Borders, Barriers Walls

Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne

It has been a week since I woke to a chaotic newsfeed and perplexed exchanges about the implications of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In fact, I had already finished writing this exhibition review for Borders, Barriers, Walls, at the Monash University Museum of Art. However, in spite of the reverberations of the referendum, my text, as it were, seemed to lose its pertinence.

The debate over the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU elicited a racist discourse that pervades the legacy of imperial Britain. Symptomatic of a struggle to conceive of its place—as the experience of the empire recedes into the past—Britain’s vote exposed an assertion against pluralism, openness, and the eradication of borders. In this sense, this group exhibition, curated by Francis Parker, becomes especially salient, and speaks to the heart of the cultural chasms brought to bear in current affairs like the UK referendum. 

The exhibition considers the embroiled tensions of a globalising wall that engenders ‘opportunity and insecurity, zones of contact and conflict, sites of cooperation and competition, places of ambivalent identities and aggressive assertions of difference’.1 Exploring the complexity and coexistence of these dichotomies, the artists included in the exhibition confront the shifting nature of territory and the multilayered role of borders and barriers amid the fluidity of globalisation. 

The exhibition’s trajectory, however, also explores a much longer national narrative. In Australia, unresolved traumas of dispossession and the rewriting of borders have long histories and continue to impact Aboriginal Australians. Ricky Maynard, a descendant of Ben Lomond and Cape Portland peoples, records histories of displaced Indigenous communities. Producing Portrait of a Distant Land over a considerable time, Maynard carefully selected sites that were historically significant to his people, creating emotionally charged photographs accompanied by captions from oral histories that attempt to ‘preserve lost memories to the prevailing understanding of Tasmania’s history’.2 Maynard’s photographs contribute to the struggle of Aboriginal decolonisation, yet the politics that drive his practice also reveal a global urgency. 

On the island of Vieques—a municipality of Puerto Rico—the civil disobedience movement succeeded in demilitarising the land previously occupied by the US Navy. The artist duo Allora & Calzadilla’s video work Under Discussion (2005), advances a conversation about the future of the island that resists the ongoing reduction of the local population. Using the metaphor of the discussion table as a place where different parties can come together, the work follows a local fisherman, who surveys the island’s coastline aboard a makeshift vehicle constructed from an upturned table. The inscription and erasure of the wake of the bizarre vehicle acts as a counter-memorial that symbolises the demands of local residents for a democratic process of discussion, rather than mandate from the US government or private investors. 

Such dislocations caused by the global surge of markets, commercialisation, and finance reinforce neo-colonial dominance and attest to the fabrication of physical and symbolic barriers. As Yanis Varoufakis outlines in his insightful catalogue essay, ‘…Only financialisation becomes truly global… the more we give reasons to, and means for dismantling the dividing lines, the less powerful the forces are working for their dismantling’.3 The inverse relationship between freedom of capital and freedom of people has caused disastrous ethical challenges. For example, international migration has become one of the central crises of our time, with more than sixty million people forcibly displaced across the globe, more than any other time since World War II.4 Deeply felt both in Australia and around the world, the tightening of border control policies has incited unprecedented situations of illegality, as refugees are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Guan Wei’s painting, Boatman #1 (2005), depicts a boatload of refugees undertaking a perilous sea voyage to Australian shores, accompanied by a fleet of watchful naval ships. Inspired by the artist’s Chinese heritage, mythology, and personal life experiences in Australia, the work offers a quiet allegory for the current wave of anti-immigration sentiment and the hostile reactions to the arrival of people by boat in Australia.

Expanding themes of voyage and journey, filmmaker, Isaac Julien’s compelling multi-channel video installation, Western Union: Small Boats (2007), re-imagines the squalid journey of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa into Europe. Three large screens suspended from the ceiling to the floor and hung in a slight arc, are illuminated at different intervals. The interspersed images alternate between richly coloured landscapes, ornate interiors and sensual bodies, emphasising an aesthetic experience which positions ‘Europe’ as a utopian fantasy for African migrants. The people in the film are carefully choreographed performers, whose slick sculptural bodies encourage one to think about, not the facts of migration, ‘but rather the fictions and tropes that govern its representation’.5 It is these representations of migration and fantasies of the ‘other’ as a threat that sustain the global popularity of many right wing political agendas. Here, I return to the Brexit campaign, where the means adopted to sway a fraction of the population were primarily based on fomenting hostility to immigrants and Europe. Such campaigns, built on foundations of fear, uphold the tendency towards the globalising wall that strengthens the boundaries between self and other. I hardly need to add that in the process of disentanglement from the EU, we will witness a community spirit that continues to advocate for an open, cosmopolitan future. Perhaps the most important aspect of this exhibition rests with the question of how we can deploy our own, individual political subjective in our relations with others, instead of acting out pre-scripted institutional scenarios. 

Ricky Maynard, Broken Heart (from Portrait of a Distant Land), 2005. Mordant Family Collection. © Ricky Maynard/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016. 

Allora & Calzadilla, Under Discussion, 2005. Video still. © Allora & Calzadilla. 

Guan Wei, Boatman no. 1, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE, Melbourne. © Guan Wei/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016. 

Isaac Julien, Western Union: Small Boats, 2007. Three-screen projection, 35mm colour film transferred to HD, 5.1 surround sound. Installation view, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Victoria Miro, London. Photograph Christian Capurro.

notes: 

1. Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen, Borders, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012, p.17.

2. Francis Parker, Borders, Barriers, Walls, ex. cat., MUMA, Melbourne, 2016.

3. Yanis Varoufakis, ‘The Globalising Wall’, ibid.

4. Gillian Trigs, ‘Refugee Protection and International Law’, ibid. 

5. Emma Chubb, ‘Small Boats, Slave Ship; or, Isaac Julien and the Beauty of Implied Catastrophe’, Art Journal, Vol.75 No.1, 2016, pp.24-43. See http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00043249.2016.1171539?scroll=top&needAccess=true