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April 10, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Dark Objects

Shadows are everywhere in Dark Objects. Curated by Faith Wilson, 2016 Blumhardt/CNZ Curatorial Intern at Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, the show features work by Hana Pera Aoake, Clara Chon, Hye Rim Lee, Huni Mancini, Natasha Matila-Smith, Sorawit Songsataya, and Jade Townsend.

All the artists are people of colour. To be other — to be coloured — is to be watched. The shadows, usually refuge, are put on display. In the shadows the weight of knowledge and suppression and the suppression of knowledge becomes lighter. Shadows take up all the space they please. Here our image becomes more malleable.

The umbra is the shadow’s innermost and darkest section. The source of light is blocked by the shadow’s living self, its three dimensional other being — the occlusion. Stand within the umbra and experience total eclipse: the object’s most opaque reflection.

The “dark object” is what the wall text describes as “artwork and thought that favours difference, texture, synthesis, hybridity, immediacy, agency, dislocation, indigeneity, sovereignty, queerness. It resists outmoded readings, and beckons you to engage with its complexities, to sit with the tension, find new ways of seeing.” The dark object possesses a cosmology. It exists in the past, the present, the future. It cannot be rendered static. It contains many histories within its physical form.

When I think of the dark object I think of the ethnographic museum, which is so adept at muting the ephemeral and animate voices in their collection by privileging connections-in-difference over other forms or vessels of knowledge, never trusting the indescribable and simply known. Shadows can be manipulated. Ethnographic shadows lean toward the penumbra, diffusing otherwise defined lines. There are many ways histories can be mythologised in the harsh light of the vitrine.

Museum and gallery settings pose a challenge: how do we represent the dark object without denying its multiplicity from within institutions that historically do just that? Is addressing this challenge a decolonial aim, a postcolonial aim, or something else entirely?

De: to reverse the action of a verb. To decolonise: revert back to a state of the pre-colonial.

Post: in the time after. The postcolonial: the time after the dispossession of land, culture, and identity.

To decolonise would, then, entail a systematic undoing of the systems of oppression that colonialism represents. The postcolonial seems equally inadequate: this dispossession shows no signs of waning and even if it did, its incisions have left scars. I’m looking for something with less temporal markers, something that exists right now, a structure by which we can unravel the threads that tie us to our colonial history while moving forward, not back. Dark Objects speaks to that undefined moment, the present as more than in-between, which Wilson identifies as a site of “cracks and tensions.”

The exhibition is staged upstairs, in the Blumhardt Gallery: carpeted in dark grey, with cinder block walls, functionality rules. Just before the exhibition’s entrance is Jade Townsend’s Yass Boo Slay. Large polystyrene letters patchworked over with colourful iron sponges spell “SLAE”. They hang from the ceiling by red string. Floating against a white wall, a spotlight beams on them so that their shadow sits just below them, offset to the left. We have two versions of “SLAE”: the artifice and its intangible umbra, a refracted reality.

In a 2014 interview Nicki Minaj spoke of the use of the word “yasss” in her song “Yasss Bish”: “When I watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, I live for the way they speak. Females, we adopted it and it makes us feel like very cocky and very just like sexy and feminine. So saying ‘yasss’ as opposed to ‘yes’ it’s just putting a billion times more attitude on the word ‘yes.’” 50 years earlier, in 1964, Susan Sontag published “Notes on Camp”. She described Camp as being “one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”

Sontag’s “aesthetic phenomenon” is a term first coined by Nietzsche when he wrote, in 1872, that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” It is not only the world, but also the self that must be aestheticised and manipulated: art for more than its own sake; art that doesn’t wait for history to move around us but instead offers the opportunity for new ways of self-definition; a new stylisation of the real. The aesthetic phenomenon derives from reality, reflects reality, but is not reality in and of itself. There is a possibility in the not-quite-real or the not-yet-real, a sense of potential. The aesthetic phenomenon speaks to the site of tension Dark Objects sits within, creating a present that does not conform to expectations of an applied and totalising history.

Moving into the exhibition we encounter Townsend’s second work, Plazzy Gangster, a PVC, spray painted catwalk that extends down the length of the gallery, a promenade on which we can all be put on display. The gallery visitor’s ritual of looking and only looking, the silent circumambulation of the cube, is obstructed. The physical intervention on the space, exposing the once neutral floor plan of the gallery as something more calculated — a catwalk — re-imagines the viewer as subject. Here, visibility is a mode in which absence becomes presence and we, the otherwise invisible observer, are forced to consider the space we occupy.

In Hana Pera Aoake’s The Imposter Sydrome, placed at the back of the gallery, the artist’s absent body is represented by a long-sleeved shirt and tote bag which were worn during a performance on the opening night. The shirt has printed on the front, “my ancestors were guided by the stars and travelled from Taiwan across the Pacific as far as the Americas to Hawai’i then all the way to Aotearoa 800 years ago,” and on the sleeves “my blood is not diluted.” Hanging below it, the tote reads “Robert Leonard’s Tote Bag.” Four narratives converging into one: the arrival of Polynesian people to New Zealand; Aoake’s cultural identity; the performance; the art world — this is Aoake’s inhabited experience.

There is a sense in which the viewer enters a world not yet lived in, a sense of unease. Clothes and jewelry hang unworn. A 3D printed plastic red crown, too large for any human head, looks as though it has come straight out of of a video game. Kim Kardashian greets us on entry, her ever-identifiable likeness hand painted onto a leather jacket by Clara Chon. Black paint on white hide, Kardashian is an unreal reality, the totally unattainable, pop culture’s least favorite and most successful self-made icon. Across the room, Hye Rim Lee’s half human/half bunny cyborg TOKI reigns over Black Rose Queen. Inhabiting a kingdom of shattered glass, TOKI, the image of digital desire, refracts the darkly subjective gaze we place upon her.

Shadows don’t merely reflect the object, they constitute its darkest self. In the shadows exists the dark object. Difficult to decode, its voice rests in a process of identification and de-identification, insisting on the particularity of the viewer’s experience. Dark Objects allows the works on display their autonomy by disrupting the established organising gaze, giving little and taking a lot; by, to borrow from Irit Rogoff, “[pursuing] a mode of participation that [has] not been invented for them through the good intentions of those who determine the means of participation and the modes of representation.


Dark Objects runs at Dowse Art Museum until July 23. Free entry.

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