Walking beside Sydney Harbour on a glorious crisp, blue winter day I feel the sea breeze on my cheeks, smell the salty sea spray and taste the tang of sea salt on my tongue. My spirit expands along with the spaces between my vertebrae and I feel … taller.
Crossing the threshold into the Museum of Contemporary Art, I am made small, as I am engulfed by the cavernous, industrial entrance hall. I move into the north gallery on Level One with its soaring ceiling and multiple artworks. My attention zooms in and out as I am drawn into and out of relationship to the multiple works exhibited in this room. I tilt my head down to view a tiny TV monitor, present my face to the Gods to watch videos on giant suspended screens, then bow my head as I consider a vast tatami mat laid out on the floor and surrounded by urban street barricades.*
Traversing the cavernous entrance hall once more, I approach the southern gallery with its low ceiling and dim lighting. The imminent heaviness of this gallery presses down on me, compacting my flesh and restricting my mobility. Much like Alice during her Adventure’s in Wonderland, (Caroll, 1865), as I move through these spaces, I feel myself expanding and contracting as I have encounters of varying intensity with artworks in Nirin, The 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020).
I cross the threshold into the southern gallery, and my journey is arrested by Erkan Özgen’s, Wonderland, presented on a large, floor mounted screen at the entrance of the space. I pause momentarily in front of the work, gathering myself to metaphorically step through the virtual portal to the trauma ridden world that Özgen’s work inhabits.
Once more, I am made small. Standing eye-to-eye with the protagonist in the video, a boy about ten years old, I fall down the rabbit hole and end up beside this enigmatic child in a large domestic room. A room with chipped green paint revealing grey cement render and, patterned rugs laid out grid-like across the floor. Electricity cords hang from the wall and the boy, whom I later find out is called Muhammed and is twelve years old, makes insistent, guttural, anxious sounds as he signs, in febrile and emphatic gestures: acts of violence and destruction that he has witnessed.
Buffeted by people passing by, my body is in the way and physically my instinct is to move out of the thoroughfare, but emotionally I can’t work out an escape route that doesn’t abandon this child as he asks us to bear witness to his lived experience in Syria. Standing in awe of the work, I know that at some point, I have to make a public decision: to walk away. Özgen’s depiction of Muhammed, is a metaphor for people who have lost their homes in Syria and in other war-torn countries. In this gallery encounter, I am shamed by what Muhammed has lived through. I am shamed by what humanity can do to each other. In Wonderland, I directly encounter a young boy whom, without spoken language at his disposal, eloquently crosses all barriers to recount his first-hand experiences of the atrocities of war.
Bearing witness to Muhammed’s utterances I grapple with understanding the magnitude of what he has experienced. Eventually I abandon this brave and articulate child as he repeatedly shares his lived experiences of shootings, bombings and beheadings, as captured in the endlessly looping video. Yet he stays with me, pressing himself into my consciousness, up against the limit of my emotional, intellectual and philosophic competence.
It is our obligation, I believe, to give challenging artworks the dignity of time, to stay with the discomfort and not demand quick explanations as a way to give us distance from the raw material. Just as when Alice falls down the rabbit hole, we need to recognize that the seeds for this dark wonderland were planted by human behaviour in the world above ground.
In Draw your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles offers up ‘an impassioned defence of life lived by peace and principle … with an urgent hope at its core: that art might offer tools for remaking the world.’ (Sentilles, 2017)
Sentilles elaborates: To see a photograph of suffering is to become a citizen of photography, Ariella Azoulay argued; to be a viewer – to see through the gaze of another – is to become a plaintiff who must let the image speak. And though you may be the viewer today or the photographer tomorrow, soon will come a time when you are the one in front of the lens. Bodies are bound by a shared precariousness. ‘Let’s face it’, Judith Butler wrote. ‘We are undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. (Sentilles, 2017, preface).
bell hooks tells us, In teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom, that particularly, healers, therapists and teachers have a responsibility to be response–able, (Mackinlay, 2016) and to remain engaged with the world and with those they care for. hooks advocates committing to a practice of:
engaged pedagogy … that emphasizes well-being. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students… hooks also says, when you enter the classroom there is no threshold that requires you to empty out yourself, before entering as ‘only an objective mind – free of experiences and biases’ … And that, any classroom that employs a wholistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and they are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks… In my classroom I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. (hooks, p. 15 – 21)
I began this post speaking of crossing thresholds as stepping over a threshold into a building or room, or metaphorically dropping down a rabbit hole or stepping into the virtual space of an artwork. At this point, I want to emphasize the potential of encounters to be threshold moments and in particular encounters with art. I am interested in identifying and understanding the moment when the intensity of an encounter reaches such magnitude that a ‘threshold’ is crossed and a certain phenomenon or condition is made manifest. I believe that, Wonderland, featuring twelve-year-old, Muhammed sharing the traumatic events he has witnessed and that have consequently become part of him, and subsequently part of all of us, offers us a threshold moment. A moment of such intensity and magnitude that we cannot escape the intimacy and specificity of our understanding of the profound injustice and brutality of war. What we do with that I am not sure. But, reframing the Judith Butler Quote I shared earlier in this post – I realised that if I wasn’t undone by Muhammed and his story in Wonderland, I’d be missing something. I am going to end with a reflection on silence. Perhaps the choice between silence and speech offers us endless threshold moments where the potential for change lingers.
hooks, b. a. (1994). Teaching to transgress : education as the practice of freedom, New York, , Oxfordshire, England, Routledge.
Mackinlay, E., (2016) Living Our Pedagogic Response-Abilities in Women’s and Gender Studies, Teaching and Learning Like a Feminist, pp 153 – 169 ISBN: 9789463006774
Sentilles, (2017), Draw your weapons. Random House, ISBN 9780399590344)
*The artworks referred to in the northern gallery on level one, at the MCA Sydney include works from 15 Screens, and works by Victoria Santa Cruz and Kulimoe’anga Stone Make.