Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
All That was Solid Melts.
Auckland Art Gallery
Until October 10
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
The latest exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery “All That was Solid Melts” is one of the most challenging and stimulating shows the gallery has mounted for some time.
Curator of the show, Juliana Engberg, has created an exhibition which takes the current Covid climate as a starting point looking at the way that so much of what we regarded as normal about our day to day lives was disrupted, put on hold and questioned. We have seen that our lives and the lives of others can be completely altered not just by the Covid pandemic but also by events such as the Christchurch earthquakes, the White Island eruption and even the recent floods. These catastrophic physical changes mirror the local and international geopolitical changes and adaptations which are taking place.
The show examines how artists have responded to various crises in the past and how individuals and society deal with destruction, grief and the unknown. There is no obvious narrative through the show though the viewer goes on something of a picaresque journey, encountering individuals, events, and myths. The viewer will establish their own connections – personal, historical, political, spiritual and philosophical, mapping their way through the exhibition.
There are over hundred works in the show mainly sourced from the Auckland Art Gallery’s collections but there are a number of more recent works by both New Zealand and overseas artists including major video works by Pipilotti Rist and Pierre Huyghe.
A number of works from the collection have probably not been seen for many years but are now on show as they expand on the concepts of the show. One such work is by the French-born British artist Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s “After the Earthquake” in which she depicts the aftermath of the earthquake which struck the island of Ischia in 1883 with a female figure slumped over a demolished dwelling.
Providing a New Zealand link to seismic activity is a set of minimalist works by Julia Morison which combine the grey sandy silt of liquification which invaded her studio and a variety of liqueurs which were also destroyed. “Liquerfaction I – IX” are like nine concrete building slabs, the results of the catastrophe repurposed, the artist bringing order to the chaos of the event.
The title of the show is a misquote from Marx’s Communist Manifesto where he notes that “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
With that misquote Engberg says she wanted to “create a fragment as though it had fallen of the bigger edifice and now I have stuck it back together but didn’t get it quite right and I made it new with a different inflexion so it refers to now. We find ourselves in a time when we do think the ground has shifted and we do think things have changed and we are concerned about what will be happening in the future.”
“So, this show is about encountering those things especially through the metaphors that are rallied by artists to help us negotiate and navigate some of those ideas so we can learn from some of these errors and make it better. We sometimes think we have learned the lessons, we congratulate ourselves and then we return to the same dilemmas. So we see the repetition of war ecological damage, cataclysms returning time and again.”
In many wasy the show is remarkably dense and multi layered, filled with ideas and concepts Engberg has endeavoured to provide a number of ways of encountering the show. “I’ve worked hard on the aesthetic journey, thematic journeys as well as sub themes such as materiality. It’s quite episodic and odyssey-like as well. I would like people to travel through time and accumulate memories.”
There are also themes which people will pick up on. “Solitude, anxiety, grief, ruin, ecological, and geographical disaster. There is also regeneration, fragility, political unrest, new nature and self-healing” If I was a conventional curator, I would have put words like that up on the gallery walls but that reduces the looking which I would like to encourage. I want people to really look and be tantalised by the images. I want them to feel they are on a visual journey and they are compelled to look at things and take the time .” She also notes that the show “travels along an emotional trajectory, resting on moments of metaphor and symbols of regrowth and release.”
She gives as an example the works of artist and theorist Piranesi who was fascinated by the ancient architecture of Rome, imbuing the crumbling structures with vitality and romance, referencing the collapse of the ancient Roman civilization.
This reference to Ancient Rome is also seen in the photographs of Helene Binet documenting Hadrian’s Villa where the crumbling structures are like the bleached bones of an animal.
New Zealand content and New Zealand imagery is threaded through the show, something that Engberg made a conscious decision about “ “This has been made for a New Zealand audience, it is not going anywhere else. It’s important that people see their own things and to see the works which have been responding to events for a long time. I went down to Christchurch to talk to artists who had been through the experience of the earthquake.”
An underlying theme in many of the works is religion and the way it has been used as a form of comfort or relief to understand or cope with disasters. Engberg says “There are aspects of this in the earlier part of the show but not the latter part. Within the whole show I wanted there to be journey from darkness to lightness., from the faith-based understanding of the work to a more empirical and scientific understanding.” She sees “a spiritualism in the Bill Viola work “Observance” and there is a certain religiosity in Franz Sturtzkopf’s “The Hermit”.
The inclusion of Juan de Juanes’s “St Sebastian” is a reference to the Black Beath of the fourteenth century when he was seen as the patron saint of plague survival with his body pierced by many arrows. This reliance on the spiritual as a means of denying or coping with disater is also seen in Douglas Gordon’s “Private Passion” where a devotional candle provides both pain and relief to the supplicant hand.
There are several interesting works such as Gustav Dore’s “The New Zealander” an imagining by the artist of London based on the text by Thomas Macaulay, who wrote prophesying a time in which a lone wanderer – a New Zealander – might sit on the broken arch of London Bridge and sketch the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Then there is Katie Paterson’s “Fossil Necklace” consisting of 170 beads from various geological eras spanning 3.2 billion years providing a necklace which tells the history of the world
For Engberg there are a few seminal pieces including works by Bill Viola, Douglas Gordon Pierre Huyghe, Tacita Dean and Pipilotti Rist with the gallery’s collection provided a depth of both contemporary and historical works which allows for insightful intermixing and cross pollinating.
Accompanying the exhibition is a newspaper style catalogue with information about the artworks. Each of the galleries has a set of QR codes to access information on individual works as well.