Relics of Survival, Zoë Bastin(Download PDF)
Relics of Survival
Slowly translated into words and understood through language. Relics of survival asks how
feelings become form. How rituals form relics that capture or harness affective potential. 6
artists respond to the theme of survival.
The surviving of ;
Bruises on her skin
Scars on her knees
She shows you again and again.
She fights and she falls
She is still here.
Look , we are still here.
- Kari Lee McInneny-McRae
Redemption for the Redeemer
The future is an interesting concept. We plan for the future as if it’s a far-flung hypothetical. As if our thoughts and decisions now don’t determine some far-off destiny of ours. As if the bones we walk around in now aren’t the same ones we walk with in fifty years. I guess the cells of the body regenerate; the bones may not be the same. But the way we walk carves them into becoming the bones they will be. We will our future selves into being.
In thinking about this show – a show about the affect of rituals, about the relics left behind – I reflect on my smaller self, making me. Spending hours alone in their room making potions of flower petals from the back yard. Writing diaries and love letters. Dancing on the school oval when they were meant to be playing footy. I wonder how many of those things inform who I am today? How I move and operate in the world? From drawings and love letters to cheeky texts. I guess they’re the same thing? So many of that kid’s decisions allowed me to become; to survive.
The relics of this earthly survival have become pictures, have become drawings, have become fragmented memories of selves once been. But they have also become strategies, learned behaviours, phrases to use in times of doubt. Relics of bygone eras calcified in the psyche. Left there as remnants, as reminders of lives once lived, people once known. Like a psychological archaeologist, I walk through the museum of feelings once felt. Trying to find something that looks familiar, trying to re-create a situation that was once known. Tying memories to the present to work out how to act (what to do next).
Resilience is the ability of a substance to recover quickly from difficulties; it describes a toughness. It describes an elasticity of form. How something springs back. The relics I describe as fragmented experiences, calcified over time, seem fragile. In sculptural casting processes there is often a mould that has to be broken to release the
form inside. Bits of hulking plaster chip, chip, chipped away to reveal
a bronze statue. Maybe our relics serve as moulds for the forms of our lives to be cast within. Maybe their shape forms the molten plasticity of our resilient selves. Kari Lee McInneny-McRae’s work casts fragments of
the relics, going back to the place where they were formed. Collecting sand as evidence of what forged her there.
Resilience is a crucial aspect of survival. How we work out a way to continue onwards. Rebecca Solnit says “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival”. In her seminal text Men Explain Things to Me, she describes silencing as an infringement on female liberty, that being silenced and not being listened to, is an abuse of power. And how this de-valuing of voices often discounts violent crimes and silences victims. When making her work, Bridget Griffiths and I spoke about how structures can hide and reveal violence. What it might mean to be broken apart and put back together. In a patriarchal society the way womxn/non-binary/trans/queer voices aren’t valued breaks us apart. Not speaking, not being allowed to speak, being spoken over. Left behind as pieces, we put ourselves back together.
There are times when the actors of speech aren’t equal. There are times when words, rendered into the world as sounds, cause substantial harm. Breaking things in their wake. There’s a work by Katie Paine that hangs above my bed. On its Perspex face is engraved “Treacherous Vernacular”: a typological allegory for the landscape of speech. I imagine this phrase as an impassable terrain, the kind that requires high-tech equipment: special walking sticks and shoes with spikes. I imagine trying to climb over large rocks, navigating narrow paths cut into sheer cliff faces, one step wrong and a deep fall awaits. Sometimes speaking can mean a great deal; the performativity of it, its consequences.
These high stakes mean there are also times when we can’t speak. When we have no words to say. Paralysed in doubt before the fall, our voices are rendered incapacitated. The story of Papageno and Papagena, referenced in Paine’s work, is about two characters who found a way out of speech. Who found a way of communicating, born out of love. A mate of mine is known in her family for being softly spoken, though
her friends say she’s quite loud. Sometimes words are spoken but not
heard. After not having our words listened to it’s understandable that we might stop trying to speak, find alternative forms of communication.
Van Morrison sings, “I’m a dweller on the threshold… and I don’t want to wait no more” and I think about those syllables suspended in motion… not able to escape the lips. Suspended in the door frame,
where thoughts become words, we stop to consider the fallout. To
consult with our allies about how to phrase terms. To check in with a reality outside of our own consciousness. It is not always a simple process to speak one’s mind.
