TarraWarra Biennial 2014

TarraWarra Biennial 2014


16th August – 16th November
TarraWarra Mus

Q. The TarraWarra Biennial was inaugurated in 2006 as a signature exhibition to identify new currents in contemporary practice. The first Biennial, Parallel Lives: Australian Painting Today curated by now Museum-Director Victoria Lynn, presented her independent view of Australian painting practice influenced by contemporary cultural and political environments; in 2008 Lost & Found: An Archeology of the Present, curated by Charlotte Day, presented Australian and New Zealand artists who reinvent traditional techniques evoking historical forms, mythologies and folklores; in 2012 Victoria Lynn curated Sonic Spheres, an assemblage of contemporary Australian visual artworks engaged with music, sound and voice. This year’s Biennial, Whisper in My Mask, will be for the first time curated by a collaborative duo—Natalie King and Djon Mundine. Whisper in My Mask takes its thematic cue from Grace Jones’ evocative lyrics in Art Groupie (1984), using this song as a “prelude for an exploration of masking as a psychological state alongside secrets or hidden narratives”. Would you elaborate upon both this and the vision behind your collaboration?

NK: We are mindful of the biennial’s significant trajectory and aware that it is rare for indigenous and non-indigenous curators to collaborate. The biennial is an extension of our co-curation of the Asialink touring exhibition Shadowlife that featured the work of 9 photo-based Aboriginal artists (and one non-indigenous collaborator) that toured to Taiwan, Bangkok, Singapore, culminating at Bendigo Art Gallery. We also included a short film by renowned Aboriginal filmmaker Ivan Sen who recently released Mystery Road. Inserting a cinematic experience within an exhibition expands the audiences’ viewing parameters, slowing down time. TarraWarra Biennial will include a film by poet and filmmaker Romaine Moreton.

For TarraWarra Biennial, we were interested in extending our curatorial modality to conflate indigenous and non-indigenous artists. We hope the title is capacious as it derives from the lyrics in a Grace Jones’ song that signals mobilizing the senses:

Touch Me In A Picture
Wrap Me in a Cast
Kiss Me in a Sculpture
Whisper in My Mask

In 1984, Grace Jones composed this song and around the same time, her body became a painted surface for graffiti artist Keith Haring, subsequently photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. There are a number of historical recursions in this song and its manifestation. The biennial commences with this song, like a soundtrack alongside two key works from the Eva and Marc Besen Collection: Howard Arkley – Tattooed Head,1983; Robert Dickerson – The Clown, 1958. These works are a prelude at the museum entrance or threshold, ushering in ideas of masquerade, bodily inscription, disguise and transformative personas. We were conscious of TarraWarra as a special location, embedded in a verdant landscape in a valley with a collection amassed by the founders. It is important to consider the context and situation at TarraWarra, which means; “slow moving water”, in the local Aboriginal language. We have conducted research at Coranderrk which was the site of upheaval and dispossession on Badger Creek near Healesville and consulted with Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Joy Murphy. We are keen for the Biennial to radiate out from the museum and be embedded in the local community and situation. So we are speaking with the local pub as a site for a dreaming project and video. Wherever possible, locals are involved in various projects such as Danish artist Soren Dahlgaard’s Dough Portraits whereby a mass of bread dough is placed on the head of the sitter as both a gesture of obliteration and a sculptural cast that is nonsensical.

We are less interested in Whisper in my mask as a literal evocation. Instead we are looking at works that suggest disguise, hiding, cover-up, concealment as well as the associative range of whispering. Whispering is an intimate act, an utterance or gesture: a coded form of speech. A number of the works have sound and suggest other forms of communications. We want to make sure there are surprises and diversions in the Biennial. We are interested in a porous type of collaboration that is open and generative. Our conversations are ongoing and expansive plus we have been travelling to undertake research in a number of cities including Sydney, Adelaide and Alice Springs. Our process involves an ongoing open conversation of ideas, thoughts, ruminations, ramblings and dreamings, even obsessions. Interestingly, the etymology of the word mask derives from the Latin word for image or “imago” which means death mask. Image and mask are inextricably linked.

