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From Oyster Shells to Cardboard Bales, the Politics of Everyday Materials

Material Politics, installation view (all images courtesy of Institute of Modern Art)

BRISBANE, Australia — When co-curators Johan Lundt and Aileen Burns mined the Institute of Modern Art’s archives, they found an access point to a pivotal time in Brisbane’s material and political history in the 1986 exhibit Recession Art and Other Strategies. That show was created at time when there was very little market for Australian art, and the artists featured all made works within an economy of means: from basic materials and in a modular way. That way, if they sold their work in Australia or abroad, it could be packed down and shipped off easily. The exhibition centered around economic questions raised during a turbulent time in Brisbane’s history: the conservative regime of Queensland’s longest-serving premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. During his reign, Brisbane earned the nickname Pig City, a reference to the corrupt and oppressive police force and generally inhospitable climate for artists who operated with scant — if any — resources. This was also a time when Brisbane’s already politicized punk scene struck back at Bjelke-Petersen’s heavy-handed attempts to squelch it.

IMA’s current show, Material Politics, takes its inspiration from Recession Art to explore how the last three decades of socioeconomic growth, rapid gentrification, increased mobility, the rise of digital technology, and lasting colonial legacies have continued to impact the materials used in Australian art. This collection of new and commissioned works emphasize the way artists use everyday materials to articulate their inherent politics.

In “Foundations II” (2017) by Quandamooka artist Megan Cope from North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah), oyster shells are mounted on cast concrete and arranged in a 10×10 grid on the gallery floor. Traditionally, oyster shells are used to make middens — mounds of discarded refuse that mark human settlements for many First Nation groups. The concrete references the drudging and sand mining on Stradbroke Island that has led to the removal of many of these middens, but here, each shell stands upright on its cement block as if in defiance. These materials represent the destruction of significant heritage site and express the politics of extraction and displacement. Cope subverts this common modernist aesthetic (the grid) by using it to project colonial violence on the landscape.

Megan Cope, “Foundations II” (2016), oyster shells and cast concrete, dimensions variable
Keg de Souza, “the earth affords them no food at all” (2017), vacuum-sealed food storage bags, food, 5.2 x 2.7m

Keg de Souza’s “the earth afford them no food at all” (2017) is one of the larger pieces in the show. It consists of 12 vacuum-packed plastic bags hanging in vertical rows across the gallery wall, each filled with different native spices and other processed food popular in Australia — 55 foods in total. These simple, quotidian materials reflect how national identity is formed through food culture, and the hermetically sealed bags reference Australia’s strict food biosecurity laws.

Tintin Wulia’s “172 Kilograms of Homes for Ate Manang” (2017) hangs from the wall off to the side, between Cope’s bags and de Souza’s grids. Her bale of cardboard is wrapped so tightly with wire that it seems to pull in the space around it. Some simple drawings in red appear on the side of the bale, which Wulia purchased from an informal network of recyclers who collect cardboard refuse from the streets of Hong Kong, consolidate it, and then sell it off to be recycled in China. The project took an unexpected turn when she traced the cardboard’s movement and discovered a micro economy: The collectors often lease the discarded cardboard to Filipino domestic workers to be used to make temporary shelters. This large population of workers generally has no space of their own, so they construct living rooms in public spaces during their days off. For Wulia, these makeshift rooms became sites in which to record stories and build relationships. During her time with the domestic workers, they made drawings on the cardboard, which helped her locate the pieces once they started to circulate again, and she used these to construct the bale hanging in the gallery.

Tintin Wulia, “172 Kilograms of Homes for Ate Manang” (2017), cardboard, 60 x 80 x 75 cm

There’s an interesting formal composition in this gallery as a whole, with Cope’s oyster grid flowing into de Souza’s vertical array of spices, and Wulia’s cardboard bale balancing the scene. Whether or not this was done intentionally by the curators, seen together, these three pieces use materials — all made within an economy of means — that speak to land rights, ecological vulnerability, and the precarity of domestic workers. Each manages to bind the complexity of these issues into rigorous formal structures.

Elsewhere in the show, Archie Moore’s “Bogeyman” (2017) stands as an ominous presence. The “paint skin” (a build-up of acrylic paint) resembles a white sheet draped over a simple wooden structure, evoking the specter of first contact and racial stereotypes, speaking directly to racially motivated hate such as is found in Abu Ghraib and within the KKK. Behind Moore’s piece is “39 Steps” (2017), a single-channel video of women dancing to choreographed moves, taken at the Women’s March in Melbourne earlier this year. Artists Gabriella and Silvana Mangano project the video onto differently sized and shaped mirrors in order to emphasize how the body carries messages in public space. The women’s gestures explore the kinds of authority or inspiration that can happen when a march gets translated into a dance.

Archie Moore, “Bogeyman” (2017), paint and wood, 316 x 187 x 46.5 cm
Gabriella and Silvana Mangano, “39 Steps” (2017), single-channel video installation, Dimensions variable

Raquel Ormell’s “I’m worried this will become a slogan” (1999–2009) is a collection of double-sided banners made of wool and felt with inscriptions such as “I’m worried I’m not political enough” on one side and a related news headline on the other. The slogans reveal the artist’s anxiety and perceived lack of agency when it comes to conveying political messages through her art. Her work remains prescient, considering the angst-ridden political landscape we all must traverse these days. Jemima Wyman and Zach Blas’s four-channel video installation “I’m here to learn so :))))))” (2017) features Tay, Microsoft’s AI chatbot that existed for only one day. The artists bring Tay back to life in Google DeepDream–scape and then take viewers on a deeply disturbing journey through the politics of pattern misrecognition, dangerous algorithms, and biometrics.

Raquel Ormella, “I’m worried this will become a slogan” (1999–2009), double-sided banners, sewn wool, and felt, 186 x 128 cm

The curators of Material Politics didn’t need to look back, although I understand the impulse to excavate the past to feed the present. This exhibit became refracted through the access point of 1986: Timely political issues placed in a contemporary context take on different resonances today, and artists’ materials aren’t driven by economic constraints as much as they bring to life the politics they assert.

Material Politics continues at Institute of Modern Art (Judith Wright Centre, 420 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane) through July 15.


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