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The 2016 TarraWarra Biennial was conceptualized as an exchange between two influential modes within contemporary art today: the recurring “biennial” exhibition format and the prevalence of contemporary art journals. The exhibition’s curatorial premise, its catalogue, and its associated program of talks and publications were envisaged by curators Victoria Lynn (director of TarraWarra Museum of Art) and Helen Hughes (co-founder of Discipline journal) as being not simply in dialogue with each other, but constructing an interconnected project not bounded by gallery walls or catalogue pages.
The biennial’s theme, “Endless Circulation,” suggested a feeling of perpetual movement and flux that occurs within in-between spaces while encapsulating the project’s ambitious scope. Within the contemporary art world, biennials and journals are key loci for the distribution and circulation of expertise, opinions, and debates. As Lynn and Hughes acknowledge in their catalogue, these formats are inevitably implicated within the movements of transnational capital, which they describe as the “preeminent circulatory system” (unpag.). Their desire was to explore “escape routes” from such globalized circuits. One of the project’s primary means of achieving this was to facilitate projects that either countered the sense of the singular authoritative voice of the “curator” or “editor,” or involved projects of dispersed authorship designed to continue after the exhibition’s conclusion.
The curators opened space for their curatorial theme to be supplemented and expanded inside and outside the gallery. This was most evident in artist Christopher L G Hill’s project, 4th/5th Melbourne Artist Facilitated Biennial (2016). The project was an independently curated “exhibition-within-an-exhibition” located physically within TarraWarra Museum but conceptually outside. In contrast to the biennial’s broad theme, Hill’s only curatorial instruction to the over twenty artists featured in a modestly sized gallery was that their artworks “must not occupy the surfaces of the walls.”
Approaches like these are conscious decisions to embed independent commentary and to reemphasize a multiplicity of voices. Perhaps inevitably, these voices were sometimes experienced unevenly. This was evident in the multi-modal installation HEROES (2016), a collaboration between independent-publishing initiative 3-Ply and the Melbourne-based Centre for Style. Conceived as a performative artist book-cum-fashion magazine, HEROES’s creative team approached several international fashion designers and gave them twenty-four hours to produce a garment made only from materials found in their home. These outfits were then reframed through a fan-fiction narrative written by Monica’s Gallery with Jessie Kiely. Both the speculative text and the garments were enacted over the exhibition’s opening weekend by being performed and paraded through a specifically installed “stage-like” vista in the museum’s foyer, complete with recycled windows inserted into the walls. This project embodied a sense of multiple authors and diverse production of “texts” (literary and fashion-based). However, for the remainder of the exhibition’s duration the windows were unoccupied and the clothing unworn (despite videos of the performance being included in the foyer). Thus for many viewers the exhibition began with echoes of voices lingering in the gallery, waiting to be reactivated in future projects (the HEROES publication was subsequently launched at The Community, in Paris, France, in November 2016, with further iterations also planned).
A more consistently compelling element across the biennial was the push and pull between multiple, coexisting temporalities and speculative or alternate histories. Here the exhibition forged some intricate connections between the artworks exhibited and wider social politics. As Lynn and Hughes argue in the catalogue, the “colonial past is inherently present” (n.p.), and some of the most prescient artworks in the biennial acted as effective circuit breakers and escape routes against dominant circulating narratives, including conservative political narratives in Australia that deny the ongoing effects of traumatic colonial histories.
Ryan Presley’s Blood Money (2011/2014) embodied such goals particularly strongly. Intervening directly into a system of monetary exchange, he highlighted the political, historical, and iconographic layers visible in capital. Presley redesigned new versions of Australian banknotes, inserting his own paintings of Aboriginal activists in place of the portraits of historic figures usually found on Australia’s currency. Presley’s notes could be exchanged for regular money at the museum’s front desk, speaking to the absences, erasures, and symbolic colonization of indigenous histories by Australia’s dominant political and economic systems.
Presley’s newly minted currency made evident the fact that the most recognizable figure on Australia’s bank notes is not even Australian, but rather Queen Elizabeth II. The monarch was also appropriated by the indigenous, Western Arrernte artist Vincent Namatjira, who merged colonial past and present. His painting Queen Elizabeth and Captain Cook (2015) depicted the monarch sitting aside explorer James Cook; in a companion painting, Cook’s Dinner Party (2015), Namatjira replaced the queen with a self-portrait, personalizing the power relations of being governed by foreign institutions and culture.