We are taught to understand feelings as happening before speech, before logic, outside and apart from rationality. Feelings, apparently, exist in a different realm to language. A plain full of opaque shapes that we don’t comprehend but rather respond to. One that is slowly translated into words and understood through the actions of writing and speaking. Josephine Mead’s work reads, “To utter aloud or render in speech” like it’s a choice, like there’s a moment before sound when these opaque shapes hang around undefined, not pinned down. Speech is rarely a straightforward translation of thought and feeling into sound. To be listened to, to speak like no one’s listening, or to simply speak the words you think whoever is listening wants you to say.
A type of choreography is formed in the process of listening and being listened to. Of reading the words I wrote, now through your own body. Eyes darting across the page. The body is always moving. Constantly engraving into its gestures its own rituals. The precise distance between holding the fridge open with my foot and reaching the sink, so I don’t have to close and re-open the door again. Rituals formed through proximate relations. Patterns found that exist between us, and the things around us. Animate in their connection.
I often light candles for reflection. At points when I’m not sure what else to do.
Alongside speech, we think through actions. There are moments of performance that enact spiritual realities: lighting a candle, dancing in the dark, picking flowers. I’ve been thinking about my own rituals of survival and the relics they leave as traces. Taking selfies, singing out
loud, writing my thoughts down. Trying to prove an existence outside of my body. Trying to mark on the wall of the cave some futile note-taking of presence. A record of my being here.
The title of my work references an Anselm Kiefer painting that hangs in the Kunsthalle in Zürich. Kiefer depicts a huge wooden attic; large hulking planks of wood show swirling patterns of the grain. At the centre of the painting is a cauldron full of blood. Written above it in messy white paint is, “Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser”.
Loosely translated this means: The holiest of miracles! Redemption for the redeemer! Raised in the Anglican church as a child I was an alter girl; it was my role to carry the light. Sundays were filled with ritual. Counting steps up the aisle. Trying to look serious (read: to be straight) in front of a congregation of judging stares. There are times when we can’t speak at all. Rendered mute by the ritual itself.
Lauren Berlant says, “A negative state isn’t only an oppressive relation that might induce resistance: it is also a structural sense of incoherence and internal antagonism among concepts, in individuals, or among persons and worlds”. I wonder what it means to make a record of existence, to push up against the systems we exist within that silenced our voices, that have limited our power. There’s a vulnerability that comes from making the personal political as second wave feminism taught us and with it an acknowledgement that it always was anyway. Art comes from those who make it. A politics of acknowledging the work acknowledges the person. Of giving credit to the survival of a practice that under the oppressive relation of this neo-liberal society is hard to do. An acknowledgement that through this work we make our
As Gordon Hall says, “Specific questions produce specific kinds of answers – they outline a world which our answers must then inhabit”. And I think about who is allowed to speak and why? Whose voices are heard. We birth our words into the world. From us, of us, they begin
a life of their own as heard by ears and read from the page. Wiradjuri poet Jazz Money’s poem To Fanny Cochrane Smith reminds me how important words are in worlding. White history says Cochrane Smith, born in 1834, was the last fluent speaker of her Palawa kani language. The wax cylinder recordings made of her singing have been integral to the preservation and revival of the languages of Lutruwita (Tasmania). There are multiple worlds, multiple perspectives that exist here competing for attention. A record, a tracing, a poem, a rendering into language that proves sustained existence. Under the push of colonial power to wipe out all language, all kinds of survival it cannot control.
Despite all the forces that render us voiceless, we still speak. We are still here. Relics as remainders reminding us that we have survived. I heard Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson speaking about Indigenous Sovereignty and the thought systems that govern a (my) western
understanding of land and property. Robinson describes Indigenous
Sovereignty as being a sustained connection to the land. Not as
owners (in the sense of property), but as an unending interconnection
of reciprocal relation with the non-human. An entanglement that isn’t hierarchical. It is a sustained relationship, unending; although colonialism has tried, this was and always will be Aboriginal land, cared for by the people who were here first. Pushing up against colonial relics this resilient survival seems particularly impressive.
Through the evidence of our making, the objects cast out here in this space, we are able to prove our survival. We are able to come together in our rituals. Kari says “Look, we are still here”, let this community, this connection, this network be evidence of our enduring survival; a testimony to our resilient selves.
Written by Zoë Bastin to accompany Relics of Survival.