Critics’ Picks

Nick Mangan, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 2009, mixed media. Installation view.

Nick Mangan, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 2009, mixed media. Installation view.


Nick Mangan

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road The Domain
June 25–September 13, 2009

Nick Mangan’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place, 2009, channels the artist’s preoccupations with cultural and material fragmentation through ready-made sculpture and archival presentation. Marking a departure from his well-known handmade models, Mangan’s latest project takes the form of a disjointed travelogue, offering documentation of his voyage to the Pacific nation of Nauru to bring a useless lump of limestone to Melbourne.

That mineral is all that remains of Nauru’s once-vast phosphate deposits, the accumulation of centuries of seabird droppings mined into nothingness in the course of a few short decades. Nauru was the world’s wealthiest nation (per capita) at the peak of the export boom in the ’70s, but its fortunes declined drastically with the exhaustion of its sole resource and some disastrous financial management, and the island was ultimately railroaded into hosting a detention center for refugees seeking asylum in Australia under the Howard government’s “Pacific solution.”

Dominated by an uncompromisingly physical sub-bass tone that provides the sound track for tightly framed video and photographic records of Nauru’s wasted landscape, Between a Rock and a Hard Place also presents copies of Mangan’s travel paperwork alongside touristic snaps of decrepit mining machinery and historical material from Nauru’s heyday. A chain-link fence and a cluster of coconut-festooned barrels provide the funereal backdrop for a piece of limestone sitting dumbly atop its modest shipping crate.

Mangan’s acuity is striking, but the real beauty of his work is the muteness with which it evokes certain ghosts of the recent past. Here, Nauru becomes a case study for the energy crisis and the postcolonial condition in general.