Q. All three prior Biennials have presented to some degree indigenous artist participation, from the singular Richard Bell in 2006 to Yukultji Napangati, Christian Thompson, Ray James Tjangala and Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula in 2012. Given the dual curatorial vision of Djon and yourself how do you see Whisper in My Mask eventuating in the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous (and here this does not necessarily mean just Anglo-Saxon) presentations; how might this build upon prior exhibitions?

NK: Many of the artists who we have included come from complex and sometimes fraught or contested cultural backgrounds. Polixeni Papapetrou flexes the camera’s hold on her subjects: her children dressed in vintage clown costumes. She grew up in a Greek-speaking household in Melbourne in the 1960s as the child of immigrant parents. She had no English when she started school and felt like an outsider. Her photographs have a haunting, other worldly quality. Nasim Nasr is an emerging artist based in Adelaide of Iranian background. She explores some of the repressive conventions relating to gender especially the chador in a poetic and hypnotic way. Her film Unveiling the veil comprises close-up black and white footage of her rubbing her eyes so they weep as a form of emotional intensity and erasure. Interested in time, space and memory, Daniel Boyd’s paternal grandfather was part of a group taken from Vanuatu to the sugarcane fields in Queensland as a slave in the late 1800s while his mother is Kudjila/Gangalu. For the TarraWarra Biennial, he has sought permission to paint an historical painting in his signature black and white style overlaid with tiny blackened dots, as if the painted surface is obliterated or concealed. He is also responding to the surrounding landscape by allowing small apertures from a window to reveal a galaxy of portals. This is a glimpse of how the artists are responding to situation and place.

Q. One of the interesting aspects of the Adelaide Biennial for Australian Art in recent years has been the relationship between artwork made over the prior couple of years and commissioned works. In this instance, with the Adelaide Biennial’s brief of presenting ‘the latest’ in contemporary Australian visual art, its commissioning of works opens up the problematic outcome of works conceivably illustrating or interpreting the curatorial theme rather than an uninfluenced contemporaneity in national practice, a curatorial two way perhaps. Given the TarraWarra Biennial’s undertaking to identify new currents in contemporary practice what is the relationship between existing and commissioned in Whisper in My Mask?

In the context of this Biennial you have expressed your interested in Jens Hoffmans’ idea of the “para-curatorial”, being the auxiliary activities such as performances, happenings, recitals etc. How might this aspect be invested in Whisper in My Mask?

Grace Jones’ title song rolls off a set of senses; taste, touch, hearing sound, and sight. Historically all Aboriginal art was personal and event and site orientated and worked with all the senses in its expressive form. Visual art was created from the coming together of a number of related people, across age and genders, to collaborate along set lines, with song, dance, what could only be described as performance art or installation. An arrangement of site-constructed presentations appeared along a temporal structure, an evolving centre of, one on one lectures, durational enactments, and focused theatrical showings yet advanced a holistic fashion. In fact something along Jens Hoffman’s revolving peripheral perspective events.

We never wanted to have the advertising agency label; the latest, the newest, the most exciting, the most agile, the most extraordinarily nimble The reality of cultural life is that creativity as often organically appears on the margins, in regional centres and sites of curious, little visited gatherings. In taking this commission we were looking for people of ‘like minds’, empathy, and shared experience; not necessarily the latest super stars, other wise you can end up with cynical parodies and contrivances of the ‘top 40’ art circus. Something ring-mastered by commercial galleries, agents, politicians, and shysters, with a given state apparatus’ and ‘the polis’ background of the ‘smoke and mirrors’ spectacle (bread and circuses).

Nearly all the work are recent work if not commissioned. A significant number of works involve performance (but few of song and sound), a number projection, and a number, painting in a form. We never proscribed art form, age, or ethnicity – we weren’t just ticking bureaucratic boxes. One wonders, in fact, at the purpose of the spectacle – the ego of the artist-curator, a ‘smoke and mirrors political masking’ – a diversion before the budget?

