This is not a survey

Tarrawarra Biennial 2014: Whisper in my mask
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville
16 August – 16 November 2014

Where the wine and art meet on a grand scale, so too do secrets, echoes and polystyrene balls. ‘Whisper in My Mask’, at the idyllic grounds of the TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA), attempts to investigate the figurative and literal masking interwoven in the fabric of Australian artistic practice. Not created as a survey, the exhibition aims to be a re-reading or examination of Australian contemporary practice. A joint effort between curators Natalie King and Djon Mundine, ‘Whisper in My Mask’ does not want to reflect the commercialised and global art world; rather, through the small selection of artists, the exhibition is positioned as the central catalyst for a series of interventions and events throughout the local area. With seventeen artists and collectives participating, the exhibition delves into institutional racism, and hierarchies, it challenges history and proposes alternative stories. 

Taken from the Grace Jones song ‘Art Groupie’ (1981), the title ‘Whisper in My Mask’ suggests an experience of subterfuge and secrets, power and play. The curatorial rationale finds its strength in the work of artists such as Fiona Foley, Tony Garifalakis, Daniel Boyd and collaborators Gabriella and Silvana Mangano. The exhibition does expose the strong undercurrent of racism, gender inequality and power plays dominating land issues within Australian culture, however as a whole it sits disjointedly.

Masking — whether literal or figurative — is a well of plenty when dissecting identity, race, politics and gender in Australia. It is no surprise that these issues ring very loudly within the echoing halls of the museum. 

Except for that pesky fan. Elizabeth Pedler’s Smokescreen, an immersive and environmentally unfriendly work consisting of a room of polystyrene balls, not unlike the ones you find in bean bags, flying in the air with the assistance of a fan. This, the first work one sees upon entering the exhibition, perhaps aims to remove preconceived notions of what a biennial is meant to be, or notions of Australian art, or something. What it is most successful in is becoming embedded in clothing, wafting through the exhibition space, unwelcome and persistent.

Reflecting the everyday, racism bubbles away under the surface of the exhibition, rupturing in works by Boat-People (Safdar Ahmed, Zehra Ahmed, Stephanie Carrick, Dave Gravina, Katie Hepworth, Jiann Hughes, Deborah Kelly, Enda Murray, Pip Shea, Sumugan Sivanesan, Jamil Yamani), Fiona Foley and Sandra Hill, among others. Considering the curatorial rationale, it is poignant to note the equality between Indigenous and non-indigenous artists in the exhibition. Within a curatorial and museum framework, Australian contemporary practice still lacks significantly in breaking away from modernist systems of display, continuing institutional racism through the privileging of the white male artist. 

With racism comes voicelessness and ignorance. Fiona Foley’s Vexed (2013) examines the effect of colonisation on traditional Aboriginal courting and marriage, highlighting the shifting role of Aboriginal women on this colonial frontier, and its residual impact. Fragmented and episodic, Vexed is one of many works giving a voice to Indigenous, especially female, artists. This continues in the collaborative work between Fiona Hall and the Tjanpi Desert Weavers Collective. With no literal translation of masking and camouflage in Pitjantjatjara or Ngaanyatjarra language, their sculptural installation evolved out of the notion of hiding, deceiving or disguise.

Conflation of the Australian flag with racism is central to Boat-People’s video work documenting Muffled Protest. There are multiple layers of concealment and revealment brought into play, as participants, standing in Melbourne’s Federation Square, cover their faces with the Australian flag. Federation Square, the cultural centre of the Victorian capital, is a celebration of Australian history and innovation. This celebrated icon simultaneously echoes the racism of those promoting xenophobia, who often also sport Southern Cross tattoos. This conflation of aspects of nationalism reflects the structure of Australian culture, where it functions on inequality.

Masking as camouflage takes another form in Tony Garifalakis’s The Hills Have Eyes and Untitled — from the ‘Bloodline’ series. The interdisciplinary artist imbues his portraits of those in positions of power with bitterness and humour. Comical and ridiculous, these images, with their glossy and opaque black enamel paint evoke the mechanisms of surveillance, uncovering the disguised and almost invisible systems of control and power that exist across the domestic and international landscape.

Daniel Boyd, Untitled, 2014. Oil, charcoal and archival glue on canvas, 81.5 x 71cm. Courtesy of STATION, Melbourne. 

Tony Garifalakis, Untitled, 2014. Enamel on C type print, 60 x 40cm. Courtesy of the artist. 

Fiona Foley, Vexed, 2013. Still. DVD, sound, 12:32min. Courtesy of the artist, Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne. 

Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano, Lux, 2014. Still. 2-channel HD digital video, 16:9. Colour and black & white, sound, time variable. Courtesy of the artists and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney and Melbourne.