Exhibition review: A Puzzlement and Las Hormigas/The Ants

Personal stories mediate our engagement with the world, whether we are consciously aware of this process or not. Personal exhibitions of Nathan Beard (a perplexity) and Pilar Mata Dupont (Las Hormigas / The Ants) explore themes of memory, history and culture in unique yet complementary ways.

Both artists use film and visual art to reflect on ‘construction’, memory and identity using effective contrasts and subtle humor to illustrate their respective points.

Mata Dupont plays seriously with the premise of personal storytelling, creating a series of conscious works incorporating visual art, film and theatre. Beard draws on his Australian-Thai heritage to reflect on diasporic identity and its construction. Individually, Beard and Mata Dupont deconstruct their own cultural backgrounds, intentionally reframing their source material in various ways, like exploratory twists from a figurative kaleidoscope.

The title of Beard’s exhibition, a perplexityrefers to a song by The king and me – a Hollywood film that strongly influenced Western perceptions of Thai culture and history. In a song called “A Puzzlement”, the film’s protagonist, King Mongkut, speaks of bewilderment and determination, and hints at being stuck – being caught between past and future perspectives.

Beard’s single-channel video, also known as A Perplexity (2022)portrays a composite Thailand by engaging in historical and contemporary perspectives of fictional and documentary varieties.

Juxtaposition plays an important role in how Beard’s work is created and presented, encouraging the rejection of old perceptions and the creation of new meanings. He mocks cultural hierarchies by drawing attention to the multiple, and often contrasting, ways in which the same subject can be perceived.

Beard’s four enlarged composite photographs include close-up facial shots of the real King Mongkut’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn; a production still of Yul Brynner as King Mongkut; Terry Saunders as the Broadway version of Mongkut’s leading wife, Lady Thiang; and AFG Kerr, the founding father of Thai botany.

The four portraits are covered in blue, red and purple Swarovski crystals and set against a backdrop of Thai iconography. Black-and-white images of real people contrast with the vivid color of synthetic diamonds, highlighting Beard’s juxtaposition of unexpected combinations – real/synthetic, monochromatic/colorful, authentic/constructed.

The series of five sculptures by the artist are replicas linked by a sculpted thread, physically solid but with an impression of fluidity. Reminiscent of charms on tangled bracelets, these sculptures are larger than life and suspended in time and space. At first glance, they look like dismembered religious effigies, cut into pieces and encased in gold. Some are replicas of her mother’s Buddhist shrine statues and replicas of Wat Buddhapadipa.

Others are mass-produced Thai costumed figurines and Thai artifacts from the archives of the British Museum. Seeing old fast food toys treated with the same gilded reverence as museum artifacts and religious effigies causes the viewer to question ideas of subjective perception, intrinsic value, and extrinsic worth.

Beard, who created the works during his 2022 residency at ACME Studios in London, examines Western representations of Thailand to explore his personal cultural context, particularly in the absence of his mother; the main source of his self-proclaimed “Thainess”.

Her work critiques the expression of authenticity, drawing on Western popular culture and colonial museum archives for sources, perceived meanings and artistic inspiration.

Personal exhibition of Pilar Mata Dupont Las Hormigas / The Ants is a multimedia postmodern deconstruction of family meta-narratives. Self-referential and humorously subversive, this brilliant exhibition includes two films, six photographs and weekly improvised performances of an ever-changing absurdist play, all of which revolve around Mata Dupont’s family memories and the impossibility of finding objective truth in subjective stories.

A table read (2022) is a 58-minute, two-channel video installation centered on auditory family stories and intergenerational trauma. Edited footage of a live performance is cut with raw rehearsal footage and shown on two screens disjointly.

The Maruja (2021) is a series of six photographs and a beautifully shot single-channel video, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles. The Maruja presents the body as a container to contain trauma and speaks of the impossibility of objective understanding.

The photographs are exhibited in the PICA exhibition space, providing an example of Las Hormigas / The Ants to be a show of circular brilliance; withdrawing into itself, leaning towards dislocation, repetition and fragmentation. In the video, a jarring vibe combines with voice-over narration, and the perspective alternates between first-person POV [point of view] interiors and photos of rainy landscapes.

In an instant, audiences are immersed in the film, staring at a ceiling. In another, they learn of the psychosomatic attack of Mata Dupont’s ant-cutter great-aunt. The Maruja contains themes of misheard words and moments of mistaken memory, highlighting the tragedy of Mata Dupont’s great-great-grandmother’s deadly mastitis – which was never mastoiditis. Bass piano notes accompany the imagery of a swollen breast draped over one shoulder and the act of fingers pressing into the tissues. Then silence.

The culmination of The Hormigas is the ever-evolving play of the same title by Mata Dupont, which will be performed live every Saturday afternoon until December 17. This stunning improvisation began as part of Mata Dupont’s family fact-finding mission and morphed into an intertwining of multiple truths, expressed vicariously through three performers/co-creators, Maree Cole, Cezera Critti-Schnaars and Daisy Sanders.

Alternating from week to week, each performance of The Hormigas (2022) is a unique journey through an unreliable narrative. A deliberately uncertain start to the performance comments on the fallibility of memory and the instability of subjectivity. Repetition and reframing replicate the loops our brain gets stuck in when we suffer.

Pilar Mata Dupont. Photo: Miles Noel

The music and lighting are subtle yet atmospheric, with a strong emotional emphasis. At one point, two torches become beacons, blinding the audience while drawing them into a hypnotic fantasy reverie. In another scene, purple lights and a rhythmic beat accompany a song about medicinal oil on a tampon.

By embodying her great-great-grandmother through a video game avatar, Mata Dupont rewrites her family history to the point that she herself could cease to exist. Beginning with disorder and ending with metamorphosis, this is an absurd piece about the impossibility of creating an objective understanding of context and history.

Read: Review of the exhibition: China – The past is present

Political, beautiful, tragic and funny, Las Hormigas / The Ants offers a playful exploration of a serious subject through which Mata Dupont pays homage to her family origins in an original, comedic and self-referential critique of narrative subjectivity.

Las Hormigas / The Ants by Pilar Mata Dupont and a perplexity by Nathan Beard
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), WA

Las Hormigas / The Ants and a perplexitywill be on display at PICA until January 8, 2023.

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