Pantheon: The Mill

by Jane

Originally commissioned by The Mill and published in their publication Pantheon, corresponding with the exhibition of the same name.

Art galleries and theatres are often spoken about for the aspects they share with religious buildings. Art and religion have always been intertwined: from commissions to write symphonies or to paint cathedrals, to the attempt to ban theatre and other dissenting voices that art can hold.

Today, they are each places we visit and gather in to consider the world and our place in it. In galleries and in churches, we ask the big questions about who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. They’re places that can disturb, and can comfort. Places that can force us to ask questions, or force our hand into being placated and ask none.

They are places you can visit alone, to relax in the stillness. You walk through with reverence, in quiet, perhaps a brief smile and a nod to your fellow visitors. Or perhaps there are no fellow visitors, and you are alone in an empty space: just you and the stories it holds, the ancient tales or the modern creations. Amongst iconography and paintings and sculptures, you walk, your shoes clacking along the ground as the sound echoes between gallery walls or church gables. You might sit, just to look and contemplate your place.

At events – the Catholic mass, the art world’s opening nights – these halls become filled with people, bodies touch and mingle, friends great friends, we join to consider whatever it is that is placed before us. We contemplate ideas, we reflect on shared histories, we question new futures. There is often a spot of wine in this collective, ritualistic considering of life and the universe: its answers and its unknowns. Or perhaps we’re told not to question by our Priest or our Rabbi or our artist, perhaps we’re told to just consider everything as it is presented to be true and correct.

Is religion and art for our comfort, or our discomfort? At the end of the day, is there a heaven to strive towards? Or just a hell to avoid?

For those who come to Pantheon, many will be religious. Some will pray every day; go to worship every week; consider their god or gods always. Some will see their god as part of their life, but not always present. Not always thought about. Not visited in a church or a synagogue or a mosque every week.

In an increasingly secular Australia, many won’t be religious. They may have been brought up in a family that always eschewed religion, or it may have been something they came to on their own. They may tick atheist at the census, or no religion, or leave it blank.

People in both of these groups may come to art galleries much more often than they go to a church.

Does this mean the art gallery is their church?

For Pantheon, Amber Cronin and Erin Fowler asked local artists to consider what their personal mythology is. If we were to start again, today, and consider the world, how would we make sense of it all? A benevolent force, or a destructive one? Or do our new gods sit above the fray: there, but inert in the way the world turns.

Their curation mixes together visual art and performance, and it’s interesting as you move through the exhibition to see the way the ideas shift from the front gallery into the performance space. At the front, many of the ideas the artists seem to be playing with stem from the ancient: in a small Secret Valley, Peter Fong has placed a carved totem. Fruzsi Kenez’s illustrations may be modern, but it’s impossible not to note the ancient Egyptians also had a partiality for cats. Strands of these ancient Egyptians, or perhaps the Greeks, come through in Aurelia Carbone’s sculptures: part human, part animal. In many of the works in this gallery there is an inherent comfort. If they were to start again, today, their god would provide tranquillity in the familiar.

The mood shifts as you leave the front gallery. Lighting dimmed, the path ahead unclear, our vision restricted with masks: there is a deliberate unease about this space.

We encounter Delana Carbone’s the Gods have been lost, and question: is there a god that we’ve stopped listening to? Can we feel this god, can we see it? How is it, she asks us, that we can communicate between ourselves without words? Our society and the way we function in it is shaped by words. Audible and visible language is the way we know what we know, the way we think what we think. But then how can it be true that we can communicate through eye contact and a simultaneous breath? It must be through a god, surely.

This god, therefore, is true. But what if, she asks us, she was to now tell us this god was a lie. What would that mean then? Is today’s god just one of uncertainty?

Further into The Mill, we’re plunged into black, all light removed in the passage to the darkroom. At Lukus Robbins’ Clear Sight from written instructions we offer up a portrait of ourselves and a confession of something we’ve had stolen from us. With no knowledge of where these photographs will end up, it’s an anxious transaction: a sacrifice to an unknown god, for an unknown purpose. As Robbins begins to speak, his voice drips with anger around the word “Murdoch.”

We’ve passed our lives into Murdoch’s hands.

It’s back to the world of the wordless with three dance pieces by Callan Fleming. Margot John performs FURY, as we’re locked off in our own worlds by headphones pumping music only to us, as we consider John’s form against the white background, playing in her own space, alone but for her shadows. Is today’s god only accessed when we’re alone? Outside, Alicia Harvie and Kendal Winton move through an industrialised space: a cold and discomforting world. Inside, at the bar, you might be approached by a Fleming in a dust mask, handing one to you, too, for the intimate encounter of Atlas Dreaming, perhaps of the same post-apocalyptic world as outside. How much hope can today’s god bring?

As we leave, some will be picked up in a car for one final performance in Josephine Were’s Shotgun. One performer and one audience member, Were invites you into a conversation. An introspection. A dance. Were points out to us the world we’re all familiar with today. It’s the world we know where phones echo with the ghosts of vibrations in our pockets, making us reach to see the text message that hasn’t arrived. It’s the world we know of the softly fading and rising glow of the cyclops eye on our computers, always on standby, never truly off. It’s our ipads, our televisions, our radios. It’s technology. Ever humming. Ever there.

There are elements in this that could build off the stories of darkness we have just walked through. Are we too reliant on these things? Should we live without them?

But that’s not where Were takes us. Instead, this technology is comforting. This is distinct from the apocalyptic presence of Robbins’ Murdoch, from Fleming’s dance of claustrophobia and masks. This isn’t the ancient presence invoked by Aurelia Carbone’s human/animal hybrids, or Fong’s totem.

No. This god is fully a god of comfort, and a god of today, sitting with us in our pocket as we leave the car park, and as we walk off into the night.