In a 2014 cartoon of Pablo Helguera[1], four talking heads are aligned horizontally, with the captions left to right; Curators are the new artists, Collectors are the new curators, Socialites are the new theorists, and, Artists still think it’s about them!

Is Grace Jones’ song of our title; Art Groupie, in fact a ‘masking’, poking fun at the ‘too cool for school’ art world in-crowd itself? Masks may be intentional or accidental – worn voluntarily or imposed upon us. We have any number of masks forced on us by society – see the mask of make-up in Naomi Wolfe’s, The Beauty Myth, or the timely quip from Gloria Steinem; “We are all trained to be female impersonators.” Or Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, and there are others that sneak up on us, to whisper to us seductively in my mask.

Q. You have announced that you have selected works that “elicit an emotional and sensory response, returning us to human senses and the Aboriginal Djambarrpuyngu people’s palate, experienced on a scale from ‘monuk’ (salt) to rapine (sweet)”. How have you worked with collectives, collaborators and artists in remote communities, as an extension of your curatorial modality (manner of doing things)?

‘Remote’ and ‘Regional’ are such contested terms. Filmmaker John Pilger once described the ‘remote’ Aboriginal communities as ‘Gulags’; places where ‘nonpersons’ are held, ‘masked’ quarantined from contaminating the rest of society. Contaminating Australian society with the truth of the crimes inflicted in the colonizing of Australia perhaps. Of course from an Aboriginal perspective these places are our homes and regarded very highly spiritually, and definitely not thought of as remote. Two of the exhibitions most ambitious conversations are concerned with the visible and the invisible masked presences and memories; firstly through the haptic work of Adelaide based Fiona Hall, collaborating with women of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers collective from the N.Y.P. Lands[2] of central Australia. So far a germ of a synergy in thought and purpose has appeared around animal species threatened with extinction, and the memory of the attempted human extinction that occurred with the atomic bomb tests in this region in the 1950s.  The other is the Telepathy Project (Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples) that attempts to collaboratively join conversation with the spirit of the surrounding Tarrawarra, upper Yarra valley region, in engagement with the local Aboriginal community (Corranderrk).  A third intervention is the result of a NORPA[3] initiated collaborative workshop by artist Karla Dickens with a ‘homeless’ socially challenged ‘outsider’ group in regional Lismore on the north coast of New South Wales utilizing ‘found object’ material from the local ‘recycle centre’. A bitter-sweet portraiture of veiled but optimistic lives.

The work of Daniel Boyd; the 2014 BVLGARI ART AWARD recipient, points to the invisible, the dark matter of the universe, the unseen; the social, intellectual, and spiritual ‘invisible’ landscape and not the obvious visible vista of colonial landscape painting.

One of the most contested debates in Australia over the last twenty years is what has come to be called the ‘culture wars’ or history wars. This concerned the ‘masked’ view of Australian history centred on the dispossession, and mass killings of Aboriginal people from our lands across the Australian continent (including the Wurrundjeri of the Tarrawarra district). To a lesser extent it folded into this discourse the gains under the feminism and multi-culturalism movements. Our paired, gender balanced curatorial team’s conversation, although nuanced through sophisticated art practice reading, is curiously joined through a social history consciousness of holocaust experience (Aboriginal and Jewish).
This is embodied in a catalogue essay by Prof. Diane Bell, on the gender and race history ‘masking’ contested in the 1990s Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal people’s Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy in South Australia. Further, a panel discussion on the masking of Australian history will be held in October at Tarrawarra with myself, artist Fiona Foley, and Prof. Henry Reynolds.
The relationality of curating individual artists, community, society, inside and outside the gallery, and creating a conversation between objects and community, through a number of devices and on a number of levels, is something we unconsciously just thought was our normal practice and what we aimed for from the start. It’s about re-reading the archive but creating new archives and memories of the now.

The Phantom of the Opera – masked individual – a ghost hovering in the background

The Magano Twins – is an identical twin an echo of the other – how do you escape being a mask, merely the echo of the other.

Event Details

  • Location: TarraWarra Museum of Art
  • Starts: 16th August
  • Finishes: 16th november