Samstag Museum of Art
The 2021 Adelaide//International, curated by Gillian Brown, is constructed as the third and final chapter of a conversation about past, present and future. A major offering from Samstag Museum of Art for the Adelaide Festival, the exhibition brings international and Australian artists into dialogue on themes of reparation, self-determination and cultural transformation. Situated as a discourse on the future and informed by the pandemic, the installations by Fayen d’Evie (Australia), Taloi Havini (Australia/Autonomous Region of Bougainville), Jesse Jones (Ireland) and James Tylor (Australia) share common threads of language, rituals and recasting.
The dramatic centrepiece is Tremble Tremble, created by Jesse Jones for the Irish Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Described as ‘expanded cinema’, the darkened ground-floor gallery is transformed into an installation, performance and screening space evoking feminine, ancient and ritualistic power. Based on chants from an Italian 1970s feminist protest movement— “Tremble, tremble, the witches are back!” —, Jones creates an analogy to the recent abortion referendum in Ireland. This is a multi-layered experience, where the artist’s intention is to give agency to audience members as ‘actors’ in this cinematic invocation.
On entering, the viewer is drawn to shelves and objects arranged around the edge of the installation and on the floor. These are talismans and seemingly archaeological artefacts representing apparitions, emancipation, incantations and the judiciary. They set the scene for the appearance on multiple screens of a giantess—performed by Irish actor Olwen Fouéré—who treads fiercely across a dismantled courtroom, reciting from ‘In Utera Gigantae’, a fictional law written by the artist to proclaim a new social order.
At several intervals, bare-foot performers dressed in black appear to draw curtains across and around the gallery, creating discrete spaces and focus for various elements. The two diaphanous curtains, each printed with an extended arm and hand across them, seem to bring the giantess into the space, encircling the viewers and drawing them into the rituals and hexes. A stone circle in the centre of the gallery produces smoke whilst a performer scrapes a rough pointed object across a black wall to invoke the circular spaces of female gathering.
A new element added for this Australian premier is a bronzed ceramic foot-washing bowl, with the aim to align the histories of the Magdalen Laundries in Ireland and Australia. This subtle but significant addition seems lost, however, amongst the scale and allure of the original installation.
Tremble Tremble is a powerful and absorbing experience. It is as much a contemporary feminist call to action as it is a remembrance of feminine ritualistic power of the past.
Shown in the two upstairs galleries are The Ethical Handling of Empty Spaces by Fayen d’Evie and The Darkness of Enlightenment by James Tylor. They are both installations which talk to how the past is erased, remembered and reframed, and the construction of a reimagined future. In a material connection with Tremble Tremble, d’Evie has created sculptural objects from granite, quartz, timber and bronze. These are also objects of invocation which become repositories or language for future generations. d’Evie explores how we might communicate going forward and whether that might be through voice, touch, symbol or word.
There is a coolness or sense of detachment with these objects, as if they are already museum pieces or found objects created by an unknown or anonymous source. There is speculation who might be the audience for these memorials to human communication—are they visitors to our planet, or intersectional post-human future inhabitants? This coolness is somewhat offset by the invitation to touch, and the tactility of the forms. With Braille embedded in bronze fragments and speakers embedded in hardwood there is a compulsion to get close, to try and decipher this language created by d’Evie and her collaborators.
Where Tremble Tremble is a sensory and emotional journey, The Ethical Handling of Empty Spaces is conceptual and structured. Its entry points come through the human elements of sound, voice and a series of graphically designed symbols that denote hand gestures and facial expressions. It is the articulation of the nonverbal that invites the audience to contemplate how they themselves might communicate in the uncertain future ahead. It speculates on the negative and positive spaces of human exchange and culture, as well as how voids of emptiness might be populated by ethical and meaningful connections.
Originally trained as a carpenter, James Tylor brings these skills to his compelling and cogent series of 18 black and white photographs and 31 Kaurna objects. Displayed in a formalised salon hanging, the images are interspersed with hand-made black objects recreating Wadnawirri (boomerang club), Taiyaruki (parry shield), Warkiti (tong sticks) and more.
At its core The Darkness of Enlightenment explores the colonial erasure of Aboriginal sites, heritage and culture. Tylor, who is an accomplished researcher, has photographed sites around South Australia and reveals the story of each one in an accompanying digital display. The installation of images and objects, however, contains neither titles nor words.
The viewer is asked to look closely at the installation, to contemplate the relationship of the Kaurna objects to the images. Each daguerreotype-style photograph contains a cut-out circular, square or rectangular black void which represents the disappearance and retelling of Kaurna history. It can be read as an elegy for the dispossessed peoples of the Kaurna nation and the subsequent settlement of their traditional lands. There is no enlightenment in colonisation, only the terrible legacies of genocide, displacement and stolen generations.
This poignant and elegant installation continues to carry the themes of the exhibition, particularly how the past is invoked and retold to enable self-determined visions and change for the future. An accompanying sound work by Anna Liebzeit softly permeates the space with spoken Kaurna language. Through these various elements combined with an intelligent and sensitive approach to his material, Tylor balances the injustices of the past with the evolution of Kaurna knowledge and culture into a strong and proud future.
Exhibited in the nearby SA School of Art Gallery, Taloi Havini’s video tryptic Tsomi wan-bel (win-win situation) dominates the long dark space. It invites viewers to sit quietly and connect with an intimate portrayal of the people and customs of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Across the three large-scale screens are images of village life, of people talking and drinking tea, of a pig being prepared for a feast. We are in fact witness to preparations for a traditional mediation ceremony where customary justice will be applied to a dispute between villagers.
Havini’s approach is to provide an insight into this process at a gentle pace, allowing the interactions to unfold. The audience is witness to the collective event and is also invited to connect directly with the community, represented by three individual large-scale portraits. These are Havini’s kin, who stare down the camera, creating an intensity and disembodied bond with the viewer. There is a rawness about these images, of these larger-than-life portraits, where every detail is visible on these hypnotic and engaging faces.
Tsomi wan-bel provides either a prologue or an epilogue to the 2021 Adelaide//International. As a starting point, it is an entree into themes of tradition and continuation of culture, and as an endpoint, it is a finely articulated meditation on ritual and personal connection.
There is a lightness of curatorial touch across these four distinct yet connected artist projects. With similar themes and concepts running through all works, there is ample space to contemplate the connections but enough space given for the nuances and subtleties of each installation. This is the closing chapter of a three-year special project for the Adelaide Festival. It will be interesting to see the direction Samstag Museum of Art now embarks upon for future iterations of its international and festival curatorial projects.
Julianne Pierce is an independent producer, artist and writer. She is a founding member of cyberfeminist art collective VNS Matrix.