Rory Pilgrim, Sacred Repository N. 3: The Open Sky, 2016, drawings, HD video (color, sound, 29 minutes 30 seconds). Installation view.

Rory Pilgrim, Sacred Repository N. 3: The Open Sky, 2016, drawings, HD video (color, sound, 29 minutes 30 seconds). Installation view.

Karrabing Film Collective and Rory Pilgrim

Western “timing” is a powerful machine: Its clock is set to structure life, love, work, relationships, money, and bodies. Karrabing Film Collective, based in the Northern Territory of Australia, see things differently. Their installation Kaingmerrhe (Sun) and Penidjebhe (Star) Futures, 2021, gobbled up its surroundings and thereby pointed to a wider space-time continuum. Placed on the floor of the foyer of Kunstverein Braunschweig’s neoclassical building, the work consisted of vintage pharmaceutical bottles, arranged as celestial bodies, as its title suggests. According to the collective’s cosmology, these orbs represent totems, residues left by ancestors, emblems of their continuous impact on the present and future. The installation was the only work composed solely of a collection of objects that Karrabing presented in “Where the Tide Takes Us,” an exhibition curated by Jule Hillgärtner and Nele Kaczmarek pairing the collective with British artist Rory Pilgrim; it set the tone for all of the remaining works presented in the show. The most haunting was Karrabing’s The Mermaids, Mirror Worlds, 2018_. _Shown on a wide rectangular split screen, the two-channel projection occupied the ground floor of the two-story building. The piece juxtaposes promotional reels from multinational companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical with the unfolding fictional narrative of Aiden, an Indigenous boy kidnapped for use as a subject in medical experiments to save the white race and now released back to his family. With them, he learns about Indigenous ontologies and is ultimately confronted with at least two possible pasts and futures that blatantly expose the lies of the white establishment around the seemingly harmless exploitation of natural resources. Earth, mud, and debris, as recurring motifs, begin to embody spiritual potency and shift from mere ingredients for Western goods to materializations of progressive creation.

This unbearable tension between omnipresent state or corporate power and the access to one’s own (spiritual) land, central to Karrabing’s oeuvre, also characterizes Pilgrim’s work, especially their video trilogy Sacred Repositories. Its first part, subtitled Violently Speaking, 2014, brings together a Quaker community in Utah, trans activists from New York, and a small teenage choir, all of whom foster relationships with the artist. The second part, Affection Is the Best Protection, 2014–15, shown here as a video installation curtained by turquoise tinsel, focuses on interviews with queer folks in Almere, Netherlands; Dakar, Senegal; and Saint Petersburg, capturing the human desire for community, belonging, and representation in environments that can be hostile to love’s manifold directions. The Open Sky, 2016, by contrast, the final video in the trilogy, features conversations with mostly white women of various generations who fought in different eras of the feminist movement, and who recollect the desire for freedom and self-determination.

Pilgrim’s newest work in the show, The Undercurrent, 2019, was screened upstairs; it follows young climate activists from Idaho. Some of them were raised in religious fundamentalist households and share their struggles with adolescence, eager to form a worldview that is not committed to creationism. What connected all of the literal matter, or tissue, of Pilgrim’s work at Kunstverein Braunschweig was what the artist calls “a coral reef.” This was an assortment of items scattered across various rooms, on floors and walls, to represent ocean ecosystems. Among the objects were small fossils as well as old-school monitors, early iPhone models, and tablets, replaying the cyclical patterns of a tidal ebb and flow in selections from Pilgrim’s filmic archive in a hopeful attempt at foretelling harmonious relationships between humans, nature, and technology, propelled by something like organic timing.

Juxtaposed with Karrabing’s engaging narratives, however, Pilgrim’s quiet, rather contemplative works came across more as social commentary, hinting at grievances, lamenting the human condition, praising (white) feminist achievements. One witnessed the waves, the singing, the cables, the monitors, the tinsel, the drawings, the testimonials. Karrabing’s engrossing display of whiteness, exposing the ways it is inextricably inscribed in legal structures, bureaucracies, and land ownership, felt more poignant. Its conglomeration of cinema verité, slapstick, and revealing narrative created the time and space all of us need right now.