Visiting the Audio Foundation and the Michael Lett Gallery, both just off Auckland’s K’ Road, Tulia Thompson finds herself considering the galaxy and what it means to be human.
You have to imagine you are viewing these on a stifling hot February afternoon. There is a cacophony of men and machines, orange road cones and iron mesh-wire. Karangahape Rd is being dug up for the new transport hub.
I head through St Kevin’s Arcade, down the wide steps to the green lip of Myers Park, and around the corner. The Audio Foundation is an interesting find, both a leading space for experimental music and a gallery. You descend into the space down a long flight of concrete stairs with paint peeling from the metal railing, concrete walls painted in cream, mint and red. It feels properly abandoned. There’s no one at the reception, so when I slip into the first room, into near darkness, it feels like I could lie on the cool, concrete floor to observe the piece if I wanted to.
Sarah Callesen’s show Drawing, Synopsis and Song is a quiet exploration of our relationship with space, making visible the contribution of 17th century astronomer and mathematician Maria Cunitz. She was considered the most learned woman in astronomy since Hypatia of Alexandria.
‘Retrograde’ consists of three rotating thin wooden rods lit by a single stage-light on the floor; they remind me of meter rulers. Rotating slowly counter-clockwise; windmills come to mind as they make slow, whirring circles. Callesen intended them to turn retrograde, like Venus, but the low-fi AC motors freestyle. So this is the rotation of planets, in honour of a bright queen.
At times the outside enters again, a rhythmic pounding of bass, and the high-pitched screeching of machines as Karangahape Road is torn up and reordered.
In the next room, a projector close to the wall projects the Moon. A small black spot with a blur of red and green travels across it in a straight line. It reaches the end, the image shudders, disappears, blinks and begins again. The dot’s travel marks the Transit of Venus.
A large black rectangle of card on the floor has names and distances written diagonally across it in white: Polina 21.6 Km. Pasha 7.2 Km. Qulzhan 7.9 Km. If you stand back and let your eyes blur it makes a pattern of uneven fretwork. I discover this because I kneel down by it and then stand up too quickly. I panic that I can’t find a way in. I can’t find supporting material to orient me. This piece is the sort of thing that makes some people hate artists – their obscure provocations can feel exclusionary. But then I remind myself that I am, after all, an eccentric person who puts obscure references in her own writing. I’m probably invoking a curse from the female gods, possibly Venus.
I chat to a lovely chap, Sam, who explains that these names and diameters are craters on Venus. Those with diameters greater than 20km are named after women who make outstanding contributions to their fields, under 20km are given female first names. All of these craters are named for women, by men. Fascinating! One of the craters is called Cunitz, and I wonder whether she would be delighted, or pissed off that she didn’t do the naming. There is an iPad plugged into the wall showing images of the craters next to biographic information about the women they are named after. These pairings are strange and effective.
New Zealand poet Helen Rickersby’s recent, brilliant poetry collection How to Live has a poem about philosopher Hipparchia in which Rickersby writes: “Silence isn’t always not speaking. Silence is sometimes an erasure. We don’t know much about her, but we know she spoke.” The erasure of women, both through institutional sexism and the retellings of history, still feels pervasive. We are back observing bodies colliding with uninhabitable spaces. There’s something potent about observing the silencing of women extended into space.
There is an almost mechanical noise in this room; a sound recording taken in 1982 on Venus by Russian spacecraft Venera 14, looped with the sound recording from an earlier version of ‘Retrograde’. How strange that celestial bodies make sound. Not angelic chiming, but disorienting noises like wind and fierce waterfalls. The sounds are abrasive like an industrial site or furnace. At times I can’t decipher the audio loop from the street sounds.
Callesen’s art is often visually stunning; beautiful, strange images sometimes paired with sound. So, I would have liked more aesthetically from her engagement with Maria Cunitz. I got the sense she was searching for her – uncovering the imprints of her data, dusting it off from the invisibility accorded to it by men. But I didn’t feel like she had found her; Maria herself remains fractal and diffuse. Maybe that is the point.
How disturbing that humankind has even extended its sexist ideas into space. What stayed with me was an impression that our mappings of space, and consideration of other bodies, are a partial, emotive picture of our own limited humanness.
