Exhibition Review: The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives)

What: The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives)

Where: ACE Open

When: until 24 April

Hotel (Pripyat), Chernobyl exclusion zone, 2019. Image courtesy Yhonnie Scarce and Lisa Radford.

Do you know about the nuclear testing that took place in the Central Desert? In the 1950s and 60s, there were seven full-scale atomic bombs dropped in Maralinga, part of a series of tests that the British government conducted across Australia. One of these was twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

Maralinga remains a site of trauma for First Nations people, joining Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Hiroshima, New York, Wounded Knee, and the former Yugoslavia as sites of historic devastation. Today buildings, monuments, memorials, or museums are all that remain to remind us of the genocide, the trauma, and the cultural erasure.

The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives), 2021, exhibition view, ACE Open. Photo: Josh Geelen.

In The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives), curators Lisa Radford and Yhonnie Scarce look to these locations to understand the weight of the atrocities that took place there. They have selected a group of 20 artists from Australia and beyond to create new and adapt existing works to begin to better understand this trauma.

This exhibition is stunning. Upon entering, I am immediately overwhelmed by the video work. These make up a great deal of the exhibition and are powerful, transforming the space. These are all-consuming, and are regularly scheduled throughout the day, with the intention of enabling visitors to watch one at a time. This is a unique way of making use of the space and directing visitor engagement. It means that visitors are able to enjoy each work one at a time, uninterrupted by sound bleed from other works. 

In an interview with ACE Open Director Patrice Sharkey, she explains that this intentional decision was planned to ensure that visitors sat with each of the works, feeling the weight of each before moving onto the next. However, it does also make it difficult to see them all. Some of the works are long, around 30 minutes, and this means that unless you’re able to spend several hours in the space it is difficult to experience each of them. 

In the main gallery space, the diversity of the artists’ practices is clear. There are sculptural works, photography and prints, and several substantial further video works. A highlight here is the Unbound Collective’s work. Made up of a video work exploring the impact of the bombing in Maralinga and a set of paper collage skirts, this work is most successful in emphasising the impact of this bombing on First Nations people that continues to impact into the present day.

The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives), 2021, exhibition view, ACE Open. Photo: Josh Geelen.

The narrative thread is easy to follow throughout the exhibition, in particular when I delve deeper and read the artist text. This artist text is valuable, explaining the rationale behind the work and placing each in their unique cultural context. However, this is a somewhat clunky experience, requiring me to navigate an exhibit map and a binder of text. Without this text, the narrative thread is less clear. The exhibition suffers when it is exempt of context. It loses the power of the works, the richness of the artists’ experiences, and the true weight that these experiences of trauma have left behind.

Overall, I enjoy the exhibition. I am deeply fascinated by the subject matter and the different ways that this collection of artists each have chosen to explore their own experiences of cultural trauma. The works are stunning, and in addition to the Unbound Collective work I spend a long time with the print works by Hayley Millar-Baker and Trent Crawford. However, I do have to visit twice, returning to see the video works that I was not able to see the first time around. Despite how much I enjoy it while I am there, I leave feeling as if the visitor interaction could have done with further thinking. 

The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives) is the latest from ACE Open, running as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts through to the 24th of April before its run in Melbourne.

The Image is not Nothing (Concrete Archives), 2021, exhibition view, ACE Open. Photo: Josh Geelen.

– Natalie Carfora

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