Liquid metaphors abound in modernity. Karl Marx set the scene in the most poetic passage of the Communist Manifesto (1848) where—riffing on Shakespeare—he forecast that class society would soon ‘melt into air’. Early in the 20th century, the ‘melting pot’ became a popular if problematic expression for an emergent multicultural society in the United States. In the 1980s, Marshall Berman revisited Marx’s image to recall the ‘creative destruction’ that epitomised 19th century—but not, in Berman’s opinion, 20th century—modernism. By the end of the 20th century, more and more things seemed to be at risk of dissolving, as Zygmunt Bauman argued in an influential series of books beginning with Liquid Modernity (2000). If Bauman’s analysis still maintains a connection with the trajectory first announced by Marx, today we need to recognise that it is not only class relations, but fundamental attributes of human being-in-the-world that are at risk of being swept away: the experience of place and home, the social relations of identity and memory, longstanding traditions for transmitting knowledge—‘nature’ itself—all stand under threat of liquefaction.
The exhibition All that is solid…, curated by Victoria Lynne, makes its nod to Marx, but casts its eye firmly towards this present in which previously solid and stable entities—such as cities and buildings, but also photographs, texts and archives—have become subject to a new mutability. What happens when the built environment changes far faster than a human lifespan? What is the role of the image in the age of Snapchat and WeChat, when photographs are not only ‘pictures’, but also a fund of data and economic value? What can art have to say about this complex nexus between technological transformation, the reshaping of social practices and cultural protocols, and the emergence of new, globalised forms of economy and power that has rendered many of the previous ‘grounds’ of human experience—such as place, city and nation, but also book, writing and archive—somewhat ungrounded?
The contemporary melting of the city is expressed most evidently in Cyrus Tang’s Lacrimae rerum (2016), a series of photographs depicting the gradual dissolution of an urban landscape modeled in clay and immersed in water. Each image is titled according to its exposure time (up to 1000s of seconds), recalling an earlier moment in which making photographs required accumulated time rather than the guillotine of the ‘decisive moment’. Translating the title of the work registers an essential ambiguity: are the tears for things, or of things? Are we crying for the loss of the city—whether from natural disaster or the melt of time—or is the city crying for us? Tang has also contributed a pair of video works, The Final Cut-Off – Daisy Kwok and The Final Cut-Off – Alice Lim Kee, portraying the visages of two Chinese-Australian women who returned to Shanghai at the height of its cosmopolitan modernity in the 1920s, only to be caught out by the upheavals of invasion and revolution that soon engulfed the city. The images of their faces are crafted using silk-screened ash on water, emphasising their precarity. Ash and deformation are also key reference points for Tang’s cremated encyclopaedias, The Children’s Encyclopaedia (2016) and The Modern World Encyclopaedia (2017). Rather than being reduced to dust, the pages remain partially recognisable; fragile, desiccated cascades pointing to the meltdown of the Enlightenment project of encyclopaedism and its ambition for establishing authoritative forms of universal knowledge. They also prompt us to ask whether something like Wikipedia may itself be soon melted by the acid of market-driven ‘knowledge capitalism’?
The extremes of market-driven development are equally evident in Cao Fei’s video Rumba II: Nomad (2015) which displays scenes of demolition that have become so familiar in contemporary China. In this instance, what is being demolished is an urban neighborhood on the fringe of Beijing; an older ecology in which rural and industrial workers co-existed with artists, will be replaced by the uncertain social landscape of the vertical city. Urban modernisation has been one of the signatures of modernity, ever since Haussmann began the ‘disembowelling’ of Paris in the 1850s. One does not need to romanticise the living conditions of rural and semi-rural China to question the social impact of what is by far the largest and most rapid process of urbanisation ever seen. Stories abound—in Beijing, but also Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou (where Cao was born) and scores of other cities—of the extreme cultural dislocation that is being engineered, underlining the extent to which not only the physical fabric but the existential bearings of ‘home’ are now at risk. Cao portrays the city becoming wreckage, a ruined landscape in which the chickens (still ubiquitous in the urban fringe) ride on robotic vacuum cleaners that futilely perform the Sisyphean task of cleaning up the debris. What kind of urban future is being enacted here? Not the glossy animations of the ‘smart’, but the strange peregrinations of non-human passengers—machine and animal—jointly surveying what Iggy Pop called the city’s ‘ripped backsides’.
The centre-piece of All that is Solid… was a pair of double-channel video works by Didem Erk, both presented under the title I wish I could not be traced in the archives. In Sirkiran /Secret Decipherer/ Mistiko Spastis (2013), the artist walks the militarised border between the Greek and Turkish sections of the divided Cypriot capital Nicosia, while reading a text by socially conscious poet and author Gürgenç Korkmazel. In Mekanim Datça Olusn / May Datça Be My Resting Place (2017), created specifically for this exhibition, she performs a similar act in Datça, the small town in south-western Turkey where she lives. Datça lies on a line between Syria and Athens, and has become a crossing point for refugees heading to Europe. Tragically, a number have washed up on its shores in recent years. Erk walks this terrain facing the Mediterranean on one screen and the Aegean on the other, while reading from poet Can Yücel’s book that gives the work its title. In both videos, each time Erk finishes reading a page, she tears it from the book, places it in her mouth and chews it, before depositing the part-eaten text as a trace on the road. Erk’s approach to the border as both material landscape and overdetermined symbolic terrain informs the work’s presentation, in which two sets of paired screens are aligned on the north-south axis of the gallery to create a viewing zone. Here the public find themselves literally at the crossroads: thrust into a vortex of images and a cacophony of sounds which signify the disjointing of political and cultural territories.
