The Shouting Valley is a powerful group exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland that interrogates and gives voice to the people caught between borders. But is the real paradox of this politically charged show the limit of what art can do? Lana Lopesi reviews.
“What’s bad about borders?” asked David Hall in a recent essay. His answer: “That certain kinds of people, for a host of senseless or wicked reasons, aren’t allowed to cross them at all. Or only allowed to cross on terms which would make their lives miserable. That’s what’s bad about borders: they can be used as instruments of cruelty.” The point he makes is salient to the latest show at Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery. For Hall, it’s not necessarily the demarcation on a map that makes a border bad, but the way in which human lives get caught between those lines.
Curated by gallery director Lisa Beauchamp, The Shouting Valley: Interrogating the Borders Between Us is the third urgently themed group show to open at the newly refurbished Gus Fisher. The Shouting Valley highlights the divisions between contemporary borders, focusing on issues of migration, the treatment of refugees and Australia’s off-shore detention centres. Beauchamp’s selection of local and international artists includes Lawrence Abu Hamdan (a nominee for this year’s Turner Prize), Hoda Afshar, Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh, Cushla Donaldson, Manus Recording Project Collective and Jun Yang and also features written contributions from Talei Si’ilata, Vanessa Mei Crofskey and Ardit Hoxha.
Walking off a grey Auckland city street, the bright painted colours that have become synonymous with Gus Fisher’s exhibition design are immediately apparent, this time in the striking work of Jun Yang’s Àokèlán (2019). A wallpaper of Chinese ink paintings by Da Shen spans two walls and responds to New Zealand’s Chinese history. Stories, histories and images are taken from the internet, reinterpreted and collaged together. Neither Yang or Shen have been to Auckland, thus the wallpaper is an “imagined reality” based on Google searches. Yang’s film Becoming European or How I Grew up with Wiener Schnitzel (2015) plays on a screen on top of the wallpaper. The film is a satirical account of Yang’s own migration story to Austria. As we listen to Yang’s narrative, on screen the artist sifts Google’s image repository searching for terms like “Chinese” and “refugee”. Yang’s personal, complex voiceover is juxtaposed with the disconcertingly stereotypical images, demonstrating how Google can be a site of mistranslation. If we only ever get to know each other through Google, then we’ll know very little.
The same could be said for the way in which we learn about each other through mainstream media. Despite its purported objectivity, the news media creates narratives and depictions that add filters to real life, for better or worse. Like Google, the media is often a site of mistranslation. That’s why a piece like Manus Recording Project Collective’s how are you today (2018) is so valuable – it offers a window onto the island not filtered through news reports. The Australian government has a strong anti-immigration stance and has come under fire for the treatment and detainment of Manus Island refugees, some of whom have been detained since 2013. In how are you today, a computer screen with headphones plays 13 hours of audio recorded by detainees then edited together by the collective. The snippets I heard were mostly banal, background soundtracks to detainees going about their business. The media talks about the issues on Manus Island without acting, yet those deeply impacted live slowly one day at time. That disconnect between real life and reportage echoes throughout the show. The contrast is deafening.
The people of Manus become even more impossible to ignore in Hoda Afshar’s Remain portrait series (2018). These 10 black and white portraits sit on a green wall and show detainees from Manus Island. Although the detention centre closed in 2017, the men are still indefinitely detained in Port Moresby, and as the wall text tells us, “they remain in limbo.” The works are large, confronting. Ashfar humanises Manus Island by bringing audiences eye to eye with those unjustly detained.
One of those is Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani. In 2013 Boochani was on a boat with 60 other asylum seekers crossing from Indonesia to Australia. They were stopped by the Australian Navy and detained first at Christmas Island, then at Manus Island. Boochani has since brought the plight of the Manus Island refugees to public attention; his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison was first written in Farsi through text messages and smuggled out as PDFs, then translated. The book won two awards including the Victorian Prize for Literature in 2019 but not before Boochani’s eligibility was questioned as he was not an Australian citizen or permanent resident. Boochani has never set foot on mainland Australia.
