Review: Tracing the Archipelago at Kudos Gallery
Encountering art, or reading texts, and not immediately understanding can be one of life’s greatest, but most difficult, pleasures. Jordy Rosenberg writes of “not understanding” as a generative affect, “because being lost in this particular way is related to having – or developing – a political life”.[i] By refusing to assimilate to pre-existing patterns of understanding, obliqueness and opacity can open up new modes of experiencing the spaces we traverse, and the bodies we inhibit and encounter. Critical race and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has argued that disorientation, as a device, can “open another angle on the world”[ii] – one committed to the “possibility of changing directions, of finding other paths”.[iii] Feeling disoriented, and persistently engaging with artworks or texts that seem anti-sensical, can form part of a broader (life-long) process of challenging naturalised habits, and learning to experience the world anew. I mention all of this to preface a confession: the curatorial minimalism of the latest exhibition at Kudos Gallery, Tracing the Archipelago, left me disoriented.
Tracing the Archipelago is an exhibition curated by the joint-winners of the Early Career Curator Award – Evgenia (Jenny) Anagnostopoulou and Yarran Gatsby. The exhibition is an exploration of the relationship between space, movement and artists’ documentation. Its short curatorial statement is laden with loaded words, like “occupation”, “navigation”, “microcosms”, “archive”, “multiple terrains of everydayness”, “political, cultural, economic models”, “material”, “fragmented experience of space” and “hyper-documentation”. At first glance, it’s an overly convoluted premise, and the use of these generalised terms feels distanced from the concrete spatial realities addressed by the artists in the show. According to the curators, the show “seeks to survey the effects of hyper-documentation within the current digital ecology…[drawing] attention to the more nuanced and politically entangled relationship between movement, space and subjectivities”.[iv] It’s an ambitious task – and one that Tracing the Archipelago doesn’t quite live up to.
For me, one of Tracing the Archipelago’s primary limitations is that, by failing to contextualise the artworks presented in the show, it overlooks the audience’s own movements throughout the exhibition space. Aside from a room sheet with the bare-minimum details (a curatorial statement, and an out-of-order list of artwork titles and materials), no artist statements accompany the works. This isn’t a problem in and of itself but – especially given the ambitious nature of the curatorial framework and the thematic diversity of the artworks presented – it does make it near impossible to connect with the exhibition on any level other than an aesthetic one. In saying that, Tracing the Archipelago has been beautifully installed, and the absence of panel texts makes for a minimalist and visually pleasing exhibition. However, it feels as though these aesthetics have been privileged, and we’re just left with the optics.
At first, it’s difficult to discern how everything relates to the curatorial framework. Like: what is the link between a video of billygoat weeds and abstract 3D-printed-objects tied to a steel frame? How does a get-well soon card addressed to landfill relate to an architectural intervention referencing Lilly Reich’s 1927 Café Samt & Siede? Whose work am I looking at? Or more importantly, what and why am I looking at it? How do I begin to write about an exhibition filled with artworks that are begging for contextualisation?
One of the advantages of Tracing the Archipelago’s aesthetics-first approach is that, by not spoon-feeding answers to these questions, it encourages deeper engagement; it forces me to reckon with these questions. While disorienting, the lack of exhibition literature is inherently unimposing: it leaves space for open-ended readings of the artworks by not presuming the exhibition’s audience, or the questions they might ask in (and of) the space. Rather, it acknowledges the heterogeneity of an audience – a porous body – all of whom have different experiences with the hidden layers of meaning, and invisible value systems, embedded within space.
Interestingly, Tracing the Archipelago included a walking tour of the surrounds of the UNSW Art & Design Paddington campus, presented by walking-tour collective Desire Lines. A term borrowed from landscape architecture, Sara Ahmed describes ‘desire lines’ as, “unofficial paths, those marks left on the ground that show everyday comings and goings, where people deviate from the paths they are supposed to follow”.[v] Desire lines are generatively disorienting because, to cite Ahmed, they are traces of the paths taken by people who deviate from “the straight line”.[vi] There’s something exciting about not being given a curatorial ‘path’ to follow. To some extent, we’re forced to be more curious, critical and hyper-aware; prompted to engage more-deeply; to slow down; and, create our own desire lines throughout the exhibition.
Scribbled in pencil on the walls of the gallery, Gus McGrath has recreated graffiti from queer beats, and accompanied these wall-works with an electronic ‘field recordings’ from cruising spots. One reads, “I’m 25, hot, bored…seeking young, slender guys 4 hot fuk”. I’m immediately drawn to McGrath’s indexes of desire – the spectre of wanting which fills the gallery. These field recordings leave me wondering what it is that I want in this space?
While I can appreciate the pleasures of having to navigate the exhibition space on my own terms, I’m curious to know more about the artworks. After an initial visit to Tracing the Archipelago, I contact the curators: do you have any more information? Artist statements? Artist bios? If not, I say, can you pass on the artists’ contact details – so I can find out more myself? A few minutes later a list of nine email addresses arrives in my inbox.
