Visual Art

A Newcastle exhibition asks us to step back into the natural rhythms of time. By Tony Magnusson.

Radical Slowness

An installation view of Izabela Pluta’s Ascending air, unfolding motion at The Lock-Up.
An installation view of Izabela Pluta’s Ascending air, unfolding motion at The Lock-Up.
Credit: Ben Adams

Italy’s slow-food movement emerged in the late 1980s before going global. It opposed the uber-industrialisation of food and agricultural production, advocating a return to traditional regional cooking using local, seasonal ingredients. It has since spawned a wider movement that embraces everything from fashion to philosophy, television to travel.

A group show at Newcastle’s The Lock-Up considers the virtues of slowness from an artistic point of view. Curated by Anna May Kirk and Tai Mitsuji, Radical Slowness encompasses nine exhibits, the majority installations. They have been thoughtfully placed throughout the heritage building, which formed part of Newcastle Police Station until 1982, including holding cells with vintage graffiti on the walls (“I love you Melissa”; “Steve Smith 10 Days”).

The curators conceive of slowness as “a space for critical reflection”, writing in the exhibition handout: “In all of the artworks the invisible solvent of time is afforded a shape and substance.”

Akil Ahamat’s audiovisual installation, Dawn of a day too dark to call tomorrow (2021), captures the artist lying on the ground in the dark, conversing with a digitally generated snail. The pair repeat the same lines back and forth: “None of the stories you tell ever go anywhere”; “Everything compressed into a shimmering unison”. Ahamat’s voice is difficult to understand, but the snail’s responses – squishy noises – are subtitled. The left channel plays through a speaker comprising a transducer, a length of curved glass, and a cast concrete pillow placed on a bed of coconut peat, the right through a parabolic speaker hanging from the ceiling.

The focused quality of the sound is intoxicating and Ahamat’s skill in crafting amplification is undeniable, yet the subfusc video lacks visual appeal and meaning. Is this meant to be a cross-species homage to the absurd? By exploiting thresholds of perception – what we can just see and not quite hear – Ahamat succeeds in arresting time, but straining one’s senses to make sense of the work is frustrating.

As with Ahamat’s, both of Tané Andrews’ installations are in holding cells. The Eyes Say More than the Mouth (2022) consists of two spotlit pearl nautilus shells on metal poles. Standing between them, one hears the artist whispering what the handout states are excerpts from texts about climate change, thanks to earbuds inserted in each shell. Again, the threshold of perception is being tested – I hear the word “beautiful”, but that’s about it. Not that it matters. He could be whispering tax law. The piece works a treat, the spots creating two circles on the mottled wall behind (“Rob 4 Julie”), against which the logarithmic spirals of the softly glowing shells remind us that nature still has the best shapes.

We Carry This Weight Together (2022) is the show’s most hypnotic work. An LED screen on the floor displays footage of a freshwater stream strewn with rocks. Look closer and one of the rocks is real, sitting on the screen, never to be eroded. Gazing at the video while listening to the soundtrack of digitally created running water, one imagines it as a window onto a subterranean river. Both installations deliver mesmerising experiences that slow down time by drawing us back to the natural world.

Ever lain awake at night, watching the alarm clock tick from one ungodly minute to the next? Worimi artist Dean Cross knows how you feel. His video work, The First Second (2019), conjures that eternal moment between midnight and 12:01 as the red digits of an alarm clock flash nonsensically to the sound of a bugle dawdling “The Last Post”. It’s an effective evocation of insomnia, yet the work feels slight and there is little urge to linger.

Emma Fielden’s practice reveals a fascination with the cosmos, quantum physics and time. Andromeda and the Milky Way (2021) is a floor projection of a four-hour drawing performance by Fielden and collaborator Lizzie Thomson, with each inscribing an ever-enlarging ellipsis in charcoal on a white floor until the “galaxies” touch and their arms overlap.

Nearby is a large charcoal wall drawing of an ellipsis, I orbit a point in space where nothing exists… and time dissolves (2022), below which can be seen the ombre dust and broken remnants of the many charcoal sticks Fielden went through to make it. On the opposite wall 10 drawings, Of a Second (2022), attest to Fielden’s skill as a hand-engraver – each is a decimal expression of a unit of quantum or human time in millimetre-high numerals drawn with a steel-nib pen.

This is complex stuff if you don’t have a head for science. What comes through is Fielden’s innovation in using micro and macro drawing techniques and performative elements to give material and embodied form to conceptions of time. One thinks about the time it took Fielden to get to the point where she could draw a zero almost too small to read, and about the stamina required to compose the wall drawing, the scale of which was determined by the height of the artist’s body and the reach of her arms, which allowed a step in either direction.

French-born Aude Parichot’s installation-in-progress, Chauffe Marcel Chauffe: Conversations with Rrose Sélavy (2022), channels Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Sélavy being the name of the female alter ego he dreamt up with Man Ray. Privileging concepts of serious play and unavoidable change, Parichot will develop the work over coming weeks.

The signs are promising, if messy. The white walls bear intimations of charcoal drawing and coloured string cuts through the air, à la Fred Sandback. There’s a chess set (Duchamp was a chess master), layered projections of unremarkable video footage, some taken from the security camera in the corner of the room during installation, and a sound component – the artist talking to Duchamp, in French and English. Parichot lifts the veil on the creative process by transforming a gallery space into her own studio.

Occupying the former prison yard, Izabela Pluta’s photo-based installation, Ascending air, unfolding motion (2022), is sensitively situated. Its cyanotype tones complement the rust-coloured walls, while the repurposed easels that support the images poke through the bars above to open sky. We are looking at enlargements of photo collages derived from cyanotypes the artist made of pages pulled from Cloud Study: A Pictorial Guide (1960). This was part of an attempt to identify the climatic conditions the day she and her family emigrated from Poland to Australia in 1987, deriving from a photo her father took from the plane.

We see constructed skyscapes that speak to the power of the sublime even while they flirt with abstraction. A torn strip of paper becomes a band of stratocumulus as layered clouds envelop and absorb each other in high-contrast compositions. This is all-weather art about weather and the extent to which we can take it with us. Viewing the work in the rain would only enhance the experience, another reminder that the optimal way to “do slowness” is to observe nature or, better still, get out amongst it. 

Radical Slowness is showing at The Lock-Up, Newcastle, until May 15.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "The ar t of the slow".

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