slow Moving Waters, nine are Indigenous. The logic of melancholia is more deeply felt in the works of these artists, who mourn the theft and destruction of Country and the lives of their peoples due to the continuing process of colonisation.
Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s installation Currents III (Freshwater Studies) (2021) occupies the picturesque North Gallery, which overlooks the estate’s vineyard. Cope created the work in response to the environmental effects that Western farming has on waterways. Here, three large ice sculptures – made of water from the Wilson River on Bundjalung Country and dyed with natural pH indicators including red cabbage and blueberries – slowly melt onto paper to produce a visual indication of the water’s health. The various states of the ice sculptures – frozen, slowly dripping and, finally, sealed into the paper like a painting – register the ways in which physical and psychological time overlap.
I often feel a little sorry for the artworks installed in the long hallway next to the main gallery at TarraWarra. They can feel boxed in, and in a previous biennial I witnessed somebody knock over an installation that took up much of the hall. But Michaela Gleave’s The World Arrives at Night (Star Printer) (2014) looks at home in the hallway, as though it belongs in some Jacques Tati-esque bureaucratic non-space. Sitting on top of a simple desk is a dot matrix printer, hovering on the cusp of obsolescence. The printer periodically spits out basic information about stars that appear over TarraWarra, adding to a long ream of paper collecting on the floor. The singularity of each star is eventually subsumed into the homogeneity of the vast collection of text that perhaps nobody will ever read.
Miall’s focus on slow art follows a series of exhibitions at TarraWarra over the past few years that grapple with notions of time in contemporary art. Pierre Huyghe: TarraWarra International 2015, co-curated by Victoria Lynn and Amelia Barikin, showed the work of a significant contemporary artist who has offered a profound new understanding of the experience of time in the 21st century, including non-human time. If we think explicitly about the logic of “time” in relationship to the contemporary moment, we can’t go past the 2016 TarraWarra Biennial, Endless Circulation, co-curated by Victoria Lynn and Helen Hughes, which considered time as iterative, in relationship to structural repetitions in late capitalism, such as biennials, or against a traditional Western logic of linearity.
Miall’s exhibition also shuns linear histories, but within a logic of various temporalities: that is, not just one “slowness”, but a multitude of “slownesses”. The rate at which Cope’s ice drips is different to the rate at which Andrew’s sculpture writes. Indeed, the location of the gallery, nestled on the bucolic TarraWarra Estate winery – a site hugely reliant upon climate but also part of a settler intervention into the natural world – is a fitting context for this exhibition, which is bristling with references to our relationships to the environment and memory.
I returned to Palawa artist Mandy Quadrio’s steel wool sculptural installation, Whose Time Are We On? (2021) several times during my visit. Here, touch and sight are intimately linked; it is almost impossible to see the steel wool without imagining the feeling of it scraping against the skin. And yet as I walk through the work, I feel strangely cocooned. It produces a confusing tension between corrosion and sheltering.
One dominant definition of melancholia is of a mourning for an unknown subject. Whose Time Are We On? expresses a melancholy predicated on the Palawa’s ungraspable memory – a result of what Miall calls the “collective amnesia” of the settlers, who attempted to erase the existence of the Palawa and chose to forget the acts of violence that they unleashed upon them.
All of the works in Slow Moving Waters demand time that, paradoxically, many will struggle to give. Slowness, we might say, is the lost utopia that contemporary life has snatched away from us. And if Niall’s exhibition reinstates slowness, it does so within an artificial bubble, with the ever-present knowledge that such a pace can never exist in the real world. Or at least, not without a struggle.
This struggle is perhaps best exemplified by the collaboration between Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin and Wiradjuri–Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, Making the Birrarung (2021). Theirs is a sculptural and sonic installation that reflects on creation stories of the Birrarung and the river’s current muddy and polluted state. Aunty Joy’s words whisper throughout the gallery: hard to hear, but undeniably present.
The 2021 TarraWarra Biennial Slow Moving Waters closes on July 11.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Deep waters".
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