Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti: mes­sage received at Anna Schwartz and Art­space galleries

Christopher Allen
The Australian, June 17 2017

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the foun­da­tion of social life, in ani­mals as in humans, and indeed ani­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, with­out the ben­e­fit of lan­guage, is far more mys­te­ri­ous than our own: herds and packs of mam­mals act in uni­son, flocks of birds co-ordi­nate in a way that implies a con­nect­ed or net­worked mind, and ants and bees organ­ise them­selves into elab­o­rate social sys­tems. Lan­guage, how­ev­er, gives humans oth­er advan­tages, allow­ing us to think about the past and future, draw infer­ences and make choic­es, instead of func­tion­ing on the basis of more or less hard­wired instinct.

This abil­i­ty to choose dif­fer­ent cours­es of action, to learn from expe­ri­ence and to pass on what we have learned to oth­ers, is essen­tial­ly why humans are capa­ble of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment and ani­mals are not. Even so most human cul­tures, before the begin­ning of agri­cul­ture and urban life, bare­ly changed for thou­sands of years at a time.

But the pow­er of lan­guage to artic­u­late coun­ter­fac­tu­al propo­si­tions and con­jure up ideas of alter­na­tive real­i­ties also allows those who can mas­ter it to lead oth­ers and achieve dom­i­nant posi­tions in their com­mu­ni­ty. Rhetoric, the art of per­sua­sion, has a long his­to­ry: Pla­to crit­i­cised it as in effect an instru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of rea­son for pow­er and gain, as opposed to phi­los­o­phy whose mis­sion was to seek the truth. Today we have uni­ver­si­ty cours­es in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which real­ly means the use of the media to shape the opin­ions, desires and fears of a mass population.

We live in a sea of always-on media con­nec­tion, but for a long time com­mu­ni­ca­tion at a dis­tance was dif­fi­cult. The human voice does not car­ry far, and is clear­ly audi­ble only over an even short­er dis­tance. The inven­tion of writ­ing rev­o­lu­tionised the pow­er of lan­guage in many ways, for among oth­er things it is almost a pre­con­di­tion of ratio­nal think­ing. But it also allowed writ­ten mes­sages to be car­ried over great dis­tances, extend­ing the exchange of knowl­edge but also the reach of impe­r­i­al power.

Dis­tance, how­ev­er, meant time: mes­sages could trav­el around the world but, like the light of the stars, the world from which they orig­i­nat­ed might have changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly between the moment of emis­sion and that of recep­tion. Instan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tion across dis­tance was mas­tered by mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy only since the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, and the tele­phone was still a nov­el­ty a cen­tu­ry ago: Proust writes of the strange and mov­ing expe­ri­ence of hear­ing his grandmother’s voice on the tele­phone, sud­den­ly dis­em­bod­ied and vulnerable.

Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti has long been inter­est­ed in the modes of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ver­bal and non-ver­bal, over dis­tances and in prox­im­i­ty. The remark­able three-screen film work that she pro­duced as recip­i­ent of the inau­gur­al Ian Pot­ter Mov­ing Image com­mis­sion, The Call­ing (2014), was devot­ed to the ancient whistling lan­guages still prac­tised in parts of the Mediter­ranean world, in this case in Turkey, Greece (the island of Euboea) and the Span­ish Canary Islands.

These were three com­mu­ni­ties speak­ing dif­fer­ent ver­bal lan­guages yet they could all use whistling — in effect whis­tled tran­scrip­tions of their respec­tive lan­guages — to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers far away, up and down hills or across val­leys, where the human voice would be inaudi­ble or indis­tin­guish­able. It was a skill that allowed a com­mu­ni­ty to live and work in remote and sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed regions but also depend­ed on close bonds of famil­iar­i­ty to remain intel­li­gi­ble. Such sys­tems rapid­ly die out in cities, where close­ness makes them redun­dant and most exchanges are with strangers.

