Borders, Barriers, Walls


Earlier this year, on the 26th of January, an unknown activist (or group of activists) in the Brisbane suburb of West End changed the signs on Boundary Street to read ‘Boundless Street.’ The act was double edged. Not only did it wryly refer to the Australian National Anthem, ‘we’ve boundless plains to share,’ but it pointed out the history of the street itself. The street was but one in a series of streets around Brisbane that marked a space from which Indigenous people (and African American GIs who were stationed in Brisbane) were routinely chased by mounted police at night, right up until the 1940s.

The group exhibition Borders, Barriers, Walls echoes and multiplies this double edge.

In addition to migration and trade, it explores concepts around borders between states, barriers to land, information, and resources, and walls.

The exhibition features both Australian and international artists. Melbourne-based artists Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan have been specifically commissioned to make a performance work for the exhibition, which takes the form of a moveable sculpture, inspired by press images of razor wire panels that are found on trains going through the Hungarian border. It is titled, The Least of the Doorkeepers, it is possible, but not at the moment, 2016, in reference to a Kafka parable on access to law.

Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani’s work, Picasso in Palestine, 2012, is a project that has culminated in a film that not only documents the bureaucracy involved in the loaning of artwork, but broods on how statelessness would effect such a transaction, what it means for a work that’s highly valued in Western Europe to travel to the completely different context of Palestine, the limitations of travel, the art market and how a work of art can give optimism. Curator Francis E Parker recommends it as “definitely one to watch, should you have the time.”

Isaac Julien, Western Union: Small Boats (The Leopard), 2007, (still), single screen projection, super 16mm film transferred to DVD/HD, 5.1 surround sound. Courtesy of the artist
Isaac Julien, Western Union: Small Boats (The Leopard), 2007, (still), single screen projection, super 16mm film transferred to DVD/HD, 5.1 surround sound. Courtesy of the artist

Tony Schwensen’s sculpture, Border Protection Assistance Proposed Monument for the Torres Strait (Am I ever going to see your face again?), 2002, was originally made as a response to the ‘Pacific Solution’ and is as relevant now as ever. Judy Watson’s painting, From Dusk Till Dawn: Five Brisbane Shields, 2003, refers to Brisbane boundaries. Watson has drawn on the painting five Brisbane shields, that are also marked by their former accession numbers, from the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland. It’s a kind of reclaiming of objects that are held in ‘anthropological’ contexts, describing the disparity between being and owning; another dichotomy thrown up in the exhibition.

But the exhibition isn’t all pessimistic. As Parker states, “I didn’t want the show to be completely depressing. It also has some humour, optimism and resilience in it.” This comes through in collaborative duo Allora and Calzadilla’s video, Under Discussion, 2005, in which a fisherman takes a conference table and turns it into a boat, tracing his island of Vieques, where the locals won the battle to stop having the US test bombs on their land. The table refers to the ways in which agency isn’t afforded by those behind the desks to those that know their lands. But the absurdity of the symbolism in this artwork makes it easier to relate to and empathise with.

As with most works in the exhibition, the ability of the artwork to tackle complex political situations from different angles, while inducing empathy, is just what we need in a world where the language of poetry, and indeed, art is missing. That’s the strength of Borders, Barriers, Walls: to acknowledge that art can induce change through re-thinking our present.

Borders, Barriers, Walls
Monash University Museum of Art

30 April – 2 July

Preview Words by Sarah Werkmeister