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Extending Life

August 2013

  • Suzanne Fraser

Animate/Inanimate at TarraWarra Museum of Art

One expects that works displayed in a museum will be inanimate – unalive. While performance art has a limited presence in contemporary art environments, the principal function of museum exhibitions continues to be the display of inanimate works of visual art and historic artefacts. In the current exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art, the issue of how an inanimate object might have agency – or the ability to influence a situation and in turn gain animation – is explored through the work of six contemporary international artists. In this exhibition, entitled Animate/Inanimate, curator Victoria Lynn examines how a work of art can be imbued with the livingness of its subject matter and how a once living subject matter can be reborn through mediums of the visual arts.

The continual interaction between inanimate objects, the living world, and the context of the museum display represents the primary dialogue of this exhibition. In particular, as the curator notes, there is an ambition in this show to open up the word ‘animate’, to be deliberately ambiguous, and to amalgamate the diverse life forms that negotiate for influence in our global territories (including human). This concept originally came about through Lynn’s familiarity with the work of Sydney-based artist Janet Laurence, who is included in the current exhibition at TarraWarra. Laurence’s installation Fugitive (2013) is composed of several mesh-enclosed environments, each of which includes an array of animal specimens, videos, mirrors, and x-rays. As Lynn states, “Janet’s work calls for an empathic engagement with the animal world; the visitor is invited to stand amongst the assemblage of objects and to consider themselves as not at the centre of the world.”

The animal specimens in Laurence’s work were loaned for the purpose of this installation by Museum Victoria, the majority of which are endangered species originally found in the north east region of Victoria. Taking these specimens from the dark shelves of a museum storage space and introducing them into the light of a contemporary art installation offers them an alternative form of life, according to the artist. “These specimens exist somewhere between the living and the dead. They have this incredible presence and yet they’re long past. I’m intrigued by the tiny space between life and death when the concept is infinite,” says Laurence. Here we can identify a further theme of the exhibition: how ecological and environmental voices can be heard and understood within the context of contemporary art.

Interestingly enough, this conservationist narrative is not an authoritarian note in the exhibition – the concerns of the animal world are set alongside the concerns of humanity and society. In a new work by Chinese artist Lin Tianmiao, entitled Reaction (2013), the artist presents twelve synthetic human skulls that have been wrapped in two shades of lustrous pink thread – “the colours are just stunning”, says Victoria Lynn. Affixed to these skulls are various everyday implements, which, combined with the skulls, serve as vaguely abject depictions of human experience, toil, and the demands of having agency whilst being constrained by social obligations. These are beautiful objects, graceful and yet uncanny, which may conceivably lead the viewer to feel around for the shovel attached to their own jaw.

Amongst the six artist installations included in this exhibition are two works of video, one by Puerto Rican duo Allora and Calzadilla and one by Indian artist Amar Kanwar. From the former is presented a new video entitled Raptor’s Rapture (2012), in which a 35,000 year old flute unearthed in Germany in 2009, which was whittled from the bone of a griffin vulture, is played by flautist Bernadette Käfer. In the video, and in the presence of the musician, instrument and music, stands a living griffon vulture, a species currently threatened with extinction. What results is a haunting and slightly inconceivable commentary on the ancient interaction between humans and animals – and the terminal precipice to which humans have only recently pushed certain of their living cohabitants.

Alongside the current exhibition is a series of tours run in conjunction with the nearby Healesville Sanctuary, in which visitors will be able to experience some of Australia’s most threatened species alive and in the flesh. In addition, a forum will be held at the Healesville Sanctuary on Sunday September 1 with speakers including Barbara Creed and Deborah Bird Rose, which will serve to bring contemporary art and environmental research into lively conversation.

The topic of whether an inanimate object – particularly one which was once living, such as a stuffed bird or a carved flute – can exercise agency to influence a situation in which it is placed will hopefully be a topic of conversation at the upcoming forum. After viewing this exhibition, it becomes apparent that the state of being alive cannot easily be regarded as one half of a binary concern. There are various stages and participants that extend the formula, a point which is brought to life in the current display at TarraWarra Museum of Art.


Animate/Inanimate shows at the TarraWarra Museum of Art until October 6.



1.  Lin Tianmiao
, All the Same 2011, 
coloured silk threads, synthetic skeletons and metal constructions
edition 1/3, length: 1200 – 1500 cm
Photo by Yang Yuguang
Courtesy of Lin Tianmiao, © Lin Tianmiao

Amar Kanwar, 
The Scene of Crime 2011
, HD video installation, colour, sound, 42 minutes
installation view Animate/Inanimate, TarraWarra Museum of Art 2013. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris

3. Louise Weaver. LEFT to RIGHT: Hiding in plain sight (Witch grass nest) 2011-2012, Bird Hide 2011, Syphon 2013, Time to Time 2013, installation view TarraWarra Museum of Art. Photo: Mark Ashkanasy Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Allora & Calzadilla, 
Raptors Rapture 2012, 
HD video, colour, sound
. Photo courtesy Allora & Calzadilla and Lisson Gallery




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