Mesiti’s instal­la­tion at Sydney’s Art­space is based on anoth­er sys­tem of dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion, morse code. This means of trans­pos­ing alpha­bet­ic let­ters into pat­terns of dots and dash­es or, in audi­ble terms, short and long beeps, was devel­oped as a way of send­ing sig­nals over the new elec­tric tele­graph devel­oped by British and Amer­i­can sci­en­tists in the 1830s and 40s. For the next cen­tu­ry it remained a cru­cial vehi­cle of civ­il and mil­i­tary sig­nalling: I recall my grand­moth­er attribut­ing her insom­nia in lat­er life to sit­ting up all night in Jerusalem dur­ing the war lis­ten­ing to and tran­scrib­ing tele­graph signals.

In 1844, Morse’s famous first mes­sage expressed his won­der at the poten­tial of the new inven­tion: What hath God wrought!” And when, 150 years lat­er, the French navy final­ly aban­doned morse sig­nalling in 1997, it announced this deci­sion in an eeri­ly poet­ic final trans­mis­sion: Appel a tous. Ceci est notre dernier cri avant notre silence eter­nel: Call­ing all. This is our final cry before our eter­nal silence.”

This orac­u­lar utter­ance was notable not only for the melan­choly of the idea of eter­nal silence but for the ambigu­ous con­no­ta­tions of the word cry rather than mes­sage or trans­mis­sion: for a cry is not neu­tral but usu­al­ly implies joy or pain or an appeal for help. It caught Mesiti’s atten­tion and became the ker­nel of the instal­la­tion at Art­space, where a hang­ing sculp­ture, like a kind of wind chime, repro­duces the message’s pat­terns of longs and shorts.

At one end of a space par­ti­tioned by translu­cent screens into some­thing of a maze, there is a video of a per­cus­sion­ist tak­ing the morse code sig­nal as the basis for a rhyth­mic impro­vi­sa­tion. His music, which per­vades the gallery space, reminds us that all musi­cal and even ver­bal rhythm is based on the same prin­ci­ples. The met­ri­cal shape of verse is noth­ing but the alter­na­tion of stressed and unstressed syl­la­bles in most mod­ern lan­guages, and of long and short syl­la­bles — more exact­ly match­ing morse — in Latin and Greek.

At the end of the gallery, we encounter, revealed in two stages, anoth­er kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, only this time in prox­im­i­ty, even direct contact.

On the first video screen we find a young man and woman — both blond Nor­we­gians — sit­ting on the floor side-by-side: we soon realise the boy is blind and the girl is explain­ing a chore­o­graph­ic pat­tern to him by a com­bi­na­tion of direct con­tact from body to body and phys­i­cal manip­u­la­tion of his hand or arm.

As we turn the cor­ner into the final space we dis­cov­er the object of this unusu­al form of non-ver­balver­bal, tac­tile com­mu­ni­ca­tion: the girl is watch­ing a dancer impro­vis­ing move­ments and she is explain­ing to the young blind man the spec­ta­cle that he can­not see for him­self. Mesi­ti, who was once a dancer, has referred to the art of dance in ear­li­er works and is evi­dent­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by the sub­tle­ty and com­plex­i­ty of move­ments that can be learned intu­itive­ly but are notat­ed, record­ed or marked in abbre­vi­at­ed signs intel­li­gi­ble only to the practitioner.

Morse code appears in Mesiti’s con­cur­rent Mel­bourne exhi­bi­tion, too, in the most famous of all sig­nals, and per­haps the only one that all of us know: SOS with its three dots, three dash­es and three dots. The dis­tress sig­nal is repeat­ed twice in dif­fer­ent forms as a hang­ing sculp­ture, as are oth­er mes­sages, includ­ing how are you receiv­ing me?” and the reply loud and clear”.

