Open this week at The National Gallery of Victoria, In Absence is a cultural conversation through architecture by Edition Office and Indigenous artist Yhonnie Scarce.
November 28th, 2019
Beyond the pursuit of locally-sourced materials and craft, what is Australian design? Why is our built heritage defined largely by post-colonial offerings, when Indigenous structures and craftsmanship precede these by millennia?
This year’s NGV Architecture Commission poses many such questions. Titled In Absence, in reference to Aboriginal cultural erasure and the colonial misconception of Terra Nullius, the work is designed by Melbourne-based architects, Aaron Roberts and Kim Bridgland at Edition Office, in collaboration with artist Yhonnie Scarce.
“We are interested in people acknowledging that strong sense of history and the reality of how complex and developed Indigenous history actually is,” says Aaron.
Reaching out to Yhonnie, a celebrated artist belonging to the Kokatha and Nukunu peoples of South Australia, a dialogue of shared references and conceptual frameworks began.
“We have such a highly intelligent culture,” says Yhonnie. “With agriculture and aquaculture, and all of these incredibly intricate systems that show that intelligence. Some of those structures are still standing after thousands of years.”
In Absence takes prime position at the gallery’s rear courtyard garden. Entirely clad in black-stained timber slats, the sculptural work exudes a powerfully sombre, mysterious quality. Its bold external form is intentionally simplistic, avoiding references to the Western architectural canon so that visitors might approach with an open mind, free from bias or expectation.
“It was important that anyone who approached it came naively, and on their own terms,” says Kim.
Like a tall cylinder cut in two, the path which divides the structure represents cultural disconnect, an absence of wider historical acknowledgment, a broken heritage in built form. Yhonnie’s black glass yams adorn the structure’s inner sanctum, their gleaming hand-blown shapes contrasting with the rough-sawn wooden backdrop. These poetically reference the traditional significance of root crops, symbolic of both life and death.
“In Australia, our sense of who we are as a nation is really stymied,” says Kim. “There’s so many stories that need to be brought to the fore, in order for us to move forward together in any kind of complex and meaningful way.”
Designed to spark broader cultural dialogue, In Absence runs in association with a program of talks, performances and forums for the life of the work, held at NGV and within the installation itself.
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