Unexpectedly, my first experience of Concrete is to walk in on a public discussion in progress between writer Andrea Goldsmith and installation artist Kathy Temin, each positioning their own practice in the context of the exhibition. I was all set for a quiet space of contemplation, and am greeted instead by an active space of artistic framing, articulated histories and personal reflections. As questions start to give the discussion a new intimacy, we are each imagining those misleadingly trivial items that can evoke the most powerful memories. A threaded needle on an armchair at a deceased estate inspection. The shoes of holocaust victims. The acrid smell at the site of New York’s towers within a month of their destruction. The intangibles that grab us by the arteries.

What memorialises a society’s wounds? By what political right is the place and the form of a monument chosen for its people? And how does this itself change over time?

Concrete is about time and place, permanence and decay, materiality and memory. A series of works from across media and across the world transform MUMA into a testing ground for public memorialisation, inviting responses that are deliberative and intelligent. This is the most important artistic contribution I have experienced to date that orients itself to the WWI centenary, whose global commemorations are about to expand significantly in scale.

The first work to draw me in is Igor Grubić Monument (work in progress) (2014). The 53min video takes a tour of monuments of the former Yugoslavia, shot sensitively in mist and rain, setting these weighty forms naturalistically against a forested landscape. They are the quiet markers of another era, of a distant politics that once held the right to mark that landscape with the forms that would render their values immemorial.

Justin Trendall’s structures in Lego, MDF and marine ply such as A house for two artists (2010) and The Library of Alexandria (2014) are striking compositions, their abstraction offering an alternative vocabulary for concrete memory. Trendall’s collaged building façade treatments take contemporary architectural themes yet evoke classical columns and forms, reminiscent of Peta Carlin’s work on mid-twentieth-century curtain walls and the Harris tweed. The library of Alexandria is a particularly evocative cultural loss to memorialise, symbolising like no other event the known destruction of an unfathomable wisdom.

Nicholas Mangan’s durational machines and projections are stunning, set in a darkened room, marking time – for what? For whom? For what purpose? The repetitive sounds of the destroyed photocopier are chilling, marking its own chronology of carcinogenic time in the corners of our every office.

Characteristic of MUMA’s work, the Concrete catalogue makes its own distinct contribution to the field, valuable independently of an experience of the exhibition. “Memory is a living thing. It lives within us,” writes curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow. “It comes alive in the body as we move through space”, and its involuntary response can be triggered all over the body.

Witnessing the busy temporality of the ant in Jananne al-Ani’s Excavators (2010), alongside the unsettling terrestrial zoom-ins of her Shadow Sites II (2011), our body both tingles and cringes, startled at how predatory and how precise our gaze can be. The concrete landscapes surveyed in Shadow Sites II present ambiguously: are they the ruins of structures past? Models of settlements to come? Images from an unmanned drone? The images are disconcerting, provocative.

Devoid of any real value for me, yet no doubt a meaningful site for you, Rä di Martino’s No More Stars (Star Wars) 2010 records the decay of the Star Wars desert sets in a series of images evoking war photography. Childhood passion or no, it’s jarring to see the crumbled forms of so significant a site of nostalgic, coming-of-age milestones for so many – now abandoned, forgotten.

At the other end of global cultural symbolism, Carlos Irijalba’s High tides (drilling) 2012 seeks to unseat Picasso’s highly stylied Guernica (1937) as our primary image for the city’s catastrophic aerial attack during the Spanish Civil War. Irijalba’s work shows us the ground of Guernika itself through a vertical extraction 17m in depth. The memory of war has seeped deep into the earth below this weapons factory, presented here as cored chunks neatly laid out in a wooden box as a scientific specimen alongside photographic evidence.

Forgetting is a theme for Concrete as much as remembering, including the forgetting that is facilitated by time and decay. Painful memories sometimes demand to be obscured, however, and Callum Morton’s wrapped Monument #26: Settlement (2010) deftly offers absent presence. Evoking the smaller wrapped objects of Christo, for me the memory immediately evoked is of the icon of the Annunciation on the Greek island of Tinos, known throughout Eastern Orthodox Christendom as a powerful creator of miracles, as well as a symbol of revolution – and yet, visitors who make the trek up the steep Tinos streets to view the icon are greeted by a framed object whose content is completely obscured by the jewels given by pilgrims as testaments to their faith over many years.

Bookending the exhibition with one work in the MUMA foyer and the others near an exit point are Jamie North’s stark, dilapidating forms. Founder (2014) and Trophic cascade #1 and #2 (2014) present tentative new growths of native plants, winding their delicate way around ash-blasted concrete and steel. As startling as bright green saplings on the bushfire-burnt blackness of an Australian tree trunk. Hope is the memory that doesn’t fade.


Curated by Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow
3 May to 5 July 2014 at MUMA
Artists: Laurence Aberhart (New Zealand); Jananne al-Ani (Iraq/UK); Kader Attia (France/Germany); Saskia Doherty (Australia); Fabien Giraud & Raphael Siboni (France); Igor Grubić (Croatia); Carlos Irijalba (Spain); Nicholas Mangan (Australia); Rä di Martino (Italy); Ricky Maynard (Australia); Callum Morton (Australia); Tom Nicholson (Australia); Jamie North (Australia); Justin Trendall (Australia); James Tylor (Australia).

Image: Some kinds of duration (2011) by Nicholas Mangan
Installation view, detail
Photo by Esther Anatolitis