Archibald madness may be raging in Sydney this week, but I’m in Europe, feeling a slightly guilty pleasure at being so far from the frontline. Looking at the entries on-line proves the point that it’s impossible to judge works of art from photos. Every year at the preview I feel pretty confident that I can pick the winner or at least the best picture in the show (the two are rarely identical), but not when looking at a website!
I’ll come back to the Archibald in the near future, but this week features an entirely different kind of event: Asad Raza’s Absorptionat the Clothing Store at Carriageworks. This is the 34thKaldor Public Art Project, marking the 50th anniversary of this epic, ongoing series.
When I visited the venue just before the opening a first glance into the old Clothing Store gave the disconcerting impression of an entirely empty room. One has to look at the floor to see the work, which is made up of a thick layer of soil – approximately 300 tonnes of it – stretching from one end of the building to the other. The soil even creeps into the toilet block, where the bowls now seem to be set weirdly low to the ground.
A rich, earthy smell reaches one’s nostrils before the brain has had time to process the visual information. Visitors to the show will encounter young people in specially designed outfits, raking and tending, eager to discuss the project with interested parties.
The man behind the installation is Asad Raza (b.1974), an American artist of Pakistani origins who attracted John Kaldor’s attention with a series of large-scale, collaborative projects held around the world. The most relevant was probably Mother tongue, created for the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. It consisted of 26 living trees assiduously cultivated for four months. The work also became a site for talks and performances.
Absorption does something similar but it eliminates the trees and focuses entirely on the soil – which is not just any old pile of dirt but a boutique concoction produced with the assistance of Professor Alex McBratney, a leading soil scientist from Sydney University, and his students.
The idea is to create an experimental soil that combines diverse materials, and deposits from different places. The Kaldor people have even provided a list of components, which includes soil from Cobbity and Narrabri, green waste, cuttlebone, spent grain from a brewery, coffee grounds, gravel, river sand, dune sand, legumes, Kaolinite clay, Super phosphate and various mineral additives.
Like any scientific experiment the new soil will be constantly monitored and tested in the hope that the results will prove useful. At the end of the project the soil will be given away to anyone who wants to come and collect it, meaning that the work will be continued in numerous backyard gardens and pot plants.
It may sound like science has the upper hand in this meeting of art and science, but Raza has enlisted a group of Australian artists to produce works in relation to the installation. Daniel Boyd’s contribution is the most obvious, consisting of a series of screens on the windows of the building that filter the light coming from outside. Khaled Sabsabi’s is probably the most opaque, as he has put down squares of turf that are now completely concealed beneath the soil. The idea, apparently, is to invoke a Sufi concept of the mystery that lies invisible beneath the surface of life.
Agatha Gothe-Snape has had the ingenious idea of sourcing old Kaldor textiles on e-bay, and having them made into suits for the cultivators to wear. One thinks of Alexander Rodchenko designing his own stylish onesy, to be worn while working on revolutionary constructivist projects.
The other artists are Jana Hawkins-Andersen, Megan Alice Clune, Dean Cross and Brian Fuata. There are talks, a musical performance by Chun Yin Rainbow Chan, and dance choreographed by Ivey Wawm. None of these artists are exactly household names, but part of the plan is to use the Kaldor event to help bring attention to emerging local talent.
While the scientists are doing something that may prove useful, one wonders whether there is any use value to the artists’ contributions. The answer, presumably, is that art stimulates our imaginations, it gives us a licence to dream, it is – as Robert Hughes once put it – “an irrational commodity”. When so much of contemporary life lies in the shadow of an economic rationalism that wants to put a dollar value to everything, art is an implicit form of resistance. Needless to say, works of art only ever seem to make headlines when they are sold for outrageous prices, or stolen.
Raza’s Absorption dramatises the differences between art and science, but it also shows us what they have in common. This includes a desire to confront and solve problems, the need for constant research, and a willingness to pitch into unknown territory in search of some new discovery. Artists, like scientists, are constantly pushing back the frontiers of the thinkable.
By creating a work from soil, Raza is making a clear statement of ecolological intent. Soil, as Professor McBratney would remind us, is essential to life. When it becomes degraded, every living thing suffers.
Beyond its physical properties soil has a powerful metaphoric aspect. Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) was a notorious Nazi slogan that sought to unite a particular race with a traditional homeland. The Nazis were not the only ones for whom the mystical power of “the soil” has romanticised the unglamorous realities of farming and rural life. During China’s Cultural Revolution city-dwellers were encouraged, and often forced, to relocate to the country and ‘learn’ from the peasants.
By mixing so many different elements into the earth spread on the floor at Carriageworks, Raza is denying there is any special purity in the soil that relates to a group of chosen people. The moral is that soil is a matter of collective responsibility, not the exclusive preserve of any political or religious ideology. Raza’s soil is a mixture of elements drawn from many different places, monitored and tended so that it becomes richer and more productive. At the end of the project it will be freely dispersed. Somewhere in here there’s an allegory for good government, as opposed to the dirty politics we see at election time.
Asad Raza: Absorption (34thKaldor Public Art Project)
The Clothing Store, Carriageworks, until 19 May
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May, 2019