Ngununggula, now in its second year of full programming, is the first regional gallery in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. The gallery occupies the old dairy shed of the Retford Park estate, which was bequeathed to the National Trust by James Fairfax.
The transformation of farm buildings into a contemporary gallery that maintains the charm of its historic setting is beautifully accomplished. Opening night falls on a particularly pleasant day: people gather for speeches in the courtyard, enjoying the golden light intersected by late afternoon shadows.
Its current exhibition puts the possibilities of video centre stage. For Video Commission, eight artists were asked to make new work in collaborative pairings, pushing them outside their comfort zones. In turn, these works conceptually and actively engage the viewer. Video art is often relegated to a discreet side room or behind a curtain, to control challenges around lighting and sound. Here the inventive installation adds layers of meaning and depth to the viewing experience.
This exhibition achieves director Megan Monte’s aim to “challenge everyone”, including herself and her team, to present a diverse, artist-led program that transforms the gallery space for every exhibition.
The first room contains Reclamation by First Nations artist Tony Albert and African-born Serwah Attafuah. Two large screens hang side by side in an atmospherically darkened room. Two busts, a Black African woman on the left screen and an Aboriginal man on the right – sourced from Albert’s collection of objects once commonly sold as souvenirs – sit atop classically styled columns. Albert has long been using objects of Aboriginalia in his work, amplifying how these representations objectify and disempower. In conversation, the artists found distinct parallels between the Australian and African experience. Attafuah created 3D scans of the figures and placed them in a digitally rendered environment with overtones of a museum.
The museum begins to break apart, transforming into a landscape, with columns erupting into native plants. A grey, dead space is replaced with richly coloured life. The work symbolically reclaims historical representations and institutions wielding cultural power over the way that Indigeneity was read. Beautiful and seamlessly made, it reminds us of the continuing need to hand over cultural ownership to the people who live and breathe it.
There are so many different elements in the next room it’s impossible – and would spoil some of the fun – to describe them all. To create The Point I Made to Let You Go, Heath Franco and Matthew Griffin undertook a two-week residency at Kangaroo Valley’s Shark Island Institute. Found objects were used to make props and costumes and the immediate environment was their inspiration. The production value in the videos and attention to detail of their installation work brilliantly alongside this DIY aesthetic. Entertainer features a puppet made from painted paper and cardboard, uncannily brought to life with human eyes. A proxy for the artist, the dialogue expresses the work’s self-awareness, proposing to the viewer that looking is a creative act. Wrapped in plastic with cardboard eyes and a cardboard tube proboscis, Franco is a mosquito in Repellent, a B-grade horror style offering. A video cassette convincingly made by the artists titled Mozzie... it sucks – apparently available for rental at $3 a week – rests on top of the television that displays this work.
In Gate, a hapless son fumbles painfully with the opening and closing of a farm gate, while a father figure in an oilskin coat seethes with frustration. Subtitles say things such as, “He is worthy of respect and acceptance”. The fumbling persists to the point of comedy but embraces a punch-in-the-guts truth, reverberating profoundly with a recognition that parental disapproval is transmuted into shame. Franco and Griffin’s experimental playfulness consistently pushes the edges of comfort, unsettling and hinting at deeper ideas and darker psychological undercurrents.
A head is a place to go, displayed in the third gallery space, is shot on 16mm film. Eight screens on a curved wall painted yellow feature videos masterfully edited in sequence. The opposite wall is painted purple, while two painted arms reach toward silver candelabras holding black candles. Repetition of imagery and dialogue makes the narrative take on a dimension of surreal interiority. Eyes move back and forth across the wall as the videos unfold, heightening the experience of the action of viewing.
This work begins with views of busy Sydney streets. Doorways appear, invitations to a reluctant protagonist to explore dark interior spaces. There is a sense of unease throughout, of travelling from an externalised sense of self to a space that is haptic and unknowable, a search for direction, meaning and illumination. Tom Polo and James Vaughan explore some big philosophical questions that arise from the collaborative process: Where is the self? How does this self psychologically map the external world and where does our world intersect with the worlds of others?
Brief Illuminations Between Interruptions from Diana Baker Smith and Kate Blackmore, who are friends, long-time collaborators and both first-time mothers, turns to the implications of the decision to have – or not to have – a baby.
Women’s experiences are rarely captured with depth and honesty in the public domain, where unrealistic and damaging expectations of the realms of the domestic and maternal are still perpetuated.
The cue for this work was the Victorian practice of baby photography in which a mother, obscured by fabric, would hold their baby for the long exposure required. Research, collaboration and conversation, the performative action of the shoot, wall painting and a textile element – a striking geometrically patterned black-and-white blanket – are big presences in this work.
A voiceover in the video shares anecdotes about historical female creators. There is a sense of camaraderie with these women, fighting for the time and space to make work, to have it born into a world where it is undervalued and hidden from sight. The photographs shown alongside the video – a face in profile, a pregnant belly, a pair of hands revealed between the blanket’s heavy folds – are quietly moving. This body, able to create another life, exists in a society that continues to penalise its owner. An ongoing struggle for identity, the heroic balancing of impossible duality, is palpable here – hands that can nurture, hands that can make.
Viewing video work requires time. After a very strange few years, it seems we are keen to slow down and savour experiences that move outside the ordinary. This exhibition reveals how expansive video art can be and how enmeshed it can be with other modes of production. Highly accomplished and diverse, these works leave the viewer with much to think about.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Video stars".
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