Angelica Mesiti

From National Gallery of Australia

9 September 2017 – March 2018
Contemporary art galleries | Lower Ground
Free entry

Angelica Mesiti has long been fascinated by performance: as a mode of storytelling and a means to express social ideas in physical form. In recent years she has been making refined videos that reveal how culture is manifested through non-linguistic forms of communication, and especially through vocabularies of sound and gesture. While borrowing archetypes and stylistic cues from cinema, and using the visual language of film to present detailed studies of human subjects in heightened states of reverie or reflection, Mesiti’s works eschew linearity. Instead, she uses a rich, aesthetic treatment to uncover the transformative potential of all human beings, valuing the qualities of ambiguity and indeterminacy in their own right.

This exhibition features five recent works, offering an expansive view of the range of subjects with which Mesiti has engaged. When considered together, this suite reveals how the artist bears witness to enchanted moments of inner life with her camera. Intensity builds through an accumulation of rhythms, sounds and gestures, flowing back and forth between individual and social space – from person to person, situation to situation, culture to culture.

The Gallery has proposed an acquisition of The calling 2013-14, which reflects Mesiti’s ongoing interest in non-verbal communication and adapted forms of expression. To make the work she travelled to three regions in Turkey, Greece and The Canary Islands, where, for centuries, whistled languages have been used to carry messages, gossip, argue and court, all over great distance. Only a handful have survived the arrival of telephones, and the artist met with village communities and schools to study the ways in which these musical techniques have been altered and adapted over time; especially in the face of recent, dramatic change. Taking the appearance of a documentary, this project is also an extended exploration of how, Mesiti says, ‘a cultural activity that is no longer a necessary part of daily life can be held onto as a cultural artefact, and how that activity then enters into another state. It becomes a tradition that can be performed as a representation of a culture’s identity, shifting from something useful to something symbolic’.

The religious and secular are interwoven in Rapture (silent anthem) 2009, where Mesiti uses silence and slow motion to powerful effect, filming fresh-faced teenagers in the mosh pit at a rock concert. Shot from a concealed location, we see youths lost in worship and the tightly cropped footage suggests a scene of collective fervour and spiritual transportation. Presented nearby in the exhibition space is another silent work presented in slow motion, the exultant Nakh removed 2015, which examines and reimagines a Berber ritual – the rite of the nakh, or hair dance – where the repeated rocking of the head and body are reputed to elevate the dancer into a trance state. These hypnotic rhythms would traditionally be conducted by young women during the wedding festival season that follows the first harvest, but here, they take place in the contemporary space of the studio.

Elsewhere, Citizens band 2012 traces unique musical and aural languages across time and space. Played in succession as four affecting chapters, each introduces us to an individual performing a musical tradition from their homeland, adapted for a new environment. Loïs Geraldine Zongo, a Cameroonian woman, pounds the chlorinated waters of a Parisian swimming pool, her complex percussive beats picked out using a technique called akutuk, or water drumming.

On the Paris Métro, Algerian refugee Mohammed Lamourie sings a haunting folk ballad; blending pure tones, humming and the rhythms of Raï music – a hybrid Arabic-Western musical form which has been outlawed in Algeria – he performs for an audience of indifferent commuters, accompanied by the plink-plonk of his keyboard. We also see Bukchuluun Ganburged (Bukhu), a Mongolian throat singer, playing the morin khuur (horse-hair fiddle) on a street corner in Newtown, his razor sharp vocals vibrating on different tonal levels. And finally, Sudanese-born Asim Goreshi whistles an improvised tune, riffing on sacred Sufi melodies in the front seat of his Brisbane cab. Each musician delivers a distinct sound, using a technique that is both particular to and inflected with its specific cultural origins.

As with Mesiti’s other featured works, The colour of saying 2015 explores how the body is used as a vessel for communication and expression. In this instance, a sign language choir from Önnestad Folk High School performs a piece originally intended for voice, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music (1938). The score is brought to life through hand gestures and bodily movements, with the silence eventually broken by two percussionists clapping in syncopation. For Mesiti, the body serves as both subject and object, a means with which to mark time and an instrument for creating rhythmic beats. Later, form and sound are brought together when two ballet dancers, Rolf Hepp and Jette Nejman, ‘dance’ a pas de deux while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on their headphones, using only their hands to express the choreography. This work operates through multiple acts of translation, creating sensory impressions for performer and viewer alike in its various iterations: as a score, performance and through a haptic exchange.

In different ways each of the works included in this exhibition are expressions of being-in-the-world, with Mesiti’s subjects offering themselves to emotion, at the same time as they enact it. The arc of each performance, or series of moments captured on camera, cultivates for the viewer an imaginary of another place, suffusing the senses. Angelica Mesiti’s sensibility is poetic, lively and immediate – attuned to subtle relationships between musicality, performance and the visual image – and above all else, alive to the nuances of her subject matter.

This project is part of an ongoing series focussed on leading contemporary practitioners, and foregrounds the Gallery’s renewed emphasis on the moving image, which has continued into the 21st century as a prominent mode of artistic endeavour.

Bree Richards
Curator, Contemporary Art Practice – Global

Pictured: ANGELICA MESITI, Nakh Removed, 2015