Friday, August 10, 2012

The Living and the Dead

by Kylie Eastley

Arin Rungjang from Bangkok worked with Rwandan potters and orphans to create the work titled The Living are Few but the Dead are Many, 2012.
Six television screens are installed in a corner of a white room. Each play a different documentary or story of an orphan in Rwanda. With each screen is a headset and depending which one you choose, you may hear traditional singing, music, stories of trauma or other sounds. Opposite the screens, on the other side of an inconvenient post, are a collection of handmade terracotta pots, arranged in what seems like no particular order. Coloured paper flowers are positioned in the pots.
There is no getting around the fact that this space feels very stark. Not welcoming or warm. Many visitors to the space exit quickly, in a rather dismissive manner. It's a shame really. As it is not until you place the headsets on, especially those that emit the beautiful Rwandan music, that there is any cohesion with this work. The songs and sounds seem to better prepare us for the tragedy and trauma of the stories that we read on screen. Without this, the viewer is a little at sea. I wonder if people move on quickly because we have become so desensitised to tragedy that we glaze over such stories. Changing the TV station before we see the starving African children. I don't know. But visitors pass quickly through this room without engaging with the experience. It just doesn't seem to do justice to the content. Is this intentional? Is there a message that the artist is trying to send us?

Even with the sound element, there is a disconnect with this work and I found myself getting really quite angry about it and more importantly the way it has been curated. The pots seem to be thrown together in a corner of the room, sitting on a collection of disparate shelves that give no reverence or importance to the pieces. Is this intentional? If it is it is certainly not clear to the viewer.
The nature of artists working with communities, particularly disadvantaged communities can be complex. And work produced through such collaboration can challenge as it both invites us to view the work as an art installation but also to consider the narratives that influence it. The reality is that we do not see the months and sometimes years of engagement between the artist and community, we just see the physical outcome.
Depending on the intention of the artist there are obvious curatorial decisions that could have helped to connect the visitor to the work. But again, this comes down to the intention of the artist. My feeling is that the work hasn't been fully realised and like the artist statement needs clearer articulation.

The Living are Few but the Dead are Many, 2012 is part of the Sydney Biennale and is housed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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