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I remember as a child asking my mother why people say ‘sorry’ when expressing sympathy about the loss of a loved one. Up until then, I had only understood the word ‘sorry’ as a means for apologising for my own wrongdoing; it did not make sense to me that people would use the word when they were not at fault. Of course, I eventually came to understand the word as an expression of sorrow or distress rather than an admission of guilt, but I still often find that it feels inadequate.
Annie Macindoe’s exhibition, Melancholy and the Memorial, deals with the limitations of traditional forms of language in representing loss. The exhibition is a culmination of her Master of Fine Arts research, and presents a body of work consisting of multi-channel text and video installations.
Upon entering the exhibition, the first thing I notice is an ambient drone that engulfs the space. Walking through to the main gallery I see a scattering of twelve floor-mounted monitors that dominate almost half of the room, splitting it lengthways. Six monitors display almost still footage of seemingly empty rooms of a Queenslander house—possibly the artist’s childhood home, as inferred by the work’s title, Halstead St. A static camera captures the changing shadows against tongue and groove walls and wooden floors, and the warm glow of sunlight peaking through open doorways. On the other six monitors, single lines of white text appear and disappear on black screens:
it was quiet
it felt like
you were attached
being compared to
I’ll be back soon
to leave you
you came back
for so long
The phrases are fragments—words lifted from sentences that may or may not have been complete to start with. The text uses no capitalisation and no periods or commas, which further distorts them—it is unclear whether each line is a beginning, a middle, or an end. I find it difficult to keep a phrase in my mind after it is replaced by a new one. I start to see patterns in some of the text—themes about leaving and returning, about time. But any attempt at making sense of the length or order of each video proves futile.
On the opposite wall, six vertically oriented screens are arranged like a pyramid: three along the bottom, two in the middle, one on top. The work is aptly titled, Monument, and the exhibition’s floor sheet tells me that the ambient drone that fills the space belongs to this work. The six screens appear to be synced, to display a unified visual of blurred orbs of light, gently swirling. As in Halstead St, fragmented text appears intermittently, but the glowing swirl of colour distorts the white text, and opportunities to make meaning from the text slip beyond reach, like fading memories.
The artwork’s title, as well as that of the exhibition, contextualises this video installation within a longstanding relationship between art and the memorial. We are perhaps familiar with memorials such as Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast, sloping site in Berlin covered with 2,711 concrete slabs, or the National Gallery of Australia’s The Aboriginal Memorial, an installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land, which ‘commemorates all the Indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land’.1 But these well-known installations memorialise loss felt by a large community—public trauma. Macindoe’s subject matter seems more intimate. I am reminded of the work of American writer Kristi DiLallo, who founded The Grief Diaries, an online magazine that encourages ‘artistic expression to challenge the idea that grief must be a private act’.2 Macindoe is using art to make public what is often deemed private.
In her pursuit to reframe public dialogue around grief and melancholy, the artist draws attention to the inadequacies of language. Other works in the exhibition employ similarly fragmented text. In a smaller room off the main gallery, two screens are mounted back-to-back on a suspended pole in the middle of the room. Only one screen is visible from the doorway; it shows an idyllic image of a blue sky. Moving around and into the space, I notice a heartbeat-like sound, and I see that the other screen is displaying the familiar short lines of white text appearing and disappearing, ‘you were still / pretending / everything was not happening / over and over’. In another small room at the opposite end of the main gallery, four vertically-mounted monitors hang side by side. The two screens in the middle display text, while the outer screens show imagery that fades in and out of focus: the sky at dusk, reflections on rain-soaked concrete, shadows, an unmade bed, windows. I think to myself that the four screens resemble the casement windows of a Queenslander. Outside the main gallery, there is a long, narrow room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, to which the artist has applied twelve semi-transparent vinyl prints. They mimic the text on the video screens, ‘parallel things / going backward and forward / as you get older / it’s disorienting’.
In times of mourning, the limitations of language are felt on both sides—by both the bereaved and the consoler. DiLallo explains that, following a traumatic event in her life, she could ‘feel [her] loss making other people uncomfortable’, and noticed that people would often resort to speaking in clichés, such as, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or, ‘She’s in a better place now’.3 These adages are a way of making sense of things that do not make sense, finding meaning where there is none. I catch myself running through the fragments of text in Macindoe’s videos, over and over, backwards and forwards, trying to piece together the splinters to find some kind of truth. But relying on my understanding of traditional forms of language will get me nowhere. Words are not enough.
Annie Macindoe, Between You and I. Installation view, QUT Creative Industries Precinct, Brisbane. Photograph Louis Lim.
Annie Macindoe, Halstead St. Installation view, QUT Creative Industries Precinct, Brisbane. Photograph Louis Lim.
Annie Macindoe, Monument. Installation view, QUT Creative Industries Precinct, Brisbane. Photograph Louis Lim.