Is care endless?

The word ‘care’ has many connotations and transmutations: health, protection, welfare, family, love. There is care for the self, easily commodified in the age of the individual; and there is also community care, which has become more centralised over the last few years when the state of the world means we need one another more than ever.

It is a complicated thing, too: what of the negative emotions associated with care, such as burden, sacrifice or obligation, or the structural issues that allow some to access it more easily than others? “There have been a lot of art projects that assert and promote care, but few that analyse and unpick it,” says Robert Leonard, director of Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA). “Our thought was to use art to draw out a whole lot of complexities around the question.”

Leonard has co-curated Duty of Care with Griffith University Art Museum (GUAM) director Angela Goddard and researcher Stephanie Berlangieri. Presented across both IMA and GUAM, the show dissects the concept from a number of perspectives and generations; Berlangieri’s doctoral research involves how millennials approach topics of care through digital content and channels, such as TikTok, and the intersection with neoliberalism.

Leigh Ledare, The Task, 2017, single channel video, sound, 118 min.

“There is this rhetoric of care as a language that’s developed, and that is kind of being exploited to smooth over the complexities and the realities of what it is and involves,” Berlangieri says. “There are all these exhibitions that are circulating looking at care as a framework…but often these exhibitions don’t really amount to a lot of actual structural change—we wanted to look at these complexities of care that are ignored.”

The nature of the exhibition—indeed, of any exhibition—is grounds for interrogation, too: after all, the word curator takes its etymology from the Latin curare—to take care of.

With works ranging from Johann Joseph Zoffany’s 1769 painting Roman Charity to contemporary artists including Betty Muffler, HOSSEI, and David Shrigley, the range presented in the show is vast—and their juxtaposition with one another offers a kind of dialogue across time and culture. Much of the exhibition is focused specifically on the complex figure of the carer, offering insights and provocations on what that means.

Dani Marti, Notes for Bob, 2013, single channel video, sound, 21:40 min. Courtesy the artist and Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney.

One such work is Hong Kong Intervention, a photographic series by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in which they asked mostly female Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong to plant toy grenades in their workplaces, and photograph each other’s backs. No words are uttered, or facial expressions visible, but strong emotions are sensed. “When we say we’re looking at those uncomfortable feelings associated with care, resentment might be a feeling that these domestic workers have,” Berlangieri says.

Several video works probe the fraught power dynamics within various patient-caregiver relationships, and ask the viewer to consider the ethics of such interactions, particularly when vulnerable people are involved. One is Spanish-Australian artist Dani Marti’s Notes for Bob, which sees the artist operating as a kind of sex worker for a blind man, Bob, whose desire is for men to sing to him: “It’s haunted by risks of exploitation, and questions of limits of consent,” says Leonard. Another, IA Suzie, situates American artist Lauren Lee McCarthy—and therefore the viewer—as an artificial intelligence carer, spending a week operating the smart technology in the home of an elderly woman, Mary Ann. “That work looks at technology and whether it could be a solution to the aged care crisis, or if it’s a more dehumanising way of addressing the cuts to the welfare state,” says Berlangieri.

Cassie Thornton, The Hologram, 2022, single-channel video, sound, 4:24 min.

But there is also hope for a new mode of care. A community-centric model is explored in Cassie Thornton’s The Hologram: a viral, peer-to-peer feminist health network which began as a speculative project before manifesting in the real world. In it, three people (the “triangle”) meet regularly, online or in person, and learn to take care of a hologram and its social, mental and physical needs. It blooms from there, as each person becomes a hologram for another triangle. “It decentres the idea of the expert being the source of knowledge,” says Berlangieri. “There’s a great bit in the Hologram book where you make a list of the people you care for, and another list of the people who care for you—it’s an interesting process to go through, because not all these relationships are or need to be reciprocal,” Leonard adds.

These are only a few of the many works on display, in what Berlangieri describes as a “cacophony of perspectives” that all ask variations of the same central questions. As the concept of care continues to morph with our changing times, Leonard asks another question that suggests this is not a finite idea or conversation: “Is care endless?”

Duty of Care
Institute of Modern Art /Griffith University Art Museum

29 June–22 September

Feature Words by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen