Specific Gravity at MOANA project space: David and Andrew Wood

Map of the night sky from Marilinga Ground Zero, one second before impact.
by Graham Mathwin

There are histories that collide with the present in strange ways. The unpredictability of the world is neatly theorised, but impossible to overcome, to do anything about. We wander indeterminately through time, each choice enacting a thorough madness. The image of the world after determinism is one without the simple happiness of knowing that things will turn out all right, but it is also a world where we have choice. The irrevocability of these choices, and their unintended results, are always around us.

The Wood brothers investigate the cosmological and the grandly historical from a peripatetic and circuitous position in their work. Histories and anecdotal stories, mythic in their proportion, often focused on the desert landscape, are bound up with the knowledge of their often-tragic passage. Their work in this exhibition, ‘Specific Gravity’, consists of a charcoal drawing with text, and a tower with a wreath of electric lights (a tower that apparently can be carried on one’s back) in reference to the testing of a nuclear bomb in Maralinga. In a sad elegy to some of the less savoury choices that inform the world we live in, it presents a re-presentation, or a recreation, of the position of the stars one second before the detonation of the bomb that devastated the environment and sickened and later killed many soldiers (guinea pigs) and aboriginal people in the vicinity. This reciprocal tower, a small reminder to devastation, is vast for its imaginary scope. It is an attempt to reclaim something inside a state of grace. The work is an apt memorial.

It feels totally inadequate to grasp its goal - as it probably should - a frail, metal structure, and a scratched charcoal drawing, the wires and insubstantial machinations of its construction, cannot turn back time. The ‘map back’ to one second before the explosion will only ever be a map. The slightness of the construction replicates the delicate conceptualization, a tenuous attempt to recapture a moment before everything went to shit. Its delicacy is not a problem, but rather like straightening the wings of a crushed insect, or an attempt to bring a dragonfly back from the dead, is more effective than any vast, impersonal monument. The nature of memory, especially such dangerous and culturally important memories as this, is very much like the collection of fragments that make up this work – constituted into a replica of the tower and the night sky above it. Its inadequacy, or perhaps its futility, seems totally appropriate.

There is seemingly always a focus on the performative quality of the nuclear bomb. Kubrik’s end to Dr. Stangelove is perhaps the most well known, where a montage of explosions play out to the tune of Vera Lynn’s ‘we’ll meet again’, it is also in Lynch’s Eraserhead, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. The quiet nature of this assembly stands in contrast to the spectacle of the bomb, to its theatrical gesture. It is possessed of the same feeling before the movie begins in cinemas, or the play in theatres, and the lights dim. It feels very much like an honest attempt to go back, and hold that moment in perpetuity, hold it against the inevitability that it has already happened. There is a kind of na├»ve hope that things will be okay, but also a hopeless acknowledgement that things are definitely not.

The materials – charcoal; metal; bare, incandescent bulbs – are not raw, but certainly not overworked. The construction of a frame-like tower is only practical, and here it is a mimesis of that pragmatism. The wreath of lights, their wires visible, is no attempt to improve on aesthetics. The charcoal, perhaps the ‘rawest’ material, does not seem out of place – but the text and the diagram move beyond this materiality, and explain and express much more of the work’s poetry. (A digression: The entire exhibition seems vaguely analogue, strangely romantic in its use of material: charcoal (in two works), salt, earth, and slide projectors, overhead projectors, and incandescent bulbs. The artists seem to be searching the ‘outback’ of both Australia and the solar system, but from a position in time as well – it is as if they had gone several decades backwards, in order to go forwards [like Daft Punk]. I’m reluctant to describe it as a ‘return to materiality’ but there is a significant presence of the analogue here. Why is this the case? There is acknowledgement of the present, there is also acknowledgement of the digital, (the media of Hull’s work, but explicitly as subject in Finn, Doherty and Hamilton’s) but the choice to look at these media is a beguiling move. Why emphasise the physicality of things in the digital age? Is it a concern for the past, its materiality? To what might be lost in the translation? I think that the artists are attempting to understand our relationship to the past, and the physical environment, by using the very matter of these things. The analogue media is not a romanticisation of the past so much as an attempt to gain access to it. Perhaps these works do not express nostalgia for the past as try to evoke it). The Woods’ use of materials is also happily not ostentatious. It feels like the meeting of Joseph Beuys and Felix Gonzalez Torres, a strange mixture of material animism and intelligent, poetic hope.


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