The world sneaks in

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - PA­TRICK WIT­TON

In the right light, the Tar­raWarra Mu­seum of Art looks like a ship­ping con­tainer in a Jef­frey Smart land­scape. It’s the build­ing’s broad, block­ish façade; it’s the shard-like pil­lars reach­ing to an in­ert blue sky. But the Smart ref­er­ence re­ally hits home when a golf buggy en­ters stage right, buzzing up the hill on a sweep of bi­tu­men to­wards the grand ed­i­fice. The ve­hi­cle’s toy­ish­ness is a com­i­cal aber­ra­tion in what is an oth­er­wise stately panorama: the mu­seum, a rusted knot of a sculp­ture, swamphens call­ing from the reeds be­side a pond. Even the peo­ple in the buggy, be­ing fer­ried from the lower car park, are a vi­sion of wiry eye­wear, durable shoe and mag­nif­i­cent scarf.

To­day, they have made the trip to the Yarra Val­ley, east of Mel­bourne, to take in the third ever Tar­raWarra

In­ter­na­tional (un­til 12 Novem­ber). This seem­ingly bi­en­nial event af­fords the mu­seum an op­por­tu­nity to fling off its char­ter of dis­play­ing “Aus­tralian art from the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury to the present day” and in­stead “show­case lead­ing con­tem­po­rary art prac­tice in a global con­text”. It’s some­thing of a rum­springa for the 14-year-old in­sti­tu­tion, and you can sense that those in charge en­joy pre­par­ing the space for its ex­panded purview.

In 2013, the mu­seum’s in­au­gu­ral In­ter­na­tional asked half a dozen artists to con­sider “the pro­found in­ter­con­nec­tions be­tween di­verse life forms”. It re­sulted in an ex­hi­bi­tion of quasi-bod­ily func­tions and ma­chine–bone con­fec­tions. For those drop­ping by the mu­seum after a trip to the nearby wildlife sanc­tu­ary, it would have been con­fronting to come across mounted an­i­mal spec­i­mens and gar­ish steam iron–skull hy­brids, es­pe­cially if they thought they’d be catch­ing a Rus­sell Drys­dale.

This year, the In­ter­na­tional asks five se­lected artists – Turkey’s Di­dem Erk, China’s Cao Fei, and Aus­tralia’s Tom Ni­chol­son, Pa­trick Pound and Cyrus Tang – to con­sider “his­tor­i­cal and pre­car­i­ous mo­ments and im­ages”. And as any learned leftie would know, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ti­tle, All That Is Solid …, echoes a pas­sage in The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, so what­ever has been con­jured will be viewed through a po­lit­i­cal lens. Per­haps the re­sult­ing art­work can func­tion as a sub­stance to be dis­solved in the mi­lieu of alt- anti- neo- ide­olo­gies that has found its way into the main­stream. Or some­thing like that.

The theme of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval stands in con­trast to the scene on the open­ing day. Guests gather in the mu­seum’s foyer for a rosé and a chance to thumb through post­cards from past ex­hi­bi­tions (Wil­liam Do­bell por­traits, Bron­wyn Oliver curlicues). At one point, found­ing pa­trons Marc and Eva Be­sen swing by for a squiz, a chat and some adu­la­tion: theirs is one of the finest pri­vately owned gal­leries north of Bass Strait.

But when those present en­ter the gallery proper, park­ing their wine­glasses on a black ta­ble be­side the point of no re­turn, the barom­e­ter drops. Across the gallery’s long cor­ri­dor of in­ter­lock­ing rooms, dwellings are razed and erased, au­to­mated ma­chines suck up de­tri­tus, ro­bot chick­ens peck around aban­doned build­ings, re­jected De­pres­sion-era pho­tos are sal­vaged, and leather-bound edi­tions of Ulysses

are in­ef­fec­tively cen­sored with hand stitch­ing across ev­ery

word.

In the cen­tre of one room lie re­cep­ta­cles of knowl­edge – The Chil­dren’s En­cy­clo­pe­dia, The Mod­ern World En­cy­clopae­dia – that have been “cre­mated” to form lac­quered tablets, with only ghosts of words re­main­ing. The ashen yet shiny shapes tempt some vis­i­tors to ap­proach with In­sta­gram fil­ters at the ready, prompt­ing se­cu­rity staff to lev­i­tate slightly. One em­ployee, when asked if some peo­ple get too close, re­sponds, “You’d be sur­prised.”

Fur­ther down the cor­ri­dor are four con­cur­rently run­ning videos of a black-clothed fig­ure. On one screen she can be seen walk­ing the streets of Cyprus while read­ing from a prob­a­bly poignant book and then, of course, eat­ing each page. Some gallery-go­ers shuf­fle around the mid­dle of the space, search­ing for a van­tage point, or read the sub­ti­tles at the base of one of the screens for a bit, but most soon move on to the next room. Here they find a metaphor­i­cally and lit­er­ally mov­ing por­trait of a Chi­nese-Aus­tralian who early last cen­tury went to live in Shang­hai, where she be­came a cou­turier and then, postrev­o­lu­tion, a pig farmer. Her face, ren­dered in ash on wa­ter, slowly dis­torts in im­per­cep­ti­ble cur­rents.

By the time the crowd gets to the end room, which has been white­washed and then flecked with char­coal for a never-to-be-cre­ated fresco, there is a sense that a jour­ney through both space and his­tory (well, the theme of it) is com­plete. Vis­i­tors or­bit the room slowly, but are soon pulled to a win­dow that frames the out­side world like a clas­sic Aus­tralian land­scape: scrag­gily eu­ca­lypts, lines of vines, the flash of a New Holland hon­eyeater. And then that buggy filled with happy daytrip­pers trun­dles by again, break­ing the spell and con­firm­ing what artist Pa­trick Pound has stated: “You put a con­straint on some­thing and the world sneaks in.”

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