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In 2005, the then director of the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin (previously named 24HR Art), Steve Eland, came up with a somewhat radical scheme. When it came to government funding, the times were dominated by a trend towards Second Life, a concentration on virtual worlds and online-based art activity. Eland proposed the opposite—First Life: taking artists in real time to locales they would otherwise not experience and allowing them to respond as they saw fit.
The project began ten years ago with an artists’ journey to Arnhem Land, titled First Life Residency Project in Landscape. It has since involved artists from around Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and China.
The potentials of physical interaction between artists from different cultures and different geographical locales has proven to be a rich, albeit unwieldy, one. After a number of varying projects, in 2011 the mission encompassed First Life Residency Project in Landscape which brought together contemporary visual artists from Australia—Sam Leach, Tony Lloyd, Ben Armstrong—and China—Cang Xin, Shi Jinsong and Wu Daxin—to experience the landscapes and cultures of Northern Australia and regional China.
Designed to be an intensive ‘real life’ cultural and creative exchange, the project involved travelling by road through the landscapes of Northern Australia and visiting remote regions and Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley; and undertaking a hazardous road trip through the south-western provinces of China, from Lanzhou to Lhasa.
While it was always planned to be an adventure, there was no way to anticipate the strange, hovering sense of mortality that followed the group, from encountering a Lorrkon—a traditional Aboriginal hollow-log grave in the bush—to witnessing a Tibetan Sky Burial. Of the eight participants at the beginning of the journey, just four were able to complete it due to a combination of illness and challenging logistics.
In the final stage, the artists underwent an intensive studio session in Beijing, producing works in response to their experiences which were exhibited at the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art, Beijing in May 2011, as a feature of the Year of Australian Culture in China. A further iteration of the results of this journey was presented at the Chan Contemporary Art Space in Darwin in 2012, featuring new works by Lloyd, Leach, Cang and Shi, as well as Arnhem Land Rembarrnga artist Charlie Djinmalala Brian.
This exhibition, Unworldly Encounters at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, emerged as the third chapter in a now epic project.
The intensely shared experiences of the artists created a unique bond that they were keen to reignite. The survivors, Lloyd, Leach, Cang and Shi of the first adventure, took a further journey for Unworldly Encounters, with a residency in South Australia’s remote Oratunga region amidst the grandeur of the Flinders Ranges and traditional Adnyamathanha country.
Drawing from the experiences of both residencies, death and beauty haunt this exhibition with equal intensity. During our 2009 journey through Tibet, I myself came all too close to my final days and my own memories shuffle uneasily alongside those of other participants. I do not recall, for instance, the conversation I had with Leach that became the inspiration for his chilling but beautiful new work Sky Burial, although I have no reason to doubt his recounting of the moment: ‘Our writer, Ashley Crawford, nearly died on these mountains, firstly from complications arising from the altitude and later by being nearly crushed in a rock-fall during his emergency medical evacuation. During his few periods of lucidity in that episode, he specifically requested that he be given a sky burial. Here I have sourced part of the equipment required to fulfill that request.’
Leach’s use of real human bone fragments (from a medical student’s study skeleton) is only one element of the extreme physicality of Unworldly Encounters. Lloyd, Leach, Cang and Shi each utilised materials found in or carved out of nature, and each captures the melancholy of mortality. Shi’s Other Shore, a black ‘river’ running sinuously across the gallery floor, compiled from charcoal and bones from the burnt Australian bush around the Flinders Ranges, manages to recall the more pleasurable aspects of the journey in the form of settling in next to a campfire in the bush, but also the harrowing twists and turns of the expedition. Death is clearly not far from Cang’s reminisces when, for this exhibition, he turns to the ‘spirit ladders’ that Tibetans paint onto valley rock faces to allow the spirits to climb safely to Heaven from their ceremonial river crypts. Such ladders are traditionally rendered in charcoal, however in Salvation, Cang’s are formed by seeds of native plants from Adnyamathanha country in the Flinders Ranges.
And some notion of the Heavenly is evoked by Lloyd’s The Ocean Floor, an installation of hundreds of seashells suspended from the gallery ceiling to form the ponderous profile of a mountain. Mountains, both in the Flinders Ranges and the Himalayas, led Lloyd to contemplate time itself. The bleached, battered and broken shells, resembling fossils or shards of ancient pottery poetically floating and swaying like the ocean itself, evoke the millions of years between the landscape we see today and the ocean from which it was formed. Again this reflected an aspect of the initial journey in which the artists camped on a beach near Broome that was littered with shell-life.
One of the oddest outcomes of the project is the strange resonance and interaction the works achieve. When they first exhibited the outcomes of First Life in Beijing six years ago, the styles, techniques and media of the artists were radically different and included painting, the medium for which Lloyd and Leach are best known. But with Unworldly Encounters one could be fooled into suspecting that Lloyd, Leach, Cang and Shi were in fact one artist, such was the simpatico that The Ocean Floor, Other Shore, Salvation and Sky Burial, with their natural materials and ambitious scale, exuded. While they never collaborated on a physical level, each seemed to know what was needed to make the exhibition a cohesive whole.
The mission, when it was first conceived a decade ago, was based on the ambition that the artists would experience ‘real’ life, a physical and visual gestalt away from the bits and bytes of ‘normal’ life in today’s world. Artist projects are not, as a rule, supposed to be life-threatening, but First Life Residency Project in Landscape clearly carried an aura of both beauty and threat, a strange mix reflected powerfully in the artists’ outpourings.
Sam Leach, Sky Burial, 2016. Image courtesy the artist, Peter Walker Fine Art, Adelaide and sullivan+strumpf, Sydney. From Unworldly Encounters, AEAF 2016. Photograph Alex Lofting.
Cang Xin, Salvation, 2016. Detail. Image courtesy the artist. From Unworldly Encounters, AEAF 2016. Photograph Alex Lofting.
Shi Jinsong, Other Shore, 2016. Detail. Image courtesy the artist. From Unworldly Encounters, AEAF 2016. Photograph Alex Lofting.
Tony Lloyd, The Ocean Floor, floor Shi Jinsong, Other Shore, detail, 2016. Image courtesy the artists. From Unworldly Encounters, AEAF 2016. Photograph Alex Lofting.