Healesville

Lucy Bleach, attenuated ground (the slow seismogenic zone) (detail), 2021, double bass, toffee, seismometer, wooden table, tactile trans-ducers, formply, plaster, surface-vibration speakers, polished concrete, powdered core sample, powdered gold leaf, Ficus coronata plant, rhizobox, soil. Installation view. From the TarraWarra Biennial 2021. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

Lucy Bleach, attenuated ground (the slow seismogenic zone) (detail), 2021, double bass, toffee, seismometer, wooden table, tactile trans-ducers, formply, plaster, surface-vibration speakers, polished concrete, powdered core sample, powdered gold leaf, Ficus coronata plant, rhizobox, soil. Installation view. From the TarraWarra Biennial 2021. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

TarraWarra Biennial 2021

TarraWarra Museum of Art

This year’s TarraWarra Biennial, one of just a small handful of national surveys of contemporary Australian art, takes its title from the Woiwurrung word tarrawarra, meaning “slow moving waters.” The biennial’s curator, Nina Miall, consulted with senior Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin AO to learn from the Birrarung (Yarra River) and embed its unhurried movements in the aesthetic foundation of her exhibition. Works by twenty-five artists variously embody or demonstrate acts of slowness, deceleration, delay, or the “decompression of time.” Jeremy Bakker’s overly literal though charming On Time, 2017, marks the beginning of the exhibition. A large rock appears to have been dropped on the face of an analog clock, causing its second hand to butt up hopelessly against the brute materiality of the stone and the deep geological time it registers. A similar pun occurs in another of Bakker’s works, Surfacing, 2021, a video of a snail—the very emblem of slowness from a human perspective—slithering over the screen of a laptop playing a David Attenborough documentary.

Some works are products of slow, labor-intensive processes, among them Palawa artist Mandy Quadrio’s monstrous gray womb-like installation Whose time are we on?, 2021. At a distance, it looks like warm felt, but up close it reveals itself to be delicately woven steel wool—the kind used for scrubbing pots. Other pieces slowly transform over the duration of the exhibition. Lucy Bleach’s attenuated ground (the slow seismogenic zone), 2021, features a double bass encased in toffee that stretches and pools on the floor below, while Megan Cope’s Currents III (freshwater studies), 2021, involves pigment-impregnated ice that rains onto parchment-lined sculptures as it melts.

To thematize slowness in 2021 is, of course, to risk sliding uncritically into the multitrillion-dollar wellness industry’s emphasis on deceleration as a form of self-optimization. Museums around the world have already instrumentalized this trend in order to claim a novel-use value (and market) for art—i.e., as therapeutic. But as numerous critics have cautioned, wellness discourse preys on feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression to make the individual feel even more personally responsible for their capacity not only to overcome, but also to thrive in the highly competitive environments of late capitalism. Crucially, Miall braids a clear-eyed critique of the wellness industrial complex into her exhibition, foregrounding a range of work that resists its anthropocentric and individualizing tendencies. Grant Stevens’s computer-generated video Below the mountains and beyond the desert, a river runs through a valley of forests and grasslands, towards an ocean, 2020, deploys motifs familiar from meditation apps only to render them strange, if not stressful. Made using algorithms that let it play infinitely without ever repeating itself, the video cycles through sunsets and sunrises, as the camera eye glides drone-like over endlessly self-generating desert, forest, mountain, and grassland terrains (all devoid of human and animal life). The soundtrack is both a meditative hum and a recursive slow-rising pitch that never drops.

In Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Whanganui River was recently granted personhood in a major legal concession to Indigenous ways of knowing; likewise, a number of works in “Slow Moving Waters” acknowledge the agency of the Birrarung itself. These works articulate larger-than-human solidarities—the deep entanglements that exist between the river and all manners of life. Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones and Aunty Joy present Making the Birrarung, 2021, a sculptural installation and voice-over telling Wurundjeri creation stories of the river—Aunty Joy’s voice whispers throughout the gallery, entreating audiences to attune to elders’ knowledge. Louisa Bufardeci’s “Looking in to the land attached,” 2020, is a series of intimate needlepoints based on traces of silt left on her skin after the artist swam in the Birrarung, illuminating physical intersections between herself and the river. Indigenous author Tony Birch, who published a group of new poems in the exhibition’s catalogue, approached this theme in his poignant “Birrarung Billabong,” which triangulates the death of a brother, the inert materiality of his coffin (“this squat box”), and the transferral of the brother’s life force to be “with the water.” In constellating such works, Miall models a slow praxis that, contra endlessly proliferating wellness fads, actually feels sustainable.