Visual Art

A fascinating exhibition of Australian artists in Seoul challenges viewers to change the ways we experience our worlds. By Melissa Bianca Amore.


Brook Andrew’s This year, raking over... (2020) and This year, historic plight... (2020).
Brook Andrew’s This year, raking over... (2020) and This year, historic plight... (2020).
Credit: Yoonjae Kim

Rendered as “unlearning” in English and “rediscover the route, go back” in Korean, the exhibition UN/LEARNING AUSTRALIA at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) highlights the paradoxical complexity of undoing dominant systems of knowledge. The exhibition balances linguistic and cross-cultural diversities, proposing “unlearning” as a way to motivate change, interruption, resistance and disruption to conditioned ways of thinking.

Curating 35 artists and collectives, including five Indigenous art centres, UN/LEARNING presents intergenerational and interdisciplinary histories. Co-curated by SeMA and Artspace, Sydney, the exhibition is the culmination of virtual dialogues, scholarly research and a shared understanding of the challenges emerging from colonisation and cultural, social and political disparities. As the curators explain, “Unpacking the complexity of national histories and evolving futures, [UN/LEARNING] details knowledge systems, self-presentations and forms of resistance that challenge standard representations of Australia.”

The exhibition is richly textured and impressively curated. Artists including Daniel Boyd, Lennard Walker, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Mel O’Callaghan, Brook Andrew, Vincent Namatjira, Archie Moore and Taloi Havini revitalise speculative representations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous identity. The exhibition, like its Korean title “rediscover the route, go back”, is just as much about unlearning and learning as it is about notions of orientation and reorientation.

It’s designed as a labyrinth that invites dual navigational paths and vantage points. Anchoring each point of entry or exit are works by Lennard Walker titled Kulyuru (2021), which yield the illusion of rotating circles, symbolising both a rock hole – a creation site within the Seven Sisters Tjukurpa – and a cyclical continuum. Intelligent in its execution, this spatial arrangement empowers its spectators to navigate their own route.

“We wanted the show to have this very strong sense of physical encounter, where the audience would have to make decisions with their bodies about what to encounter and where, how to rediscover the route and how to unlearn,” says Artspace’s executive director Alexie Glass-Kantor. “To make decisions in terms of the ways in which they walk and engage with the works.”

This momentary disruption to a spectator’s automated navigation is central to the concept of unlearning, which suggests a parallel between the awareness of the body in space and how meaning and perception are formed. By presenting two possible paths, many works invite a double reading. The work of Daniel Boyd is an example. Often referred to as “lenses” – from the Latin root word for lentil, which recalls the double-convex shape – Boyd’s characteristic Pointillist technique can be seen on SeMA’s exterior. This site-specific architectural intervention connects the colonial façade and the contemporary extension of the museum’s glass entrance through a sequence of vinyl applications. Informed by his Kudjla–Gangalu heritage, this poetic installation acts as a memorial site to forgotten histories. Within the constellation of blackness, each dot reveals the relationships between proximity and distance, and collective and personal knowledge systems. By obscuring the window’s visual sightline, Boyd highlights the co-dependency between a lens and perceptual orientation.

Brook Andrew asks: “How can we be in a different space?” Interested in “empowering site and memory”, his newly commissioned wall painting and neon installation in the SeMA cafe, 1945: WINHA-NGA-NHA MEMORY (2021), combines the language of geometry with text, while connecting to notions of place and the trauma of the Japanese colonisation of South Korea from 1910-45. The neon word GABAN (strange), taken from a play written by Andrew, refers to the reclamation of Indigenous objects from museums as well as highlighting their transformative power.

Recalling Op artist Bridget Riley or Conceptualist Sol LeWitt’s geometric wall drawings, Andrew’s intelligible network is informed by the elaborate ceremonial carved trees (marrara guulany) and shields used by Indigenous cultures in Wiradjuri Country, New South Wales. By reconfiguring the SeMA cafe into an immersive optical entanglement, the work raises questions about the effects of line and space on human perception and cognition. It suspends conditioned observation, inviting contemplation for reorientation, transformation, collective dialogues and healing.

Taloi Havini’s spatial environments stimulate another kind of social interactivity and knowledge sharing. Drawing from the notations of map-making and navigational systems, Reclamation (2020), an architectural structure made from cane, vine and enclosed by a sand foundation, encourages spectators to walk on Country before entering the exhibition, perhaps as a mode of reconditioning. Reclamation shares resemblances to the tsuhana (clan house) a temporal structure often found in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, emphasising Hakö architectural practices based on impermanence. Archie Moore’s flag installation United Neytions (2014-17) frames Havini’s monumental skeletal structure. Exposing the complexities of nationhood, identity and misrepresentation, these flags represent the fictional Aboriginal nations created by the 19th-century surveyor and self-taught anthropologist R. H. Mathews. Both Havini and Moore resurrect history, making us reconsider the conventions of demarcation and borders, and employ reframing as a gesture of cultural redemption and resistance.

Balancing the internal conflict between mental resistance and the body’s resilience against a prevailing power, Mel O’Callaghan examines notions of psychological borders in her powerful seven-minute video Ensemble (2013). The hypnotic narrative unfolds with three firefighters aiming a fire hose towards a man, articulating the tensions and ambivalent relations between authority and self.

While many works in the exhibition occupy a space of resistance or reclamation against Western hegemony and dominant knowledge systems, there is also a gestural return to the material. Megan Cope’s compelling RE FORMATION (Part 1) (2016) reconnects us to back to place through mollusc middens, originally created by Aboriginal communities and used as a mapping system to record places where generations have lived and assembled. By returning to the material – handmade concrete shells lodged in black mineral sand – Cope’s installation reveals the philosophical notion of hylozoism, that all matter is in some sense alive. “It’s the material that holds the weight,” Cope says. “If the material can connect the objects to the spiritual, philosophical and cultural dilemma we might be able to sit together and talk in a timeless space and move forward.”

Delivered across three distinct platforms – the large-scale exhibition, an extensive publication and the artists’ takeover of Artspace’s 52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS Instagram account – this compendium of voices activates a renewed awareness, an invitation to rediscover the routes to alternative pathways and knowledge systems.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Relearning Australia".

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Melissa Bianca Amore is an art critic, curator and contemporary philosopher based in New York and Melbourne.

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