Curated by Emily Cormack, the 2018 TarraWarra Biennial positions itself as a paean to the liveliness of artistic gesture. The exhibition’s curatorial frame invokes the notion of ‘will’, derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous notion of the will to power; although less the idea of an ambition to mastery – as troublingly appropriated by German fascism – than the philosopher’s conception of its creative and life-affirming capacities. Cormack predicates Nietzsche’s concept as a starting point for her interest in what she terms the work of art’s ‘willful energy’. ‘I wanted to begin with the object’s will, focusing on its force, and tracking its path to form,’ she writes in the catalogue. ‘In doing so, I realised that this willful energy is in fact a coming together of many forces in the artworks, which swirl like small eddies within a larger, dynamic waterway.’
The exhibition is heavily sculptural, with many of the works forged from dense and tactile materials such as clays, ceramic, wax, bronze, fibreglass, and earth ochres. The emphasis on form in its shaping sense is apparent in several works, such as Starlie Geikie’s Abri (2018), a huge fan-like structure made from hand-dyed cotton calico affixed to strutting designed as a kind of body architecture. This enormous textile form hangs on a wall and is supplemented by two photographs documenting Geikie in an open field, enveloped in the oversized construction, the artist’s pose suggesting the angular and stylised gestures of Kabuki theatre. The double-helix structure of Hiromi Tango’s Healing Chromosomes (2017) reference epigenetics but more conspicuously foregrounds the artist’s elaborate and painstaking processes of weaving – if not taming – masses of wire, wool, and acrylic into the schematic form.
Belle Bassin’s excision of a section of earth from the adjacent landscape in the shape of a figure eight, relocated to the gallery’s interior, elegantly activates a contrast between the unruliness of plant life and the cool rationality of contemporary museum architecture. Titled In Your Place, An Empty Space (2017–18), the work embodies a more succinct gesture of forming. Bridie Lunney’s All for Nothing (2018) is a composite work of a wedge of brass sheeting nestled in a wall corner, alongside distantly placed tiny wall perforations – both designed as surfaces to be sung into as a sonic activation of the museum architecture. More patently fabricated is John Meade’s array of cast aluminum and plastic objects. Enamel-coated in astringent colours like lime and lemon yellow and draped with strings of acrylic beads, these small-scale jaunty sculptures connote retro décor or the kitsch styling of 1960s sci-fi films like Barbarella (1968).
Although the curatorial rationale is premised on the will to form, many of the work of arts are just as oriented towards matter’s dispersion as its deliberate shaping and composition. These works exist in a more enigmatic space between artistic fashioning and the tendency of discrete materials towards volatility and entropy.
Isadora Vaughan’s Canker Sore (2018) embodies contrasting forces of liquid flows and subsequent processes of ossification. This work is an assemblage of pieces of ceramic alloyed with dyes and crushed rock set into a metal armature, which reveals their prior subjection to molten temperatures. The mixed particles and debris swirling in whorls of motion are still visible in the hardened forms, and appear like geological strata, suggesting a materialisation of the imperceptible movements of tectonic plates. Rob McLeish’s Xenograft Couture (Rigged Composition in Black, 001) (2018), is a hulking anthropomorphic form in black epoxy resin, swiftly fabricated into baroque folds while the epoxy is molten; its ossified forms also holding the residue of its former liquefied state.
More captivating in its dialectic of form and formlessness is Lindy Lee’s Being Swallowed by the Milkway (2018), made through the artist’s gestures of flinging bronze; the subsequent hardened glossy forms arranged in an expansive constellation on the gallery walls. The work refers to a practice of ancient Zen Buddhist calligraphy: ink is flung onto paper surfaces only after a calligrapher has practised sufficient meditation to clear the mind from egotism, allowing the life force of the world to flow through the liberated gesture. Lee’s work invariably suggests the antecedent gesture of flung liquid metal inaugurated by the conceptual artist Richard Serra in his work Splashing (1968), where molten lead thrown against the edge of a floor enacted a valorisation of process above perfected, crafted form, allowing the material its own messy, splattery extension.
Similarly emphaising a raw materiality is Dale Harding’s Wall Compositions from Memory (2018); a thirty-six-metre wall drawing, made with his cousin Jordan Upkett, fashioned from red ochre sourced from his grandmother’s Garingbal country in the Carnarvon Gorge in central Queensland, mixed with the artist’s own saliva. The amplitude and translucence of the ochre stains gliding across the wall make them appear like vast tracts of land transformed into floating veils, redolent both of earthly matter and the artist’s sweeping physical gestures.
One of the most compelling objects in the Biennial, however, bears no modification by the artist at all, except for their observant discovery of it. The centrepiece of Julie Gough’s Ode (2014) is simply the weathered remains of an old shoe dating from the nineteenth century, found in 2013 by the artist in the remote region of Skullbone Plains during a residency hosted by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy. The land was formerly an Aboriginal hunting ground, and the crumpled, deteriorating leather object attests to the unexpected ways in which antiquated remains can rupture the present, suggesting the partial tactility yet greater unknowability of past worlds and lives, time, and history.
In spite of its declared emphasis on the will to form, the Biennial is in many ways located in the wake of New Materialism; a school of philosophical thought premised on restoring the primacy of matter, shifting its subaltern status as subordinate to a shaping hand or consciousness, and its legacy of the supremacy of mind over matter in Western metaphysics. With their flows and accretions, eddying motions, and entropic materialities, the works in the Biennial ultimately insist on the agency of matter, as much as any affective forces summoned by artistic will.
The TarraWarra Biennial 2018: From Will to Form is on display at the TarraWarra Museum of Art from 3 August to 6 November 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.