Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti, Tossed by Waves

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
The Golden Mean, June 2017

Aus­tralian artist Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti remem­bers the chaos in the imme­di­ate after­math of the Char­lie Heb­do mas­sacre. From her home near­by she could see gen­darme on the street, heav­i­ly armed with huge guns and bul­let­proof vests.” As the tragedy unfold­ed, what struck her most was that the peo­ple showed such incred­i­ble solidarity.”

The tur­bu­lence of that year – includ­ing the Novem­ber 2015 attacks, the sin­gle dead­liest in French his­to­ry, and the refugee cri­sis – inspired Mesi­ti to cre­ate Tossed by Waves, which opened at the Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne, in May. The work – com­pris­ing of a sin­gle chan­nel silent video titled Tossed by Waves’ and five brass sculp­tures – responds to a state of emer­gency, which we seem to be occu­py­ing at the moment, both in Europe and glob­al­ly,” she says.

Mesi­ti, a Syd­ney-sider who lives in Paris, often delves into non-ver­bal and endan­gered lan­guages: past pieces have includ­ed The Silent Choir, a video record­ing of a choir who uses just sign lan­guage, and The Call­ing, an explo­ration of an ancient form of whistling lan­guage, devel­oped to com­mu­ni­cate over moun­tains and gulfs in Greece, Turkey, and the Canary Islands. For Tossed by Waves she has delved into the now dis­used Morse code – a lan­guage devel­oped specif­i­cal­ly to com­mu­ni­cate in crisis.

Cen­tral is the video, show­ing close up, slow­ly pan­ning shots of the mon­u­ment at the cen­tre of Paris’ Place de la République. The square is an impor­tant gath­er­ing point for the pop­u­la­tion. After the Char­lie Heb­do attacks near­ly two mil­lion peo­ple assem­bled in or around the square,” she expounds. It seemed to be the place [to express] dis­sent through protest or a memorsalisation.”

The mon­u­ment itself express­es the fun­da­men­tal val­ues of the French Repub­lic, includ­ing lib­er­ty, equal­i­ty and fra­ter­ni­ty. But Mesi­ti was more inter­est­ed on the graf­fi­ti paint­ed onto the stat­ues and oth­er para­pher­na­lia placed there by the pub­lic. The mon­u­ment start­ed to accu­mu­late these residue of people’s expe­ri­ence in the form of can­dles or flow­ers or bou­quets, graf­fi­ti or protest state­ments,” she says. It was a way to express sol­i­dar­i­ty and to grieve.”

Cru­cial­ly, the mayor’s depart­ment did­n’t clean the mon­u­ment for near­ly two and a half years – they allowed it to accu­mu­late these state­ments, which seemed to be the need for the peo­ple to express their trau­ma, express their expe­ri­ence in this form.”

For me it felt like a real­ly inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion going on, play­ing on the mon­u­ment as a can­vas between the city and the author­i­ties. The graf­fi­ti seems to reflect a dis­il­lu­sion­ment with struc­tures of author­i­ty,” she adds.

While the video shows extreme close up of the carv­ings, focus­ing just on details – spray paint here, an anar­chy sym­bol there – shroud­ing the work in silence was an impor­tant sig­nal for Mesi­ti, reflect­ing a kind of solemn feel­ing, the moments of silence you observe after these dra­mat­ic vio­lent events.” 

Pro­vid­ing a sound­track in the exhi­bi­tion are the sculp­tures. Dots and dash­es of the Morse code sig­nals have been trans­lat­ed into the brass bells and wire works that spell out the phras­es, includ­ing INTQRK (How are you receiv­ing me?) and QRK5 (Loud and clear). Knock­ing togeth­er, the bells pro­duce a dis­so­nant music.

The final sculp­ture is that of a trans­la­tion of the Parisian mot­to, fluc­tu­at nec mer­gi­tur or tossed by the waves but does not sink”. While orig­i­nal­ly used in the 14th cen­tu­ry, the say­ing, which touch­es on the city’s spir­it and strength in the face of adver­si­ty, has had a pop­u­lar res­ur­rec­tion in recent years.

I was real­ly drawn to it because this phrase was tak­en up by the peo­ple of Paris after the Novem­ber 2015 attack, as three art crews made three giant murals around the city,” says Mesi­ti. This became a state­ment of resilience against the trau­ma that had been expe­ri­enced. So it felt like there was a direct rela­tion­ship between Morse code and this mot­to end­bur­ing that turbulence.”

Mesi­ti has also explored the Morse code in Relay League, her exhi­bi­tion in Art­space, Syd­ney. Three sep­a­rate videos inter­pret the final mes­sage sent by the French navy on 31 Jan­u­ary 1997 before decom­mis­sion­ing the Morse code: in the first video, a per­cus­sion­ist inter­prets the code; in the sec­ond that music is inter­pret­ed by two vision impaired dancers; and in the third, a new chore­og­ra­phy, tak­ing cues from the per­cus­sion­ist and inspi­ra­tion from folk dance, is presented. 

Mesi­ti sees the work as reflec­tive of the way the Morse code itself worked, a tele­graph­ic chain of mes­sag­ing sys­tems.” Most poet­ic, though, is the navy mes­sage, which has also pro­vid­ed the title for the show – Call­ing all, this is our final cry before our eter­nal sign.”

It’s a real­ly poet­ic mes­sage to be sent by the navy,” says Mesi­ti, who wants her work to show the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reviv­ing lan­guage through cre­ative acts.

What struck me about it’s the first time the Morse code has ever sent a mes­sage about itself,” she says. It’s always being used to send the dis­tress of oth­ers. This is a final adieu about itself in its own lan­guage. This was the moment of a death of a language.”

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