Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane June 3 - 26
There is something very familiar in Sebastian Di Mauro's installation Respirare (the Italian verb meaning 'to breathe'). In this work, Di Mauro writes his memory of growing up in the Northern Queensland canefields in an extended migrant family. Its precise symbolic language represents the artist's heritage and ethnicity, taking us into the realm of the foreigner. It inscribes a surreal landscape with the toil of migrant labour.
The task performed by Respirare is that of almost literal identification: of people with land; of identity with material; of other with self. Resulting from this identification or translation, Di Mauro constructs a fragrant and cool unnatural landscape: the muted colours and distinctive scents of raw sugar, olive oil and carpet underlay merge in the semi-lit room.
He prepares the ground for a 'transformation' of sorts, an allegorical representation of both the migrant's journey across new territory and the migrant's position in that space. Carpet underlay covers the floor. Across this, mounds of sugar have been randomly formed. Each mound contains a well of olive oil. Gradually, the olive oil seeps through the sugar, threatening through time to soak and stain the underlay. A poignant narrative emerges, made explicit in the biographical vignettes written in charcoal on the walls. These are written in Sicilian, not readily available to the English-reading viewer.
While Di Mauro is generously sharing personal and intimate memories, reconstructing his experience as a second generation Australian, he is also withholding. This is a landscape which belies its simplicity, formed of complex subjective impulses and memories. At first, this work seemed to succumb to the trap of nostalgia, of fixing the 'other' in the past. Efi Hatzimanolis (in Sneja Gunew + Anna Yeatman, Feminism and The Politics of Difference, 1993:128) argues that "timing others as the embodiment of the past is, of course, a way of keeping 'them' out while simultaneously suggesting that 'we' gain access to 'our' past through 'them'..."
While his materials are distilled metaphoric motifs, they are cross-culturally loaded and Di Mauro appropriates them for his own ends, creating a clever poetic language. The sugar, a staple of Australian cuisine, is the migrant's dolce vita of hard work. Olive oil, now commonly used in Australia, references his cultural heritage. The black charcoal refers to the black clothes of mourning and the underlay is the country, the common ground of Australians. While both the artist's imagery and his language are present, they appear as barricaded zones. Here are edibles which are not for eating or tasting, language which is not for comprehending, writing which is not for reading, light which is not for seeing, an other whose authenticity cannot be scrutinised.
These non-sequiturs are obstacles in negotiating this place, of making sense: incomprehensible exclusions and assertions of an 'othered' experience. Subsequently, 'we' do not gain access to 'our' past through this 'other'. The artist has provided only qualified access to the most intimate of places, making explicit that the other is not always available for consumption. Through Respirare, unpalatable stereotypes are displaced and resisted.
While Respirare may present as a difficult terrain to negotiate in a narrative sense, it is steeped in tradition: not only the cultural traditions of Di Mauro's familial world, but the aesthetic and elite traditions of Australian landscape painting and minimalism. Subsequently, there is an uncanny quality about Respirare. It has a strange, almost eerie familiarity, yet for most, it is an unfamiliar experience through which authenticity is sought. Susan Stewart (On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 1993:22) writes that through narrative or representation, the text "not only has lost the authenticity of lived experience - it has lost the authenticity of authorial voice as well. Who is speaking? It is the voice of abstraction, a voice which proclaims its absence with each word." In this respect, the viewer does not, and probably cannot identify with the content of the artwork, namely the artist's experience. Rather, the viewer identifies with or experiences the 'inauthentic' mediation of that content, the material presence of both the catalogue essay and the artwork.
Respirare makes apparent the nonsense of assimilation, which has dominated migration policy for most of this century: the olive oil is not absorbed by the sugar. Similarly this almost imperceptible process is the means by which the cultural landscape of this country continues to be transformed.