Visual Art

Archives of Feeling attempts to reframe conventions around exhibiting contemporary art to focus on emotion. By Andy Butler.

Archives of Feeling

Leesha Wild’s Shelter in a storm (2022), part of the Archives of Feeling exhibition.
Leesha Wild’s Shelter in a storm (2022), part of the Archives of Feeling exhibition.
Credit: Tobias Titz

In a corner to the side of the RMIT Gallery entrance is an intimate video of Rebecca Moran in Big Grief, Big Horror. She takes the time – time that she doesn’t often get – to express a trauma so horrific, that leaves so much grief in its wake, that it’s too big for one person to hold. Watching the video, it’s almost hard to believe that this person is present – her experience seems so far beyond the realm of normal life that it feels surreal.

It’s part of a new exhibition project across RMIT called Archives of Feeling, co-produced by a range of curatorial and academic staff at the university.

“The thing that will kill you isn’t the grief and horror,” she says. “It’s the trying to run away from it … the only thing you can do is move towards it, see it.” She talks of learning to be shredded by the feelings of horror and then rebuilding herself, a process she will no doubt go through for the rest of her life. Hearing her speak in this way, looking her experience squarely in the face, feels cathartic in a time when many of us are carrying some kind of trauma.

There is no simple method to make sense of the trauma Moran has experienced: she has to sit with it every day. Ultimately, she wants to be able to talk about her emotions with others in a way that is empathic and caring.

Archives of Feeling is a two-part exhibition across RMIT Gallery and RMIT Design Hub that sits within the broader program of The Big Anxiety festival, which focuses on the lived experience of the complexities of mental health. This framework feels relatively novel in the contemporary art space and exhibition practice of museums.

Not everything is as heavy as the work featuring Moran. Archives of Feeling offers a variety of engagements with a broad range of emotional registers, centring creativity and artmaking as a means for processing complex experiences and emotions.

At RMIT Design Hub, there’s a focus on connecting with one’s emotions, how these emotions might be felt across a community and how we might share and communicate them. The Children’s Sensorium, including a large textile collaboration with celebrated artist Hiromi Tango, breaks down the conventions of an exhibition. Everything is touchable – you’re allowed to draw on the walls and there are directions on labels that name emotions and sensations. Over several visits, I saw children excitedly run everywhere with their carers in tow. Permitting children to tap into their creative expression and emotions breaks down many of the barriers adults put up around our own.

Through the rest of Design Hub are the outcomes of several other projects, including a guided meditation space led by the Uti Kulintjaku collection and two community art projects.

There’s a wall of art made by nurses and midwives who worked during the pandemic – the front-liners who experienced hugely increased workloads, stress and burnout while holding us all together. The wall as a whole is a reminder of the role that creativity can play in bringing people together during times of acute crisis in ways that are confronting, joyful and necessary.

The standout for me was Fairytale of New Work by Cora Browne, Peter Bridson and the “Corona Choir” (Kate Coombs, Kathleen Corless, Katherine Kyrkou and Anita Capello). They sing a heartwarming and darkly funny cover of The Pogues’ great Christmas song “Fairytale of New York”, about the realities of working in hospitals during Covid-19 around Christmas. The Nurses and Midwives Art Exchange as a whole notes that calls from nurses and midwives for fairer pay and manageable workloads have not been met with enthusiasm. Watching Fairytale of New Work, I wonder how many of the singing nurses worked overtime last Christmas.

The centring of feeling also brings a novel reading to the works of celebrated contemporary artists shown at the RMIT Gallery.

Trawlwoolway artist Julie Gough’s THE WAIT is a video work about the artist’s immediate response to finding a letter from the 1899 director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, noting his desire to exhume Aboriginal remains. The letter lies in a river, after it was flung there by Gough. “I work at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery,” the label says. The framing of Archives of Feeling heightens the contradictory emotions Gough must feel working within the walls of such an institution.

Maree Clarke’s Made from Memory I-III is rendered as a process of making sense of emotions too large to put in words. She’s created three lenticular prints showing arrangements of “Aboriginalia” on mantelpieces, drawn from a memory of being at her grandmother’s house before the 1967 referendum on First Peoples’ right to be counted as part of the population. These works were created on the precipice of a referendum on a Voice to Parliament. Larger political currents create trauma on an intimate scale.

Contemporary art can help us to understand the range of the contradictory feelings that often make up our emotional lives, and Archives of Feeling swings the curatorial framework over to this emotive element of creativity. However, it also can illuminate the broader concepts, ideas and cultural and political frameworks that structure our lives.

Archives of Feeling is a worthwhile experiment. But in the context of a university gallery, the focus on personal experience – with only minimal engagement with the political and economic realities of the broader world we share – generates some cognitive dissonance.

The higher education sector and the arts are notorious for work conditions that contribute to poor mental health. Trauma exists not only as horrific experiences outside  the realm of human comprehension, such as in Big Grief, Big Horror. It also results from the enforced precarity of casual work contracts, toxic work cultures, stark inequality and a focus on the bottom line over personal and collective wellbeing.

While projects such as the Nurses and Midwives Art Exchange acknowledge this, it is just a tiny part of the Archives of Feeling exhibition. Those nuanced discussions should be fostered in the halls of an institution that employs one of the most casualised workforces in Australia. 

Archives of Feeling is showing at RMIT Design Hub and RMIT Gallery until December 10.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Mixed emotions".

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