Lucy Jackson – 21 May, 2020
'Personal Space' does what I think an online exhibition should. Its crux is crucial to the environment in which we are experiencing the exhibition—most likely at home ourselves. And we do experience it, on our own terms and in our own way—whether that is the videos linked in quick succession or one at a time, with the text or without. Part of its success surely comes from the timing—it comes when we might be hungry for art, and reflective about our own situations.
Atong Atem, Tanu Gago, Janet Lilo, Natasha Matila-Smith, and Campbell Patterson
An online project, curated by Serena Bentley.
Commissioned by CIRCUIT
30 April - 30 May 2020
“What do we call Home?” is the first question presented to visitors of Personal Space, curated by Serena Bentley. Has that question ever had as much weight as it does in this contemporary moment? Perhaps not deliberately, Personal Space is being exhibited at a time like no other, when home can be out of reach, physical or online, a safe haven or somewhere to escape from—or unavailable, with families split across land and ocean. For others, there is no escaping home.
From the outset of Personal Space, the curator dives into the autobiographical. Explaining her situation as a New Zealander who has been living in Melbourne for 12 years, Bentley explains her “unrelenting longing for family and land”, but also admits that distance can romanticise our ideas of place. Bentley’s self-reflection encourages our own. I think autobiographically when I watch the five videos, and how my parents moved out of the family home I grew up in just 48 hours before lockdown began. Is that selfish? Should I instead be thinking and writing about others? But with Bentley’s encouragement to think about home as a place where one is able to function as stationary, transformative, or aspirational, it is natural to begin thinking about our own stories of space and belonging. I love clichés, and believe home is where the heart is (or is not).
Commissioned by CIRCUIT, Personal Space comprises of a set of videos made in 2019 by Atong Atem, Tanu Gago, Janet Lilo, Natasha Matila-Smith, and Campbell Patterson. Originally shown as part of the AURA Festival of Artist Moving Images at Newtown Community Centre (Wellington) in 2019, each artist was asked to make a new video responding to Bentley’s questions about home. The result is five very different works, exploring the different status of home, its connection to family, culture, community, history, rhythms and choice. My viewing of this exhibition is from its iteration on RAMP Gallery’s website. Luckily for my Wellington-based self, the exhibition is all online—it is COVID-19 precaution friendly. All five works are available to watch, and there is an online catalogue essay written by Bentley.
It feels fitting to start with Natasha Matila-Smith‘s work, If I die, please delete my Soundcloud. The work features the artist lying in her bed watching her laptop. When I watch the works selected for Personal Space I am doing the same. As Matila-Smith lies in her bed, face obscured by duvet, her laptop screen illuminates her silhouette in a pinky glow. Text appears on the screen, in and out, of vulnerable, clichéd and perhaps millennial thoughts. “Miss being a child and thinking things were real lol“, “My loneliness is manageable but I think I’m just a bit tired of doing things on my own“, and “I’m ready to have my heart broken again“.
These phrases sit on the edge of deeply funny and deeply exposed, online confessions that speak a truth of what is not said, while also creating an identity and persona. Matila-Smith’s practice is art, writing, and the online. I follow her on Instagram—she shares text, memes, clips from television shows and more. She is subtly melodramatic and obviously romantic. But is this romance an act, a performance of how you feel, with or without love in your life? Matila-Smith’s performance and self is hard to decipher—who is she, and what is her online persona? In Personal Space, the artist explores home as the intimate: Her, her bed, her laptop, her phone and her thoughts. The person is alone, but not without their feelings and their online presence. But when does this persona get to rest?
Campbell Patterson presents us with Untitled, a work that is ritualistic and rhythmic, absurd and uncomfortable. The work starts with the warning bells of a train track and road intersection, red and flashing in the night, the rumble gets louder and overshadows the bells as the train rushes past. The video cuts to a mute scene, with Patterson standing in a house taking off his jeans and white underpants. Walking over to a bottle of orange juice (Simply Squeezed), he proceeds to stuff the undies into the bottle of juice. It is a tight fit and juice squirts out before he is successful. Taking the underpants out, he returns to his jeans, and puts both items of clothing back on. He begins to stomp until orange juice runs down his leg onto his foot and into a sponge his pumping foot is resting on.
There is a rhythmic quality to the stomp, stomp, stomp we see without sound. But perhaps, in the place of muteness, instead sits references to lyrics such as Robert Johnson’s Riverside Traveling Blues (1937) with the lyric “Now you can squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice run down my, ‘til the juice runs down my leg—baby, you know what I’m talkin’ about“, or The Lemon Song (1969) by Led Zeppelin where Robert Plant sings “Squeeze me baby, ‘till the juice runs down my leg, The way you squeeze my lemon, I, I’m gonna fall right out of bed“. There is clearly a hetero masculine sexuality running through such songs, and so I wonder if Patterson is acting out these lyrics as a way of mocking this overtly sexual masculinity. Just as I begin to relax into the rhythm of this strange dance, the video cuts back to the loud rumble of the train and alarm bells—and I am caught unawares, jumping in my bed.