If history, memory and the archive are themes permeating the work of Tang, Cai and Erk, they take centre stage in Patrick Pound’s Cancelled Archive (2017). Pound uses images originally made as part of the famous Farm Security Administration photographic collection orchestrated by Roy Stryker in the context of New Deal Depression-era United States. The project shaped an influential understanding of the ethics and aesthetics of documentary photography. Pound’s work asks us to reconsider this image by focusing on a series of photos that were rejected by Stryker—literally struck out by punching holes into their negatives. Pound’s reprints from these negatives leave the resulting images marked—and oddly united—by the floating black hole signaling their cancellation. The work asks us to reconsider the status of editing and the process of forming a collection of photographs in the digital present. Stryker’s ritual of physical cancellation has today been overtaken by a new kind of archive, in which it has become easier to let images accumulate rather than to take the time to select and delete.
The final work in the show, Tom Nicholson’s Cartoons for Joseph Selleny (2012-17) also displays a deliberate retrospectivity towards image-making. Using Renaissance techniques for transferring a drawing to canvas by pouncing charcoal dust through a perforated cloth, Nicholson has covered the interior white walls of an entire gallery chamber with a seemingly abstract array of black marks. But this is actually a memory palace, referencing Nicholson’s own drawings from different versions of Manet’s painting The Execution of Maximilian (1867-69). The drawings are themselves displayed nearby, alongside a book of fictional letters written by Nicholson to people associated with the Novara, an Austrian frigate that visited Sydney in 1858. Like so many other visitors, the Novara left these shores with a collection of Aboriginal objects. The ship was sponsored by none other than the Archduke Maximilian—subject of the Manet painting—while the ship’s artist was Joseph Selleny to whom Nicholson’s cartoons are addressed. Nicholson’s work here continues to astutely probe the erasures that have constituted ‘Australia’ as national entity and identity. It reminds us of the other modernity constituted in the fateful border encounters between millennia of indigenous occupation and the abrupt violence of European colonisation. It is a history that is proving perversely intractable in an otherwise liquid present: like so many ‘artefacts’, the objects seized by the Novara remain in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.
It is worth briefly remarking on the role played by an exhibition such as the Tarrawarra International. Such a title can no longer pretend to offer a more or less comprehensive survey of the art world. Rather, it adopts the more modest aim of assembling a series of works which, if successful as a composition, should prompt responses that exceed the sum of its individual parts. What I particularly liked about All that is Solid… was that it allowed multiple resonances to develop across and between its different works. This multiplicity speaks to something that is critical in the present. Luce Irigaray once noted the historical ‘lag’ in theorising liquids compared to solids in physics. Arguably we are experiencing a similar lag in social and cultural theory today. As things that were once (thought to be) solid become seemingly more liquid, the world often appears to be completely without order. The challenge, then, is to discern and express new logics. Moving from an analytics of solids to one of liquids is to attempt to look for new patterns of flow and turbulence. Which is to say: if there are still causalities, they are non-linear and complex; if there are still objects, they are partial and plural; if there are still subjects, they are relational rather than foundational. Into this liquid present, we—but who, we?—are all thrown. Which is another way of saying: begin where you are.
Art is not a substitute for other modes of knowing the world, but, at its best, can display highly attuned capacities to register the emergent, and to express what does not yet fit into other modes of experiencing and knowing. Leaving the exhibition, I felt enriched by an exchange between five artists who had probably never met and yet who spoke collectively and with conviction to a condition that presses on us all. Near the end of The Tempest, Prospero declaims: ‘the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve’. Today, let us remember it is also the icecaps that are at risk, unless we recalibrate the controls.
Patrick Pound, Cancelled Archive, 2017. Detail. Found photographs (from FSA negatives held in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Station, Melbourne, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, Hamish McKay Gallery, Wellington and Melanie Roger Gallery, Auckland.
Cyrus Tang, The Children’s Encyclopedia Vol 6, 2017. Installation view, TarraWarra International 2017: All that is solid …, 2017. Cremated book ashes and book covers, 21 x 21 x 29cm. Photograph Christian Capurro.
Didem Erk, ‘I wish I could not be traced in the archives’ (Sırkıran I Secret Decipherer I Mistiko Spastis), 2013. Video still. Performance and site-specific video installation, two channel full HD video, 15:37 min. Courtesy the artist and x-ist gallery, Istanbul. Photograph Didem Erk and Özgür Demirci. Editing Didem Erk and Özgür Demirci. Camera Özgür Demirci. Translation Melis Bilgin.
Tom Nicholson, Cartoons for Joseph Selleny, 2014-17. Charcoal drawings, perforated; wall drawing with crushed charcoal; artist’s book to take away, dimensions variable. Installation view Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photograph Christian Capurro. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Scott McQuire is Professor of Media and Communications in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia.