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It is difficult to examine the exhibition component of ‘spaced 2: future recall’, presented in the temporary exhibition galleries at the Western Australian Museum, in isolation from the greater project. In fact, ‘spaced 2: future recall’ illustrates both the challenges of locating ‘socially engaged’ art, which by its nature creates multiple and rarely intersecting audiences, in a fixed context, and two distinct approaches to those challenges.
The exhibition is frequently described as the culmination of twelve residencies that place international contemporary artists in various regional, mostly Western Australian contexts, a sequel to 2012’s ‘spaced: art out of place’ at Fremantle Arts Centre. However, it is perhaps better understood as a node in a network of activities, encompassing the residency program, the presentation of works in the communities themselves, and a national tour that will follow the closure of Perth’s exhibition component.
Variety and reach are the source of this project’s power, offering a number of practical and philosophical approaches to regionality and local, collective memory in an increasingly global world, but it is also the cause of some mental heartburn. In addition to the projects produced from the residencies, the Western Australian Museum exhibition includes examples of the artists’ previous work. While this connects the projects with a discourse beyond the specificities of their regional engagement, it also complicates an already complex spectrum of experience and pushes required viewing time upwards into the impossible; Lily Hibberd’s photographs and many hours of video, which span a wealth of lived and historical Indigenous memory, could support an exhibition alone.
In including these older works, ‘spaced’ may be attempting to find a broad definition for what ‘socially engaged practice’ might look like, although Marco Marcon — Director of International Art Space, which facilitates the ‘spaced’ projects — tends to favour the term ‘context respondent’. Both definitions pointedly avoid the word ‘relational’, prioritising neither the activation of networks nor the production of private aesthetic outcomes, and it is the interaction of these not-quite-opposing tendencies that provides a second point of friction, as works made by ‘extracting’ material rub up against works ‘enacted’ in communities.
American Daniel Peltz uses ‘extraction’ as an explicit metaphor for his residency in Tom Price. Peltz re-enacted the actions of the American entrepreneur who gave the town its name by ‘mining and refining’ narrative fragments, which were sent to Beijing — following the route of Tom Price iron ore — to be ‘smelted’ into an opera and a series of landscape paintings. Peltz’s thinking and processes find such perfect synergy with Tom Price’s human and global-scale mining logistics that he makes the town suddenly, sharply focused and strange, a place of tragic and epic poetry.
Working in the remote Pilbara, Netherlands-based Daphne Major has produced a short film that evokes the physicality of the landscape and its embodiment of deep time, as a means of connecting individuals and communities. Rich scenery overlaid with spoken prose descriptions of sensory experience, with a repeated refrain, produces a comforting lullaby-effect and stillness not-dissimilar to online ASMR videos. However, the absence of human figures, cinematography that is approaching exoticism, and the entirely English text produces an uncomfortable erasure of the community it is trying to evoke. This is underscored by the work’s placement in the gallery space next to Pia Lanzinger’s Geraldton goes Wajarri, which demonstrates that the neutrality of language and the gaze, particularly on Country, can never be assumed.
Lanzigner’s work epitomises the difficulties of translating social action to the gallery space. Geraldton goes Wajarri uses a simple device to counteract the systematic erasure of Indigenous languages and to bring together a community; words from the waning Wajarri language were printed on t-shirts with their English translations, worn on an ongoing basis by volunteers willing to ‘adopt’ a word, surreptitiously re-introducing them into public consciousness. In the community this work is powerful, complex and appears to have made a lasting impact on its participants. In the gallery the brightly coloured word-card wall-paper and documentary footage that describes it, threatens to override its nuance, recalling too closely a didactic, educational display.
Similarly, Jay Koh’s project in Cervantes is not designed for the gallery. Koh’s interest in the ethics of community participation has seen him produce a framework that can be maintained after his departure. The outcome will be launched this year in the form of a public art trail managed by the Cervantes Historical Society, using both public and private space and referencing local histories and personal narratives. As in Lanzigner’s work, interviews describe the impact of the project on the Cervantes residents, but amongst so much other video footage, much of it also documentary, it is too easy to overlook.
Friction between different strategies is perhaps heightened by the parenthesis of the Museum itself, which invokes a discourse of the curatorial — connecting with categorisation, preservation and somewhat problematically, ethnography — related to but not synonymous with contemporary art. Perhaps this is why the heavy vitrines and instructive tendencies of ‘spaced 2: future recall’ feel initially like a contradiction of its project. However, embedding ‘spaced’ in a cultural framework wider than ‘international contemporary art’ and its tenancies towards insularity and implicitly market driven outcomes, is ultimately productive. Flash-frozen in this particular arrangement, ‘spaced 2: future recall’ allows for an examination of art in a living context that might be negated by its removal to a white-cube gallery, whilst also inserting the unpredictability and open borders of contemporary art into the authoritative rigidity of the museum.
Lily Hibberd in collaboration with Tyson Mowarin, Glen Stasiuk, Curtis Taylor and Fiona Walsh, It Goes Both Ways: Moving Images in Different Times and Places, 2015. Installation including: 20 colour HD videos with audio, 7 archival inkjet prints mounted on acrylic, dimensions variable. Image courtesy and © the artists. Photograph Robert Frith - Acorn Photo.
Daniel Peltz, Tom Price: the Opera, 2014. Tom Price screening view. Image courtesy and © the artist and the Hsinchu City Opera Research Association.
Daphne Major, And it is Here I Learnt to Float, 2014. Video stills. Images courtesy and © the artist.
Pia Lanzinger, Gerladton goes Wajarri: A city revitalises its endangered Aboriginal language, 2015. Installation including: 2 colour HD videos with audio, vinyl wallpaper, 5 postcard varieties, dimensions variable. Image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph Robert Frith - Acorn Photo.