Citizens Band... A sense of what flows between us
Photography Bonnie Elliott. Courtesy the Artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Between June 19 and September 7, 2015, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal showcased the first North American solo exhibit of Australian artist Angelica Mesiti, including her immersive installation Citizens Band.
The work was featured simultaneously with the exhibit The Grace of a Gesture, which marked the museum’s 50-year anniversary and, as a formal gesture of reciprocity initiated by Director and Chief Curator John Zeppetelli, highlighted fifty donations made to the museum by artists and collectors. The Citizens Band installation was placed at one of the two entrance doors to the anniversary exhibit—a fitting context for this North American first and its highly sensorial experience of what flows between us.
Formally speaking, the visitor enters a dimly lit room to discover a four-channel high-definition video installation. The square-like space formed by the installation’s four screens naturally invites the visitor to find a spot in the centre of the room.
According to the museum label, the installation shows four videos, respectively featuring four professional musicians exiled from their native countries yet still connected to them through music. Each character’s geographically variable narrative sensitively reveals a deep connection to a home culture, tradition and history, thus contributing to a (re)construction of the character’s identity in the host country. Yet, if one takes the time to linger at the heart of the installation, an unexpected proposition emerges.
When entering the installation, the visitor must first transition into the immersive space of Citizens Band, which requires adjusting one’s eyes to a dimly lit room before making one’s way through the “visiting bodies” stretched out here and there and facing the active screen. As an opening movement, a black woman is seen drumming on nothing more than water. The label informs us that she is Géraldine Zongo, of Cameroon. Zongo appears alone in a public pool, in a northern district of Paris, performing Akutuk—a traditional aquatic drumming technique she learned from her grandmother, and usually played in polyphony by groups of women in her native village to celebrate the invigorating power and significance of the river. No sooner have we experienced Zango and her contagiously joyful and improbable movements than the screen goes black.
The second screen emits its signal. The visitors swivel to the right to face a wide shot of a nearly blind Arab man in the Paris Métro, singing and playing his Casio SA-75 keyboard. The scene evokes a moving sense of isolation, deepened by the lyricism of the man’s rai singing, which evidently eludes the train car’s passengers. When the second screen goes out, a sense of loss takes hold of me. In anticipation, the visitors all swivel to the right to face the next screen.
Amid the quiet shuffle, I observe the rotating mass of bodies in the middle of the installation. In doing so, I notice the increasingly nuanced distance of (re)presentation between the artist, the artwork, and the audience. At this point of confluence, it strikes me that our swiveling creates an impromptu dance in real time—perhaps a mediation of our subjective gazes migrating from East to West. I catch myself thinking about Pina Bausch, who worked based on the life experiences and bodily memories of her dancers rather than on forms to reproduce.
My train of thought is interrupted by the third screen coming alive, followed by a similar rotation of visitors in order to view a new wide shot that gives way to the now-familiar rhythmic sequence of three close ups on the protagonist. An Asian man is seen seated in front of a store window. Between his legs is a morin khuur or horsehead fiddle, a traditional string instrument of nomadic Mongolian culture proclaimed a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO. We first follow the successive glissandos of his bow, when, gently swaying, he takes a breath and launches into overtone singing. The man is Bukhchuluun Ganburged, a native of Mongolia, where he worked as a college professor. We learn from the label that, unable to find work upon his arrival in Australia, Ganburged began throat singing on street corners in Sydney. The screen goes out on the artist’s prodigious polyphony.
Then comes the final screen. In his stationary car, against the backdrop of bustling city lights, a black man is seen whistling a sound nearly indistinguishable from a bird’s singing. He subtly nods his head along to the rhythm, his right arm resting against the car door and his fingers keeping pace: this is Asim Goreshi, professional multi-instrumentalist and Brisbane cab driver, also known as the Whistling Taxi. The label informs us that whistling connects him with the great whistlers of his native Sudan, where, in the absence of instruments during the laborious harvest season, people whistle tunes inspired by folk melodies. The screen goes dim on this final body-instrument phenomenology.
As we prepare to rotate once more, an unexpected permutation arises when all four screens light up, blossoming with a full-on round of sonic samples originating from each of the four previous scenes. At this very moment, the Citizens Band... radio (per)forms a choir whose channels are vying for the visitor’s attention, as if (re)shuffling the cards while resuming their fated sequence.
Orchestrated with composed skill by Angelica Mesiti, the act of performing transports: the space between self and Other becomes an experiential medium, the characters become transmitter-receivers, and the installation, a heterotopic space. The disciplines brought into play evoke the concept of total artwork. The artist describes her working material as ready-made. What flows here closely resembles the invisible language of the gift, in which the act of receiving, like a mysterious leap outside of determinism, must continue to flow. As Jacqueline Millner suggests, rather than appearing to us as impoverished, the world reveals itself to be rich and multiple, and we are engaged in an act of rapprochement in which the artist seems to question the modern world via transmission: “In the age of globalization, how do we retain agency? How do we practice integrity?” It is as if Angelica Mesiti is asking, “In today’s world, where can transcendence be found?” Murray Schafer would most certainly answer with “the tuning of the world,” echoing Walt Whitman:
Now I will do nothing but listen...
I hear all sounds running together, combined,
fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds
of the day and night...
* This article first appeared in French in the magazine ETC MEDIA, #104: etcmontreal.com It can also be found on ÉRUDIT, here. All rights reserved ©Revue d'art contemporain ETC MEDIA, 2015.