Up the road at Michael Lett Gallery is Zac Langdon-Pole’s Interbeing. The cool of the gallery is a welcome contrast to the pressing heat outside. The airy room has pristine white walls and warm wooden floors. On the left-hand wall, in ‘Cleave Study (ii)’, a plastic, anatomical human-tongue meets a seashell. The shell has other small shells and bits of rock attached. Xenophora sea snails glue foreign objects to their shells for camouflage. My first thought are the tacky shell ornaments my grandmother had in the ‘70s.
‘Cleave Study (ii)’ also reminds me of that famous line from theorists Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus:“an electron crashes into a language”. Deleuze and Guattari were interested in how ‘assemblages’ of disparate objects confound our imposed, rigid meanings. In contrast to the view language was our inescapable lens, Deleuze and Guattari argued that the ‘materiality’ of the physical world was also creative and could disrupt language. So, the Xenophora shell is not just a metaphor for human art; Xenophora shells are their own art machines.
On the one hand, a human tongue here is cleaved to a pearlescent surface, but on the other it’s still plastic. There is something disturbing about plastic being made human meeting shell. I can’t not think of ghostly plastic bags and sea-turtles. The tongue is a visceral metaphor for language, but tongues are also true to shell (the tongue of the oyster, say, or the tongue-like muscular foot of the Xenophora).
Langdon-Pole’s strength is the exquisite poetry he creates through ‘assemblage’ – quietly placing found objects together in a way that is both resonant and jarring. To cleave is both to join and sever. ‘Cleave Study (ii)’ sets up the tension between human and nonhuman that pervades this collection.
Standing in the centre of the room, the first impression is that ‘Majuro Atoll, Te Whanganui-A-Hei/ Cooks Beach’, and ‘Treptower Park, Berlin’ present stars in night-sky. I think of camping up north over Christmas, looking up to the glitter of the Milky Way. The expanse of it reorders your own perception of freedom. Yet as you adjust your eyes, you realise these images are not stars, that the spaces between are not star-like. Indeed, the images are enlarged prints of sand photograms, named for the beach that the sand has come from.
The most impressive is ‘Te Whanganui-A-Hei/ Cooks Beach’ where, enlarged 1000%, the light flares of the sand particles show shadowed depths and have a painterly quality.
In ‘Assimilation Study’ wooden sorting blocks, including a green star, are scattered in a display cabinet. One piece is slightly larger, a metallic triangle that is actually a hand-carved meteorite. It looks as if God has a toddler. If Langdon-Pole’s intention is that the meteorite is juxtaposed with the mundane, it looks too pristine to achieve it. But it is visually arresting. I’m thinking about galaxies again.
I walk down white-painted concrete stairs into the narrower, cellar space of the building. Three prints show sand photograms at a one-to-one scale, making you wonder about the production of these images. They are made from putting sand on top of photograph paper. The place names as titles seem almost idiosyncratic, but then I think about Langdon-Pole travelling between these places. Did he go around collecting buckets of sand? Apparently, curator Andrew Thomas tells me, he gathered “small handfuls” from each place. Thomas notes previous works stemmed from the flightpath of migratory birds.
Sand is ground rock or shell. A quick look at the NIWA website tells me that the density and grain size is determined by the source. The process of becoming sand takes hundreds of thousands of years. So sand is already in motion, moved by tide across expanse. It is a journey that is immense, already glittering and star-like. And these images trace an alternate journey, via Zac Langdon-Pole’s pockets and transposed through exposure to light, that make me rethink our part in it; the grand scale of time and space confounds us.
In ‘Orbits’, a dandelion paperweight is fixed into the socket of a plastic, anatomical model of an eye. Other versions use rainbow obsidian or petrified sequoia-wood, which creates an inky iris, an almost anime look. They are both grotesque and beautiful.
Langdon-Pole’s work manages to have a trueness to the ideas he explores while also being beautiful. I don’t think art should have to be aesthetically pleasing, but there is a real joy in this marriage of substance and form.
Thinking of the materiality of space data in Callesen’s work and the travels of materiality in Zac Langdon-Pole’s, I would say that both displace humanness – the way we think we are the centre of everything. But there’s a strange doubling back of what it means to be human through examining our limitations. A meteor becomes a child’s block, the ancient journey of sand is reordered into human memory, and planetary data is transformed into art object
But still, this universe, writhing alongside us. There’s a poem called ‘My God, It’s Full of Stars!’ by Tracy K. Smith from her stunning Pulitzer-winning collection Life of Mars where she grapples with her father’s work building the Hubble telescope.
“We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”
Sarah Callesen’s Drawing, Synopsis and Song and Zac Langdon-Pole’s Interbeing are both on until Saturday February 29.