I have three hardcopy English dictionaries, all admittedly quite old. Not one of them includes the word ‘unsettlement.’ Of course these days we tend to find our dictionaries on the internet and here unsettlement is defined as: “1. an act or an instance of unsettling. 2. the state or quality of being unsettled.” While this definition is frustratingly circular and rather lacklustre, Dana Awartani, Monica Bonvicini, Aliansyah Caniago, Jasmina Cibic, Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), Hiwa K, Jill Magid, Hayley Millar-Baker, Archie Moore, and Amie Siegel, the 10 artists and collectives in the exhibition Unsettlement, contemplate the inherent power structures of architecture and capture the disturbing nuances and liminal potential of the term.
According to McSpedden they chose the phrase to reflect the fact that “we live in a precarious time, an unsettling time, and there is a cluster of issues around how we inhabit the world that provokes a great sense of anxiety.” In Unsettlement these issues are explored by interrogating, appropriating or subverting the tropes of architecture through art. As Day explains in her curatorial statement: “Architecture provides a tangible, physical form to the amorphous forces that shape our lives. It gives us a concrete starting point to address the histories, as well as the present-day economic and political influences, that define the world we inhabit.”
In the context of current geo-politics, the word un-settlement immediately brings to my mind images of the provisional ‘un’ architecture of refugee camps – unsafe, unsecured, untenable – the absolute opposite of the kind of monumental architecture that is usually celebrated.
But as McSpedden points out, these precarious settlements actually reveal the hidden machinations of societal control that are often embedded in architecture. “These sites are all about power in terms of how people are processed, but for the people living there the architecture itself is not about power and permanency and representation of society,” she says, “and that in a sense tells us more about society, and how we function, than all the buildings that have been intentionally built to do that.”
In Unsettlement, the collective DAAR, who are based in the contested territory of Palestine, specifically address the political implications of the makeshift cities created by seemingly powerless displaced people. As DAAR explain on their website, “Refugee camps are established with the intention of being demolished. As a paradigmatic representation of political failure, they are meant to have no history and no future; they are meant to be forgotten.” In their project Refugee Heritage, 2017, DAAR present documentation of their efforts to nominate Dheisheh Refugee Camp, a site occupied by Palestinian refugees since 1949, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this way they seek to preserve architecture designed to be erased and highlight the fact that these supposedly temporary places are actually complex semi-permanent locations where the full breadth of human experiences take place, not just sites of suffering.
Her densely layered photo, Even if the race is fated to disappear 7 (Peeneeyt Meerreeng / Before, Now, Tomorrow), 2017, features fragments of a wall built by Aboriginal labourers in conditions akin to slavery. Yet, as in the work by DAAR, Millar-Baker’s images document both historical trauma and contemporary resilience. As McSpedden says, the artist works with images from Gunditjmara country in southern Victoria, “the site where her family lived and stories were passed down, and where they survived.”
While the above works deal with the architectural manifestations of the forces of ‘hard power’, American artist Amie Siegel reflects on the seductive appeal of ‘soft power.’ For her work Dynasty, 2017, she purchased a chip of marble from Trump Tower in New York.
Siegel presents it alongside two glossy photographic simulacra. “She’s working with this idea of the soft power of prestige and luxury items, of artifice and the illusion of success and luxury,” says McSpedden, “and how these play into more concrete things like world domination and becoming the most powerful man in the world.”
Architecture is something of a conundrum. It profoundly shapes how we move through space, yet unless it is very good or very bad we barely notice it. As McSpedden says, “Architecture is almost invisible to us. And yet it has a huge impact on how we live and interact with each other.” In Unsettlement artists make the subliminal power of architecture visible.
Monash University Art Museum (MUMA)
28 April – 7 July