I was genuinely delighted to read the artists’ replies to my emails, and sorry that the exhibition doesn’t contextualise their works more. The absence of artist’s statements doesn’t necessarily affect works that are more-singularly interested in aesthetic, physical or material experimentation, such as Grace Blake’s Untitled, or Harrison Witsey’s Temporary Walls (after Lilly Reich’s silk and velvet café). However, the most exciting inclusions in Tracing the Archipelago are more politically-charged, representing critical contributions to collective understandings of space in so-called Australia, and the ways in which it is navigated in relation to memory, migration, sovereignty, family histories and borders.
For me, the standout of the show is James Nguyen’s Weeds collected near Đèo Bảo Lộc – last sprayed with agent orange in April 1969, which speaks to interconnected legacies of military manufacturing in Western Sydney, and chemical testing in South Vietnam during the Vietnamese-American war. Recorded on a trip to Vietnam, the handheld video depicts Nguyen’s aunty sharing knowledge regarding herbs and plants collected in highlands historically contaminated by military-grade dioxins. Importantly, the video is untranslated, offering a poetic reflection on inter-generational memory loss, migration, and the unspoken-but-latent chemical traces of war.
In Untitled explosions (sometimes it all feels like too much), Dean Cross stitches a video self-portrait with archival footage of the 1997 implosion of the Canberra Hospital. This single-channel video relates the trauma of witnessing the destruction of his birthplace to the ongoing violences of colonialism, and the spatial reality that “most of the birth places of our ancestors have also been destroyed”.[vii] The single-channel video Taxi bhaat quietly explores the complex relationship between language, economic status and cultural identity as the artist – Shivanjani Lal – navigates Mumbai’s cityscape as subject who is rendered both visible and invisible.
A text-based work by Kaytsen Jama, To know, to act, connects family histories of migration from Somalia to Australia’s current White-supremacist maritime interdiction (boat turn-back) policies. Jama’s pertinent legal critique of white territoriality and sovereignty ends with the disturbing anecdote: “2018: Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison displays in his office a trophy in the shape of a boat with the words ‘I Stopped These’ written on its side”.
Although aesthetically resolved, the strength of Nguyen, Cross and Jama’s works lies less in their formal contributions to the disciplines of text-based or moving image art. Rather, these are deeply researched artworks, rooted in each artists’ family memories, wherein histories of spatial violence are connected to the ongoing reproduction of White supremacist place making in Australia. An aesthetic encounter may enable us to produce our own ‘desire lines’ throughout the exhibition, these are layers of meaning aren’t necessarily communicated. Unfortunately, Tracing the Archipelago feels largely isolated from the conceptual criticality of many of the artworks in the exhibition, which often lies latent and unexplored, inaccessible to most audience members.
This quote by Michel de Certeau opens Kaytsen Jama’s text: “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across”.[viii] Unfortunately, in its curatorial minimalism, Tracing the Archipelago only provides its audiences with a map, in the form of a room sheet. Here, it’s the stories that are missing.
Stella Maynard lives, works and writes on unceded Gadigal land. This review has been supported by the Emerging Critic Award 2018 presented in partnership with Kudos Gallery and Runway, sponsored by Art & Design Student Council.
Tracing the Archipelago was curated by Evgenia (Jenny) Anagnostopoulou and Yarran Gatsby for Kudos Gallery (31 October – 17 November 2018). It featured works by Kalanjay Dhir, Shivanjani Lal, Gus Mcgrath, James Nguyen, Harrison Witsey, Kaytsen Jama, Dean Cross, Grace K Blake and Desire Lines, who presented a walking tour of the surrounding UNSW Art and Design Paddington area on 10 November 2018. At the Threshold, its closing public program, will be from 12-3pm on Saturday November 17 at Kudos Gallery.
[i] Jordy Rosenberg, ‘Gender Trouble on Mothers Day’, Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014, accessed 10 November 2018. Available at: http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2014/05/09/gender-trouble-on-mothers-day/
[ii] Sara Ahmed, ‘Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 12, no. 4, 2006, p. 566.
[iii] ibid., p. 569
[iv] Curatorial statement, ‘Tracing the Archipelago’, Kudos Gallery, 2018. Available at: https://www.arc.unsw.edu.au/art-design/kudos-galleryexhibitions/2018-exhibition-program-1/tracing-the-archipelago?fbclid=IwAR1iUAJlbEdYK_48VhQL0vCJI0H1syzBP98zMqdbR3uarBdN9JEaK6_W2U8
[v] Ahmed, ‘Orientations’, p. 570.
[vi] Ahmed, ‘Orientations’, p. 570.
[vii] Personal communication with the artist.
[viii] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 129.