A work from RAQUEL ORMELLA’s series “I’m Worried This Will Become a Slogan (1999–2009), double-sided banners, sewn wool and felt, 186 × 128 cm. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Material Politics

Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane

TINTIN WULIA172 Kilograms of Homes for Ate Manang, 2017, cardboard, 60 × 80 × 75 cm. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

At the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Brisbane, “Material Politics” exhibited artists who investigate issues of ecology, inequality, surveillance and sovereignty. Taking its lead from a 1986 IMA exhibition, “Recession Art and Other Strategies,” which spawned an Australian art movement born from “the pressure of little money and a small art market,” some of the works in “Material Politics” utilize everyday, found objects, including cardboard, food in plastic bags and oyster shells. But it is in their display—suspended, hung, set in concrete, partially concealed or in repetition—that political meaning is imbued.

Two of Raquel Ormella’s textile works from the series “I’m Worried This Will Become a Slogan”(1999–2009) were exhibited. The first, a banner of black, sewn wool and felt raised on long, wooden sticks, declares in bold, green text: “I’M WORRIED I’M NOT POLITICAL ENOUGH.” Inverted text on the other side is only faintly visible, and reads: “XANANA GUSMAO’S SON HAS A TATOO OF HIS FATHER’S FACE ON HIS CHEST.” Before his rise to become the first president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmão was a militant who took up arms against Indonesian occupation and was imprisoned from 1993 to 1999. In questioning her own ability to affect social change, Ormella encourages reflection on the willingness, or lack thereof, to engage with our own politics. 

Tintin Wulia’s 172 Kilograms of Homes for Ate Manang (2017), a suspended bale of flattened cardboard partially covered with figurative drawings, was born from her discovery that cardboard boxes that are not shipped from Hong Kong to China for profit often end up being sold to domestic “helpers”—usually women from the Philippines or Indonesia—who construct temporary spaces in the city where they spend a few hours with friends each weekend. Another suspended work by Keg de Souza measuring over five meters in length resembles a flat tarpaulin, carrying forward notions of shelter and displacement; The Earth Affords Them No Food at All (2017) also touches on world hunger, featuring joined strips of vacuum-sealed bags containing various foods abundant in Australia, including macadamia nuts, finger limes, brand name potato chips and more.

KEG DE SOUZA, The Earth Affords Them No Food at All, 2017, vacuum-sealed food storage bags, food, 270 × 520 cm. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

MEGAN COPE, Foundations II, 2016, oyster shells and cast concrete, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

At the centre of the room, 130 oyster shells sat upright in small, concrete rectangles, each around half the size of a brick and spaced roughly an inch apart from each other. Foundations II (2016) by Megan Cope creates a clear disconnect, taking the traditional Aboriginal midden—a pile of remains of consumed seafood that grows over generations—and cementing it in manmade forms. Foundations II speaks to Cope’s own Quandamooka people, whose country of Stradbroke Island has lost many historic middens, which hold key significance among the indigenous people of Australia, during destructive sandmining over the years.

Jemima Wyman and Zach Blas’s im here to learn so :)))))) (2017), a four-channel video with sound, featured on three screens a distorted replica of the avatar of Microsoft’s artificial intelligence chatbot Tay, who was designed to be a 19-year-old female millennial with a Twitter account, set against a projection from Google’s DeepDream neural network image processor. Although thought-provoking and even forward-thinking, the artists’ resurrection of Tay sat at ill ease in the exhibition. It was difficult to sympathize with discussions of the online abuse it—or “she”—experienced, considering the severe inequality among the living highlighted by the other artists.

In the second room, Archie Moore’s Bogeyman (2017) is a new example of his “paint skins” made from dried, white acrylic paint. Hanging on a wooden frame like a ghostly figure with arms outstretched, Moore references both the misconception that indigenous Australians mistook white colonizers for ghosts, as well as the notion that the annals of art history “haunt” contemporary indigenous art, often segregating it from other forms of contemporary art in Australia by tacking on an “indigenous” label.

Detail installation view of JEMIMA WYMAN and ZACH BLAS’s im here to learn so :)))))), four-channel video, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

ARCHIE MOORE, Bogeyman, 2017, paint and wood, 316 × 187 × 46.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

“Material Politics” reflected upon wide-reaching inequalities of world hunger, lack of shelter, colonization, military-led occupation and more. Each artist utilizes materials, movement and modes of display, encouraging the viewer to consider materiality and meaning beyond the art before them. This in turn elicits ruminations on injustice, but just as Ormella points out in her work, the reaction’s radicality is always open to interpretation.

Material Politics” is on view at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, until July 15 2017. 

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