The process of getting messages out is also central to Cushla Donaldson’s video work 501s V.02 (2019). ‘501s’ is a self-appellation for people deported from Australia under section 501. The section grants permission for deportations because they pose a “risk” to Australia on the grounds of their “character”. These deportations are disproportionately made up of New Zealanders; since 2015, 60% of those have been Māori or Pacific. Donaldson’s animated work shows a glass slipper spinning as it fills with champagne. The slipper is interrupted by messages sent by those either currently in detention or those now deported from Australia under section 501. The messages I read told of how much the detainees miss their families, of how they’ve been in Australia since they’ve “been in nappies”, of a lack of care. Their stories allude to innocence. Donaldson, like Afshar and the Manus Recording Project Collective, gives detainees a voice. But what is that voice saying? The Shouting Valley is a show with a message – perhaps many messages. But what’s the call to action, other than acknowledging that these lives are happening?
“Borders often appear to be essentially paradoxical,” David Hall writes. “For example, a border is not only a division between two places but also a place in and of itself.” This is central to the exhibition. Detainees are not only there because they have tried to cross borders, but the detention centres become a border in and of themselves. One such borderland is the Shouting Valley between Syria and Israel, a place of dwelling for Druze communities. In 1967, Israel seized this land and families and friends were divided on either side of this border. The Druze hold a unique place in Israel; many Druze soldiers work as interpreters in the Israeli Military Court system.
Perhaps the exhibition’s crowning glory is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley (2013) from which the show borrows its name. In a darkened space, the film is ironically mostly a black screen with flashes of imagery. We hear a cacophony of voices, screaming and shouting with English subtitles. They’re recordings of Druze soldiers contrasted with the sounds from Shouting Valley, where divided family and friends call across to one other. Hamdan subtly reveals the complexities of living on a border without telling audiences what to think.
Circling back to the gallery’s foyer, the word fear seems to have a more precise meaning than when I first entered the gallery. In Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh’s Fear Performance: The Myth of Sisyphus (2013) the artist pulls a sled carrying the word fear up a sand dune. The performance is slow, painful. The sled sits in the gallery, next to the screen of the performance, as a reminder of how present fear is in so many people’s lives. Fear Performance at first seems simple, but this work kept me thinking long after leaving the show.
In the context of The Shouting Valley, I imagine the fear experienced by detainees, the fear of having to seek asylum and everything that entails. Yet perhaps my most disturbing takeaway is the fear we hold as people and as nations that prevents us from sharing what we have with others, the fear that encourages us to enforce borders in the first place. Fear also makes it easier to condemn what others are doing, freeing ourselves from being complicit in conversations about asylum and detainees. The strong international focus of The Shouting Valley, and the emphasis on Manus Island, has the inadvertent effect of foregrounding the culpability of other countries, particularly Australia, leaving New Zealand audiences free from any immediate sense of responsibility.
But as I write our immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway is under fire for granting citizenship to a “repeat drink-driver,” despite the person having lived in Aotearoa since 1999 and despite them being “a protected person in danger of torture if deported”. The media’s hostility toward this one person becoming a citizen is pretty telling. This hostility, much of it perpetuated by our media, is a far cry from the “this is not us” sentiment shared earlier this year after the Christchurch terror attacks.
The voices in Shouting Valley are definitely loud and without a doubt well-intentioned. But without a firm rooting in New Zealand and our attitudes toward the multi-layered issues of “borders”, the issues addressed in this exhibition risk seeming like faraway problems in faraway lands (the exhibition is accompanied by a public programme that might prove otherwise). While I agree that borders can be oppressive, I feel ambivalent about the exhibition as a whole. Is raising awareness enough when those affected exist in a slow never-ending spiral? How much currency does “urgency” have in the art market at the moment, when urgent thematic shows like this are so widespread? Just as fast as you walk into The Shouting Valley, you walk out. Re-entering the grey Auckland streets is deafening. How many people simply put their blinkers back on and continue about their day? This is the real paradox, perhaps: the border between what art can and cannot do.
The Shouting Valley: Interrogating the Borders Between Us is at Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, until December 14.