by Naomi Riddle
‘Time moves in one direction, memory another. We are that strange species that constructs artefacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.’ – William Gibson, Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012)
A shimmering silver blimp hangs from the roof in the Turbine Hall on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. Every so often the light refracts off the silver material, which is as delicate as foil wrapping paper. It is an enormous and oversized balloon. The people hanging around beneath the blimp look tiny and reduced, as large pieces of orange, black and white fabric rest on the floor. Lee Bul’s ‘Willing to be vulnerable’ (2015-16) is both carnivelesque and futuristic, like something out of a failed Kubrick film. But in her allusion to the Hindenburg airship, an image of modernity destroyed in a fiery explosion in 1937, Bul reminds us that our desire to progress towards some ideal utopia is easily punctured.
Lee Bul, Willing To Be Vulnerable, 2015–16, heavy-duty fabric, metalised film, transparent film, polyurethane ink, fog machine, LED lighting, electronic wiring, dimensions variable.
The title of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed’, is taken from a comment by popular science fiction author William Gibson. Gibson, who is best known for his cyberpunk novel The Neuromancer (1984), is well versed in considering the frightening consequences of unchecked technology and cyberspace. Many of his recent books consider a future that is also distinctly present, a kind of parallel universe running alongside our current world. As artistic director Stephanie Rosenthal’s choice of title suggests, the Sydney Biennale points to the connection between science or speculative fiction and the world of contemporary art: both are preoccupied with the now and its overlap with the future; with divisions and injustices and our relationship with technology; both consider alternate ways of being or future dystopian realities, as well as the long reach of the past, history and memory.
From March to June of this year, the Biennale transforms spaces and galleries across Sydney into Embassies of Thought, each with its own grouping of works that respond to a specific theme – there is an Embassy of Spirits, of Translation, of Disappearance. Bul’s site-specific installation exists as part of the Embassy of the Real. These embassies, which range from traditional gallery environments to a mortuary station and an industrial island, are ‘safe spaces for thinking’, markers across the city. And many of the works housed within them are unsettling in the way they rupture any distinction between future, present and past: there is the invisible nuclear threat in an abandoned landscape and the figures in fallout gear in Don’t Follow the Wind’s ‘A Walk in Fukushima’ (2016) or Gerald Machona’s colourful astronaut suit in ‘Uri Afronaut’ (2012), sewn out of decommissioned African currency and standing next to a flag that has been driven into a pile of marble dust.
Gerald Machona, Uri Afronaut, 2012, decommissioned currencies, foam, fabric, wood, perspex, rubber, nylon.
But what the influence of science fiction on the Biennale also suggests, and what I noticed when visiting the embassies, is the particular influence of language, of words and stories. That is, there is a distinct preoccupation by many of the Biennale artists with the materiality of language, the skin of words, the spines of books. As writer Anna Gibbs suggested in a talk that she gave for the Embassy of Non-participation, we all know the power that words have in the material world – words can wound, or in the documentation of history, words can leave out or ignore, erasing a swathe of events and moments that don’t quite fit into an easy narrative. The works that I’ve chosen to discuss below are like artefacts, pieces that play with the distinction between words as objects and words as ideas. They are records that often seek to repurpose language or question the recording of history, in order to reveal its fragmented and elusive nature.
The Embassy of Stanislaw Lem
The Embassy of Stanislaw Lem, named after the Polish science fiction writer, travels around Sydney, moving between the Embassy of Transition and the Embassy of Disappearance. It consists of a mobile bookstall called LEM2, a project created by Malaysian artist Heman Chong, and it is made up of collected second hand copies of Lem’s work. Lem (1921-2006) is thought to be one of the most widely read science fiction writers, even though his work is notoriously difficult to translate. He is best known for Solaris (1961), which was famously made into a feature film by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Chong invites you to peruse through the books laid out on a table, many of which are different versions of Lem’s science fiction, although some are interviews, essays or philosophical pieces. In presenting Lem’s work in this way, Chong draws attention to the multiple translations and misreadings of Lem’s fiction and ideas. Lem was often unhappy with translations, and the English versions of his work are several steps removed, having first been translated from Polish into French. Indeed, this stilted communication of content in some ways mimics Lem’s own preoccupation in his stories with the impossibility of true human connection.
