THE FALL OF ROME
By Andrew Paul Wood
The curatorial provocation for The Fall of Rome is the 1947 W.H. Auden poem of the same name, an allegory filtered through Petronius' Satyricon (late first century CE) about how modernity could collapse around us at any time, with one eye looking backward to the Second World War, and one to an anxious future. A mood we can all empathise with today.
In the poem Auden takes in a panoramic view of the human and natural worlds and weighs their power against each other. Humanity has no real control over Nature beyond destruction, and Nature is awesomely majestic, sublime, and has no regard for humanity as civilisation collapses. Seventy-five years on and the poem feels very familiar - leadership is ignoring the needs of their citizenry, people don't want to pay taxes, work ethic is no longer the virtue it was once considered to be, and people are falling through the cracks. Those who should be most vested in the precarious continuation of our civilisation have lost interest in it.
When we read:
Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
It is impossible not to think of the plight of underpaid hospital workers or the ongoing issues in Kāinga Ora and Oranga Tamariki. The second-last stanza seems particularly poignant in the Covid era:
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Specifically, the exhibition asks us to consider the final stanza of the poem:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Despite everything that happens in the human world, Nature is oblivious and will eventually sweep us aside to recover and get on with it. The Earth abides, and there is a palpable nostalgia in those lines for the Eden that was or the Paradise yet to be. Nature haunts Civilisation and Culture as a memory in a landscape.
As Simon Schama tells us in his epic Landscape and Memory (1996): 'Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.' That is also how art is made. Within that, words like 'landscape', 'Culture', 'Civilisation' and 'Nature' are overarching terms embracing divergent and contradictory perspectives within a geography of memory - social, material, experiential, and collective. And if we are not looking at the landscape, we are certainly looking at the map.
The seven artists participating in The Fall of Rome each approach these issues from their own unique worldviews and practices.
Celebrated Australian artist Patricia Piccinini is of course best known for her touching hybrid humanoids that often give the impression of human genetic tinkering gone too far. This rather morbid interpretation is often superficial. Patricia's art is less H. G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau and more Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus - the point is a surreal allegory beyond the cold hysteria, not gothic sensationalism. Patricia's The Coup (2012) offers much to unpick. The little boy dressed in unexceptional clothes sits directly in our uncanny valley with his hybrid chimpanzee/human face - not something freakish but more like the untamed Id, the ancestral animal. On the boy's hand perches a blue Indian ringneck parakeet. The boy creature's other hand is raised, but it is impossible to say for sure whether it is poised to caress or destroy.
Inga Fillary's installations are typically masterpieces of applied pyromania. But here, her work is reduced in scale, using raw earth and the shattered ephemera of domesticity to encapsulate a diaorma encased in a clear acrylic box. Reminiscent of 'bottle gardens, a glimpse perhaps into a dystopian future - or just a reminder of the man-made and natural perils that rage around the world every day. While we lose ourselves in the ether-world of screens, endless consumption and art-world nepotism. The high-end coffee table as plinth only adds to the tension. Fillary seems to be asking questions about the way present rhymes with past, sometimes through a dark mirror and sometimes self-destructively.
Tonga-born, Christchurch-based Kulimoe'anga Stone Maka draws inspiration from his Tongan heritage, often in relation to Ngatu (Tongan tapa) by applying modernist aesthetics and experimental techniques. Recent works have included carefully collected and delicately painted spiderwebs on their surfaces. On the one hand we are reminded on the tenuous fragility and interconnectedness of our existence. The Pacific Islands are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of climate change, but the resilience, depth and wisdom of Pasifika cultures may well outlast the West.
Sefton Rani is a self-taught, Piha-based sculptural painter of Cook Islands descent, whose work often explores the industrial anthropology of Auckland and the legacy of Pasifika labour in the city. Sefton's work has a pop art-like robustness in the layered-up paint moulded from recognisable objects and textures. Each work is a precise encapsulation of place, moment and experience frozen in a single object. Sefton's distinctive creations suggest what a future archaeologist might find digging through the remains of our industrial civilisation centuries in the future.
Auckland artist Andrew Rankin uses furniture-like sculptural interventions to explore the mysterious space between reality and the Baudrillardian hyperreal simulacra, frequently combining the motif of the wooden picture or window frame with photography to surreal effect. Andrew speaks to the Barthesian notion of the photograph as being an indexical referent to experience - something altogether ubiquitous in the era of selfies and social media. What is real and what is merely insulating cultural artifact, and do we as human beings retain the ability to tell the difference between them anymore? At its heart, Andrew's art practice is based in guided by everyday mundane life and the complicated aesthetic rouses we employ to escape it. Black monochrome paintings under Perspex, bending through peculiar angles in direct opposition to how we expect paintings to behave, are indistinguishable from the photographic monochromes of blue sky, excepting the colour.
Melbourne-based Lisa Roet's Age of Empathy 3 (2020) is a disembodied chimpanzee's hand and forearm carved in black and gold marble. Lisa's work focuses on the often-exploitative relationship between humans and primates across multiple media. Age of Empathy invites us to consider the similarity with our own hands, their near humanity, and perhaps the horrors of the animal and bush meat trade rendered in such an exquisite material. One also can't help but be reminded of W. W. Jacobs' 1902 horror story 'The Monkey's Paw' in which wishes may grant your heart's desire, but with a nightmarish twist. There is a distinctly melancholy vanitas flavour to the work, a warning that when the environment of the apes is destroyed, so too is ours.
The practice of Maxwell (George) Turner, living in Wellington, centres primarily on data driven digital work, circling the grim legacy of Aotearoa's colonial-settler narratives and the broader tragedies of climate change and mass extinctions. This can be both playful and downright foreboding. The figurative may flatter, but the figures don't lie. These impeccably detailed prints are actually digital masterworks; social posts don't do them justice - they yearn to be seen in person and explored, much like the landscapes within them.
Perhaps, though, it is the artists who are the deer moving across the golden moss in this scenario, in which case maybe the world is better off under their stewardship when the old empire has dissolved away.