On a New ‘Cosmic Understanding’

Tony Oursler, Blue, 2006, Plus V-339 projector, DVD player, DVD, fibreglass, dimensions variable. Photo: Creative Events Photography. Courtesy the artist

Cosmic Beings at Cement Fondu, Sydney imagines a more united and equal world

The first thing I see in this group exhibition is an alien. Its bulbous green body sits on top of a high wall above the entry stairs leading into the gallery, greeting visitors. Perhaps ‘greeting’ is not the right word. Tony Oursler’s Blue (2006) is a sculpture of an alien animated by a video projected onto it; and it’s not exactly welcoming. Indeed, it quickly veers towards outright hostility. The alien spouts a staccato stream of consciousness, which both defines and punctuates the space: “Time out, time is up”; “I want to control your DNA”; “Who made you the head of the universe?”; “Save yourself”. You enter the exhibition to this chorus of anxious utterances.

Moving away from the alien’s alarmist speech and towards – as the exhibition text suggests – a kind of new ‘cosmic understanding’, visitors encounter artworks (by an international grouping of eight artists) that ‘offer alternative and speculative narratives, as well as new ways of being now, anticipating how artificially imposed divisions – between humans, the natural world and other species – might evaporate when viewed from an outer space perspective’. The rhetoric here is loaded with utopian promise, teetering on the edge of being overloaded. Yet the text also sets the stakes for the exhibition, which feels all the weightier for it. Cosmic Beings promises to cast us out into the universe and bring us back down to Earth, so that we might, even briefly, radically reimagine a more united and more equal world.

Kalanjay Dhir’s video installation A Perfect Storm; Taju’s time on Earth with seven humans (2023) immediately seems to fulfil the broad strokes of this promise, as it tracks the journey of its title character: an alien who has been sent to Earth to better understand humanity and its overconsumption of energy. Taju, in the form of a fluffy alien hand puppet, is shown speaking to Sydney locals about a series of seemingly unconnected topics: from composting, to the stretches that one does after dancing, to the reverb in a music track, to nail-painting routines. The setup is kitsch and has something of the easy didacticism and nostalgia of Sesame Street to it. Yet these stylings do little to propel us towards any kind of revelation. And while the everyday is made strange, there is little in the way of profound insight that results from this transformed perspective. Perhaps it is unfair to subject a single artwork to such a criteria and expect it to have some sort of revelatory effect – but this is the very yardstick against which the curators seem to have set their selection.

Chitra Ganesh, Before the War, 2021, digital animation, sound by Saul Williams, 3 min 50 sec (looped). Photo: Creative Events Photography. Courtesy the artist

An installation by Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) – the name of the interdisciplinary collaboration between musician, composer, poet, artist and curator Camae Ayewa, and artist, lawyer and community activist Rasheedah Phillips – pulls together a variety of reference materials from quantum physics, Afrofuturism and Afrodiasporic epistemology. Across a pair of vinyl diagrams installed on the gallery’s walls and two sound recordings (all, fittingly, undated), BQF works to question the oppressive orthodoxies of Western notions of space-time. Through this work, the collective seeks to ‘shift the standards of time that leave Black people locked out of the past and future, and stuck in a narrow temporal present’.

The most successful of BQF’s works are the two recordings of discussion groups, abbreviated here as Time Zone Protocols, Quantum Event Map, Surveyors Discussion Group #1 and Time Zone Protocols, Non Linear Timeline, Surveyors Discussion Group #2, which took place with 21 participants at the Prime Meridian Unconference in New York, in 2022. While BQF’s other diagrammatic works are visually impactful – they have arrows pointing in various directions that gesture towards a mapping out of knowledge – their specific teachings remain largely opaque; they frustrate the eye, presenting the trappings of knowledge while also foreclosing access to any discernible information. By contrast, the recordings of the discussion groups feel instantly accessible: as I slip on my headphones, a voice speaks about the disproportionate eviction rates of Black women in Philadelphia, and I can hear the rhythmic tapping of a keyboard in the background. It almost feels like I’m sitting in a classroom or communing around a table. The experience is marred only by the fact that the exhibition does not allow me to forget the reality of where I am standing: there is nowhere to sit near the work, nowhere to linger for the 31 minutes of discussion, nowhere to give it the very time of which the works speak. While the minimalist exhibition is dimly lit and visually arresting, evoking the vast emptiness of outer space, it almost works against the works on show – both lending them an immediate impact and diminishing the likelihood of a more enduring effect.

Chitra Ganesh’s looped digital animation Before the War (2021) casts the gallerygoer tumbling into a kaleidoscopic series of oneiric visions. Here, drawings are interspersed with archival silent film footage, Buddhist iconography and an eclectic mix of other styles and icons that enter and exit the screen too quickly for me to process: a flock of birds slowly fly beneath a shadowed canopy; a figure pulls apart their right eye to reveal the universe; a cat-human hybrid appears and disappears; a masked person explodes into shards of crystal. On and on it goes, like a sequence of flickering brainwashing images – until a vague, subliminal message about dissolving hierarchies between human and nonhuman species seems to sink in.

Cosmic Beings brings together an ambitious range of works, which purport to estrange us from the received assumptions of our everyday. There are moments of turbulence, but that is the nature of interstellar travel.

Cosmic Beings at Cement Fondu, Sydney, 5 August – 24 September

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