The nau­ti­cal con­text for this exchange, already estab­lished in the Syd­ney exhi­bi­tion, is here recalled by the show’s title, Tossed By Waves, a ref­er­ence to the city of Paris’s mot­to fluc­tu­at nec mer­gi­tur, accom­pa­ny­ing the emblem of a ship at sea: she is tossed but does not sink. This orig­i­nal­ly medieval asser­tion of resilience, long tak­en for grant­ed like the Latin of a school crest, assumed a new life in the minds of Parisians after the Islamist ter­ror attacks of Novem­ber 2015. It became a sym­bol of the resis­tance to bar­barism and reli­gious bigotry.

As it turns out, there are many things we had come to take for grant­ed: a free, demo­c­ra­t­ic and sec­u­lar soci­ety where every­one can hold and express their own beliefs, where no reli­gious zealot has the right to tell us what to think, where we may behave as we wish as long as we don’t harm oth­ers around us. We have dis­cov­ered that there are peo­ple who not only do not share these beliefs but con­sid­er that those who do hold them are the ene­mies of reli­gion and may legit­i­mate­ly be murdered.

Mesiti’s exhi­bi­tion opened just after the almost unimag­in­ably evil attack on a con­cert full of chil­dren in Manchester.

In the con­text of a civ­il soci­ety under siege, the 19th-cen­tu­ry mon­u­ment to Mar­i­anne as the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the French Repub­lic, in the cen­tre of the Place de la Republique (1883), also came to acquire a new mean­ing for Parisians as a focus of defi­ance and resis­tance. And this is the sub­ject of the silent and solemn video work that occu­pies the whole far wall of Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery, beyond the hang­ing bell sculptures.

There are no rous­ing or overt­ly polit­i­cal shots of Mar­i­anne, of course. Only once does the cam­era pan up her fig­ure and reveal, for an instant, her serene bronze face. Oth­er­wise the shots are close, trav­el­ling up and down and left and right across a bronze pan­el illus­trat­ing the tak­ing of the Bastille in 1789, and espe­cial­ly what could be con­sid­ered inci­den­tal pas­sages of orna­men­tal mar­ble carv­ing around the bases of the unseen alle­gor­i­cal fig­ures of Lib­er­ty, Equal­i­ty and Fraternity.

But it is here that we dis­cov­er how much sig­nif­i­cance can lie hid­den in seem­ing­ly minor details: at what feels like the begin­ning of the film — though it is on a con­tin­u­ous loop — a wavy hor­i­zon­tal sequence of drap­ery carv­ing seems to recall the work’s title. After this leit­mo­tiv, the fur­ther pas­sages of drap­ery, seen from close up, can sug­gest stormy seas; but at the same time they echo con­ven­tions of carv­ing that go back to the ori­gins of democ­ra­cy in ancient Athens, where Pericles’s funer­al ora­tion, as report­ed by Thucy­dides, is indeed the first explic­it man­i­festo of an open society.

Oth­er motifs appear as the cam­era moves in a steady rhythm over the sur­face of the mon­u­ment: the emblem­at­ic torch of the fig­ure of Lib­er­ty; palms that stand for mar­tyr­dom; swags of oak leaves and acorns, which were a sym­bol of civic virtue from the time of the Roman Repub­lic. Graf­fi­ti appears here and there, but nev­er more strik­ing­ly than the red spray paint which, from close up, looks like streams of blood run­ning down the white stone.

Once again it is about what we take for grant­ed: free­dom, the val­ues of a humane and sec­u­lar soci­ety, are embod­ied almost uncon­scious­ly in the lan­guage of orna­ment that sur­rounds the main and explic­it­ly pro­gram­mat­ic fig­ures of the mon­u­ment. And the work of the crafts­men who carved these orna­ments is also some­thing we tend to over­look. These men were not great sculp­tors. They were assis­tants in a large sculp­tur­al work­shop, whose names are prob­a­bly bare­ly record­ed; yet, like the anony­mous carvers of the cathe­drals, they were hum­ble bear­ers of ideas and beliefs that help to knit a pop­u­la­tion into a polit­i­cal community.

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