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Among the many treasures in the new Tate Modern Gallery in London, there are two video works that are totally captivating. The first is by South African artist, William Kentridge. Created during the truth and reconciliation hearings, it recounts, from a hospital bed, the dying days of a fictional South African mining magnate. As a team of doctors try to revive his faltering heart, the man reflects on his life. Violent flashbacks suggest a past tainted by brutal exploitation, and every image is a rough, yet moving pencil drawing, animated to form a sequence. The second video installation, also projected onto a large wall, is by the talented English artist Sam Taylor Wood. lt simply documents a young man dancing naked in his flat. The footage is slowed down, and is accompanied by a soundtrack of noises that do not correspond to the movements.
lt may seem an odd leap to make from Kentridge and Wood to a recent exhibition at Monash University Gallery, titled Another Landscape: history/life/language, but the video works of Judith Wright and Nalini Malani shared a similar physicality and sensitivity. Through their depictions of the human body, and the societal roles individuals must play out, Wright and Malani manage to turn personal observation into something with much broader meaning and significance, and herein lies the connection to artists such as Kentridge and Wood.
Curated by Emiko Namikawa in 1998, Another Landscape involved three women artists, Malani, Wright and Kauro Hirabayashi, exhibiting together in various venues within each of their home countries: India, Australia and Japan. Different works were exhibited in each of the different cities and the Melbourne exhibition, which was shown originally at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane during 2000, represented the final stage in this evolving international project.
The premise of Another Landscape: history/life/language was to bring together artists with a shared interest in 'the fundamentals of human life and the notion of history as seen by the inner self'. Each artist had travelled between Bombay, Brisbane and Tokyo previously, and Namikawa was interested in the shared performative aspects of their work and the delicate use of raw materials, paper and found objects.
On entering the first room of the Monash University Gallery, the viewer faced a series of still images on small screens, inlaid into the wall, just below knee height. Feet, shadows, a sex shop interior and a chilling shot of an eye staring out through a veil of hair were some of the images Wright used for this piece. Each screen was a fragment drawn from the video-walks Wright embarked on during her first trip to Calcutta in 1996, and later on walks through Tokyo and Frankfurt. With a handheld camera fastened at waist height and concealed by a piece of fabric specific to the context (a sari in India, a plastic balloon in Japan) Wright walked through unknown cities, indiscriminately recording what she moved past and processing the result back in the studio. The set of screens functioned as a static entryway into a darkened room containing two large video projections. One of these videos presents a body of water in the distance, across which birds sporadically fly and a figure slowly paddles a longboat. On the adjacent, wall a naked male body floats in water. The interesting thing about this body is how painstakingly slowly the camera moves around it, viewing it from every possible angle, in a way that is not revelatory or sexual. The eye in Wright's work does not question or probe, it soaks up every detail, without giving any information about the subject or the spectator. At first glance, it could be a corpseit floats, unmoving in brown creek water and the only noise that can be heard is an audio of city traffic. Just as Taylor Wood's subject dances as though there is no one watching, completely uninhibited, Wright's body floats in a state of complete oblivion. The irony of course is that these subjects are being recorded at extremely close range, and their oblivion is in itself a performance. The drab, cramped interior of a London flat and the murky waters of a local creek become sites of freedom and self-awareness, characterized by an attitude of 'I know you are there and it makes no difference to me' rather than 'no-one can see me'.
Nalini Malani's work also traces the human body, but offers a direct challenge to the complex role of women in modern India. Her layered drawings build up an uneasy social commentary, and form the basis for her video Record Erase. The video is adapted from a short story by Bertolt Brecht, in which a woman is forced to impersonate her dead husband in order to get a job and money to feed her family. The video has a scratchy earthiness, with the texture of red dirt and blood and barely distinguishable bodies coming in and out of focus. Like Kentridge, Malani animates her drawings beautifully and the people living out this nightmarish scenario are hinted and suggested, emerging as if out of some dark mythological fable, not contemporary Indian society. Malani also exhibited a group of laser prints, stills taken from Record Erase, and a series of delicate watercolours. Her work has been described as a collage language, her subjects the inhabitants of a shadow zone on the margin of being human, and this is particularly fitting for her series Mutants which was included in other venues of Another Landscape. Malani's Mutants are incredible ink paintings of humans mutated by US bomb testing in Micronesia in the 1950s.
Where Wright and Malani use recorded imagery and layered drawings to build up a trace of the human body and its movements, Kauro Hirabayashi is more interested in associations between words and objects. For Another Landscape, Hirabayashi created an installation of salt mounds on the floor, collages and small ledges of objects accompanied by words. For example, an object which looked like a farm tool or a vice was accompanied by the text 'Unseen, unheard but felt'. Perhaps this was a reference to the silent victims of torture or hard labour, or perhaps it was not meant to be taken so literally, inviting a more intuitive connection. Unfortunately, this part of the exhibition did not seem to carry the impact of Malani's and Wright's video works, which related to the subtitle history/life/language directly, and yet encouraged an imaginative, pen-ended dialogue.