The specter of Captain Cook reappeared in James Tylor’s series of daguerreotypes, DeCookolisation (2015) and Terra Botanica (2015). The inclusion of daguerreotypes in the exhibition was an inspired choice. Not only because Tylor’s pieces speak poignantly to histories of colonial representation and invasion of indigenous lands, daguerreotypes also represent a vital pivot point in modern image circulation. Their invention initiated the era of mechanical reproducibility of imagery; yet daguerreotypes also go against circulation. Printed directly onto silvered copper plates, they are fragile, singular images. Terra Botanica depicted images of native plants that Tylor staged in his studio, alluding to the influence of botanist Sir Joseph Banks on Australia’s history and culture. By contrast DeCookolisation featured images of places named after Captain Cook in the Moananui a Kiwa Pacific Ocean—images that Tylor reproduced from the internet without seeking permission. With their polished surfaces, the daguerreotypes reflected and implicated viewers in this intricate web of historical and contemporary appropriations, reproductions, and flows.
Robert Andrew’s Transitional Text–Buru (2016) was a “mechanical erasure machine,” a complicated construction of aluminum fixtures, 3D-printer firmware, custom-written code, and an electromechanically controlled water gun. Over the exhibition’s duration, the gun’s programmed movements squirted water at three chalk-covered panels, revealing an underlay of red ochre that spelled the word “BURU”—the Yawuru word for “country.” The ochre connects directly to the Yawuru people’s West Kimberley country, while the dissolving chalk could be seen as referencing the cultural violence of “white blindfold” history. But the chalk also invokes the white pearl shell that the Yawuru and other Aboriginal people of the region traded with Macassan trepangers long before Europeans came to the area.
Numerous other works in the exhibition were distinguished by their dense and pointed approach to complex histories, such as Newell Harry’s diaries and photographs documenting his travels in Papua New Guinea and Helen Johnson’s double-sided tableaux painting Empire Play (2016). In comparison, the more self-reflexive artworks felt somewhat overpowered and diminished in their impact. Despite its physical presence, Biljana Jancic’s Conduit (2016), an installation of orange-colored PVC pipes and CCTV feedback loops, felt like a very literal interpretation of institutional circulation, compared with the more nuanced narratives of other works. In Masato Takasaka’s vast installation, the artist self-consciously and compulsively repeated and repurposed artworks and influences from his personal history. Employing the logic of the “bootleg,” Takasaka’s installation was imposing in its wealth of connections. Yet some of the underlying personal narratives—such as the installation’s recycled shelves that Takasaka appropriated from his parents’ Japanese grocery store—felt overwhelmed among the wealth of cultural references and knowing quotations.
One simple but elegant example of cultural exchange was found in Eugenia Raskopoulos’s rootreroot (2016). Embracing the truly cyclical and repetitive connotations of circulation, Raskopoulos’s bisected video (shot via overhead drone) spies the artist dragging an olive tree in a perfect circle, while below she repeats the arduous action with an Australian wattle tree. Next to this projection, Raskopoulos used circular neon lettering to reproduce the installation’s title in both Greek and English. Like two textual Ouroboroi, the translations circle back upon themselves, making the viewer twist and turn to decipher the possibilities (and challenges) of cross-cultural exchange. Raskopoulos’s work spoke to the gaps within and between languages and cultures, a sentiment intensified by being positioned in the gallery alongside Vernon Ah Kee’s commanding text painting, authorsofdevastation (2015). By removing the spaces between the words of his powerful text, Ah Kee directly confronted the legacies and ongoing effects of cultural violence, making his viewers stumble and stammer over a dominant language writ unfamiliar.
Ah Kee’s work is a particularly apt example with which to conclude. Through its simple two-tone visual style, basic sans-serif font, and economy of words, authorsofdevastation imparts a powerful message about the impact of colonialism that becomes more complex the more one reads it. Both a text and a painting, it reflects the connections between writing and visual practice that the TarraWarra Biennial worked so hard to facilitate and enact. While its ambitious scope meant that not all projects were as direct and effective as Ah Kee’s, the biennial nonetheless made a thoughtful and timely contribution to the contemporary art exhibition and publishing landscapes in Australia.
Art History and Theory Program, Department of Fine Art, Monash University