by Rahul KumarJul 17, 2021
At first glimpse the azure blue entity nestled on the floor of the restored San Lazaro Church in Venice seems amorphous. It is suggestive of an island, but seems simultaneously oceanic, as if there were really no separation between states of matter, like the categories of land and ocean were arbitrary and human made. I arrived at this land-water mass after navigating through the many-screened data visualisations proselytising inevitable apocalyptic doom, a colossal undertaking by Territorial Agency titled Oceans in Transformation. Both artworks are housed at Ocean Space, an interdisciplinary foundation conceived by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporarz (TBA21). They weren’t intended to be viewed together. But through a series of events and decisions they share conceptual ground, both artworks rooted in concerns about oceanic ecologies. Yet, they seem to represent two vastly different approaches. As a feminist and as someone who draws so much intellectual and spiritual nourishment from indigenous scholarship, I am inevitably drawn towards the tantalisingly azure island mass that I learn is called Buka, the second largest island in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in eastern Papua New Guinea, ancestral home of the visual artist, Taloi Havini, who is responsible for this work, Answer to the Call, one of multiple iterations of the exhibition,The Soul Expanding Ocean.
Because of my ongoing association with Ocean Space in my capacity as one of the two mentors of the 2021 fellowship, I have had the privilege of listening in to conversations with the work’s curator, Chus Martínez, and Havini, to whose work I was first introduced last year at the Dhaka Art Summit. Before I encountered Havini’s work, Reclamation, at the Shilpakala Academy in Dhaka, I had been fortunate to have its context prefaced for me by the DAS artistic director, Diana Campbell-Betancourt, who shared with me over an interview an anecdote about Havini, who is a member of the matrilineal Hakö clan of the northernmost part of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. “She said where she comes from, they burn the village huts, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but so the community will remember how to make them.” I had been taken aback by how this simple piece of reflection was the embodiment of indigenous place-thought, attesting to how non-western systems of relationality perceive objects as not having intrinsic value so much as being carriers of inter-generational thought and practice. Reclamation revealed a wall-less structure whose floor had been laid with earth. It was apparently made with natural materials harvested by the artist and her clan, referencing its structures of ritual and exchange and became a holding ground for a range of activities during the Summit. It was always peopled and professed, brazenly, a kind of conflation of boundaries between the private and the public, making the domestic political while drawing from temporal architecture.
Havini and Chus both spoke about the ‘responsorial’ nature of the work, essentially composed of the to-scale shape of Buka island and a 22-channel sound installation that washes over the listener. Conceived and produced remotely, thanks to the pandemic, both curator and artist had multiple exchanges about the context of the exhibition site, its erstwhile history as a place of worship, a place of ritual conducted in the form of call and response, the premise of most prayer. The first time I stopped to participate as listener to the almost 40-minute-long accompanying sound piece, I happened to be simultaneously confronted with a ball of heavily entangled mercerised cotton. I had carried my crochet work with me and, unknowingly, it had got caught up in itself. The Möbius-strip-like knots began to resemble the havoc of climate change. On the one hand there was Territorial Agency revealing to me the precise nature of our current state of crisis. On the front facade of Ocean Space facing Campo Lorenzo and bordering a canal was a line that is illuminated at night. It was installed by Territorial Agency to depict how high the waters would rise if we collectively strived to stick to the stipulations for resource consumption as stipulated by the Paris Agreement. My difficulty with diving into
Oceans in Transformation stemmed from how effectively (and even terrifyingly) Territorial Agency had managed to aestheticise data without the comfort of nuance, suggesting, thus, that all of humanity was equally complicit. I view our present dystopia as symptomatic of a Manthropocene mentality. As a person of colour with a history of having being colonised, and as a recent immigrant to Europe, I do not believe I have an equal role to play in the accelerated pace of our ecological devastation. I am terrified when I am confronted with data that tells me how near we are to the brink of destruction because I am still struggling, personally, to achieve agency, to assert my rights as a marginalised being, to feel like this world could belong, also, to me, and that I might find a place in it. It is these fears that explain why I am more swayed by the writing of indigenous theorists like Zoe Todd, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and the scholarship of theorists like Kathryn Yusoff. When I listen to white male scientists inform me of the pace of ecological devastation, using statistics, facts, and predictions to spell our collective doom, I am tempted to ask them to invest energy, instead, in demanding that indigenous people be given back their lands, and in being allies to women, trans, and other historically marginalised entities.
Click here to watch Taloi Havini in conversation with Chus Martínez.
What feels instantly empowering in Havini’s answer to the call is how she returns agency to the ocean, asking of us as inhabitants of earth, to listen. Instead of a singular narrative voice, we receive a polyphonic narrative composed of underwater sounds she herself recorded during the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Artist-at-Sea residency she did onboard the research vessel, Falkor, observing the mapping of the Great Barrier Reef, alongside sounds from her ancestral archive, and pan flute compositions performed by her uncle, Ben Hakalitz syncopated by drum beats. Instead of foretelling our extinction, the artwork celebrates the vitality that pulsates all forms of human and other-than-human life, reminding us of all that is worth saving, all that is worth salvaging and worth fighting for. It eschews a singular voice in lieu of multiple agencies. It mourns our collective losses but loops us within a subversive gospel of hope. By extending to us such a powerfully sonic and meditative invitation to inhabit her place of ancestral origin, Havini performs an act of radical hospitality, she transposes her home despite her own position of present exile in Sydney.