Stanislaw Lem, Mondnacht, from Heman Chong, LEM2, 2016
When I came across LEM2 at the Embassy of Transition, housed beneath the gothic archways of a mortuary station, the only books left were those in the original Polish. I purchased one called Mondnacht (1963), because I was drawn to the deep blue cover with the image of a moon half concealed. The young woman looking after the stall was apologetic that none were in English, but I quite like that the words of my book are, for me, unreadable. It has become more about the object of the book itself, as a token, the connection it has with the artist and author, even if the story remains concealed. Inside the front cover is a stamp that reads: ‘This book was part of a collection of second hand books written by Stanislaw Lem and compiled by Heman Chong…It is now part of a collection of things that belong to you.’
The Embassy of Translation
Like Chong’s LEM2, the Embassy of Translation at the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art is similarly concerned with the gap that opens up in the attempt to translate meaning. And Indian artist Dayanita Singh is also preoccupied with the weight and power of books. Yet Singh’s books in ‘Suitcase Museum’ (2015) are quite different from Lem’s work laid out on a table. Here Singh has constructed a substantial series of books, each contained within a wooden frame, with a black and white photograph on the front. All can be organised and packed neatly away into a series of suitcases, turning it into a roving museum. The suitcases and the many books within them are on display, whilst a series of the book/photograph objects have been arranged on the wall. For Singh, these objects can be edited and rearranged, moved around, so that the photographs – which document the interiors of houses in New Delhi, moments of the everyday, washing, a couple on a bed – shift and change. Singh is offering a quiet contemplation on the fluidity of narratives, of the constant movement of memory, the impossibility of fixed histories. And the book, such a symbol of record and documentation, instead becomes the backdrop for the photograph on top of it, with the viewer unable to see what is hidden in the pages behind.
Dayanita Singh, Suitcase Museum, 2015, mixed media, dimension variable.
The Embassy of Spirits
Whilst Singh brings together the photograph and the book, Johanna Calle turns to the authority of the typewritten word in the Embassy of Spirits at The Art Gallery of NSW. For Calle, language is a marker of knowledge and power, a method for naming and notating, but also a method that is transitory and fleeting. In the work ‘Lluvias (Rain)’ (2012-13), Calle has spelled out the phonetic expressions for rain from over 64 indigenous language groups in Columbia onto sheets of ledger paper. Many of these language groups are now extinct, their dialect lost, and the sheer mass of expressions exposes the variety and instability of language, just as the spliced shapes of the words shift as you move around. Each large letter is made up of tiny typewritten words from other texts that discuss ethno-linguistics, precipitation and Indigenous Colombians. But you don’t immediately see all these individual letters until you look at the ledger paper close up. The paper itself is fragile, and will fade with time. Just as many of the expressions have begun to slip away, the typed words turn spoken language into a haunting material relic.
Johanna Calle, Lluvias, 2011–13, typed text on antique ledger, dimensions variable.
The Embassy of Disappearance
Chen Chieh-jen’s ‘The Bianwen Book 1’ (2002-14) was the first Biennale work that I saw. It forms part of the Embassy of Disappearance at Carriageworks, a cavernous space that was formerly used for building train carriages. Chieh-jen’s work is described as a three dimensional spatial book, using videos, photographs, objects and text which document Chieh-jen’s film works and interventions in Taiwan. And returning to ‘The Bianwen Book 1’ now, it is interesting to think how it brings together many of the ideas that are present in the work of Calle, Singh and Chong. Whilst Calle’s work makes text visible, Chieh-jen instead points to its absence, at documents and records that have been destroyed or removed by corrupt and authoritarian regimes. And similarly to Singh, Chieh-jen uses black and white images, stills from video works that tell the narratives of factory workers, migrant labourers and the unemployed. These images then become entries in the larger three-dimensional ‘book’.
Chen Chieh-jen, The Bianwen Book I, 2002-14, mixed media, dimension variable.
Through looking at these works together, it becomes apparent that all of these artists are preoccupied with the physical presence of books, words and narratives. All of these works expose the impossible belief that language, text and documentation can provide fixed meaning, that something can be written down and held in place. Instead, words and ideas have been turned into artefacts, tokens or relics. These objects perhaps counter what Gibson calls the natural flow of forgetting, but they also expose the slipperiness of language, the uneven distribution of text in the material world.