Neo-colonialist Precipice

Exhibition review Secret Places Sieglinde Karl, Hazel Smith, Kate Hamilton, Ron Nagorka Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Touring regional Australia through Contemporary Art Services Tasmania and the national Exhibitions Touring Scheme.

Sieglinde Karl works with the rich world that we have been given and quietly fights for an understanding of its complexity and wonderment. Her method is painstaking, careful, considered, filled with time connecting back and forth as she binds, weaves and winds her story through the stories of the ancients. Her commitment is profound and her execution a realising of that commitment both personally and culturally. For quite some time Karl has been working collaboratively with artists, writers and dancers in the pursuit of her vision.

Secret Places is a work which lures its audience into its spiral walls over a floor covered in casuarina needles, past images of sublime landscapes and lost places, enveloped in the sounds of nature and ritual into the inner sanctum where Casuarina, an archetypal female form woven in intricate basketry, lies in a repose bordering life and death - an empty chrysalis worked from casuarina needles bound in twine symbolising the transition from one phase of life to another. While her sexuality is overt, her face is covered in a mourning veil which obliterates her earthy character in exchange for recognition from the world beyond.

The passing of much time is evident. The meticulous woven figure, the multi-layered text, the highly detailed images, the complex sound tapestry, entice the audience to spend time in reflection - a rare experience in this increasingly fast world.

The narrative is complex. Casuarina, as an icon of the earth mother, is overlaid by the text of Hazel Smith that places primal memory within a contemporary war zone and forces a reflection of other wars, most specifically given where we are, of the Black War following the white invasion of Tasmania two hundred years ago.

Karl has collaborated with Smith on a number of occasions in the past. The discordant reverberations between their perspectives have an edge which turns the individual elements of the works from potential romanticism into discourse.

In this latest collaboration, images by Kate Hamilton and music by Ron Nagorka are added to Karl and Smith's voices. These operate however within the context inspired and set predominantly by Karl's sensibility.

Hamilton's landscapes, categorised as photographs and denied acknowledgement of their computer enhancement, are emptied of figurative elements and haunted by this absence. They are seductively beautiful in the sublime tradition of the early large format photographers, with an eerie dislocation derived from technological intervention. However, they do not leave behind the rigidity of the white walls of the museum. Rather the images cling to the gallery walls counteracting the usual role installation work has in disturbing the spatial primacy of the institution.

Nagorka's music - accumulations of sounds from the casuarina creaking in the breeze, didgeridoos, bells and birds - also illustrates the 'natural' and 'primitive' despite its electronic derivation.
The text on the other hand shatters the ordering. It reverberates with disquiet and projects us uncomfortably out of the nostalgia for a lost past into the difficulties of an unresolved present where the same stories continue, where the patterns are repeated, where the pain of life goes on.

Secret Places grapples with the complexities of collaboration, evolving a form which is part integrated, part jigsaw and part layered. Karl and Smith manage to share the project without sharing a final form or product. They come from different modes of operation. Karl, excavates a sacred past advocating a renewal of our spirituality, Smith creates a dialogue with the past from clues found in a complex present. Their collaboration involves the giving up of something to make space for the other.

Hamilton and Nagorka's work operates differently. While they ostensibly share a sensibility especially with Karl, there is little evidence of a deep transference and so their contributions are only able to rest on the surface, providing layers for the viewer to pass through on the way to the 'essential' meaning.

So it is with the relationship of Smith and Karl that for me the presence of the work operates. The dynamic between nostalgia and our contemporary responsibilities resonates through the jarring of the text, the voice and the contemporary graphics of Lynda Warner, in what appeared at first glance to be an integrated earthy environment unmediated by the present.

Firstly the work emanates an Aboriginal presence, wrapping the viewer in a yearning to connect with the time beyond the invasion and is mediated by those events. Secondly the work was originally placed within the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, home of an extensive collection of works by colonial artists. The colonial collection therefore becomes the context for this installation, unconsciously and uncomfortably insinuating itself within the work. The awkwardness of the attempts at transformation of the space with black fabric only serves to make the connection more apparent. The sanctity of the institution is ruptured.

The colonial gallery is still only metres away telling a different tale of settlement not invasion. The grand paintings by John Glover retell the tales of the noble savage despite the fact that they were painted after the Black War had decimated the indigenous population and dispatched their shattered remnants to the islands. But the attempts at sanitising and writing the Aborigines out of history are foiled.

And yet there does remain a grain of unease. Past works echo here also - Karl's mourning veils that were exhibits here for a while beside the busts of Wooradi and Trugannini. I become aware of the dangers of cultural plundering and am worried that this may have inadvertently happened. I don't know how to negotiate this difficult terrain.

So this installation sits in a strange place, stimulating more questions than it is capable of articulating or answering. The work seeks, in a quiet creeping way, that we take responsibility. We are a part of the situation, not innocent observers. We have our secrets which belong to this shared battle between good and evil; possibilities and losses.
The danger exists as to whether we turn to past sentiments for solace which make us feel good but which do nothing but appease our collective guilt. What good are our tears? Is this a romanticising of an Aboriginal experience which instead of serving the desire for reconciliation actually confirms their exotic 'Otherness', condemning them again to the margins. I know this is not Karl's intention. But I am grateful to Smith for her contribution which for me, pulls the work back from the dangers of the neo-colonialist precipice.