Bentley’s text explains a concern Patterson has with New Zealand housing costs and the sense of hopelessness that results from not being able to afford what you want. He is from Auckland but is currently based outside of Dunedin. In order to return home he must pay the cost. The blinking train lights seem to allude to the uncontrollable, being at the whim of another controller—an owner or perhaps a landlord.
Atong Atem‘s Zero maps a migration over land and sea, while also exploring cartography, sci-fi and belonging. Of course, home can be taken away or be somewhere necessary for you to leave behind. In Atem’s case this was due to political unrest in Ethiopia and South Sudan. Consequently she spent some of her childhood in Kakuma Refugee Camp in North-West Kenya. Zero explores her journey using Google Maps from here to Australia, her current place of residence. Switching from satellite to street view, the video explores different places the artist has inhabited. This cartographic angle is accompanied by footage of Atem in two overlapping screens-one made up (almost sci-fi-like with blue lips and eyes and bejeweled cheeks), the other from the nose to neck (with only a septum piercing present), and with accompanying texts.
Bentley writes that Atem’s practice often explores blackness with portraiture and identity. While tracking Atem’s journey we also get glimpses into her private and public personas, intimate spaces of performance (a theme also seen in Matila-Smith’s work) and public spaces in suburbia. At one point, while zooming in and out over Ethiopia the text appears “you lay here once”, then later “You walked here once, dragged a broken shoe along a pebbled path and thought about a home with big windows.” Atem gives us memory, longing, and precious insights into reality and fantasy and their place in the construction of home.
Tanu Gago‘s Savage in the Garden, explores home as people. The co-founder of FAFSWAG, Gago destabilises the conventions of gender and sexuality, especially for Polynesian men. Wanting to alter the commonly misrepresented tropes of what a man is, and the effect of colonialism on Pacific people, Gago looks at what happens when the home you inhabit does not reflect the home in your head. Savage in the Garden depicts the poem “Let me know e tama“, written by Hohua Ropate Jurene and recited by the artist. Speaking of postcolonial fatigue, it reads “Come here. Deliver your tired body, from the west to the shore, And take up rest in the deep.” The men in Gago’s video are homogenous, anonymous, and highly stylised, wearing lavalava, Pe’a, and masks. To quote Gago, they are “so fucking ‘native’.” (1) He presents Savage in the Garden to intentionally recentre his personal realities of home. (2)
Over the last seven years, Janet Lilo has been interested in the world of social media and in particular, Instagram. Over this time, Lilo has posted photographs of one specific tree she could see from the window of her family home. That tree is central to Untitled, Lilo’s contribution to Personal Space. The video starts with a popular tune and an ornate gold frame getting bigger and bigger. The frame is much like one we have seen many times, with an oil landscape inside, and usually over a mantelpiece. Inside it is positioned the tree, until this changes to a pile of wood and a fire starting. The crackling of the fire is interrupted by the gravel of cement being poured into a bucket—as if on a construction site. Then the tree reappears—shifting through seasons and weather patterns. A tika tonu haka starts while the tree continues to change, only to end, followed by cheering and the residual noise of people. As the popular tune resumes, the tree starts to burn, smoke engulfing the leaves. This shift from tree to fire, crackling to haka symbolises a change in a relationship to home. One home is dismantled, while another points the way forward.
I admit I am usually a bit skeptical of online gallery offerings. However, Personal Space does what I think an online exhibition should. Its crux is crucial to the environment in which we are experiencing the exhibition—most likely at home ourselves. And we do experience it, on our own terms and in our own way—whether that is the videos linked in quick succession or one at a time, with the text or without. Part of its success surely comes from the timing—globally, nationally and personally, it comes at a time when we might be hungry for art, and reflective about our own situations.
Personal Space is wide-ranging and flexible, able to be adapted for each artist and situation. Atem, Gago, Lilo, Matila-Smith and Patterson touch on different spaces within the theme of home, while also revealing personal and political nuances.
In the point of being autobiographical, I reflect on my own relationship to home. It could be many spaces, or one, or simply the people who I choose to occupy my space with. Now that my family home is not technically ours, I feel a nostalgia for it that I never did before. It was home, but was it really? Was it just a place memories are created in and fade away from? It is about to be demolished, so what title will it have then? Is it still ‘home’?
(1) From the exhibition catalogue for Personal Space, quoting the artist. Catalogue written by Serena Bentley.