WANDERING ALBATROSS: AN EXHIBITION IN TWO PARTS
Australian artist Marijana Tadić’s activities encompass the creative fields of sculpture, installation, public art and design. Born in Brcko, near the border of Croatia in the former Yugoslavia (now the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Tadić’s childhood was spent in a house on the banks of the River Sava, a tribute of the Danube. That ‘first place’ – of deeply flowing water and movement – has profoundly shaped Tadić’s artistic consciousness. Today, ideas associated with the urgent energy of rapidly moving water inform Tadić’s art making. Underpinning her artistic practice is an awareness of human population movement (migrancy, in the broadest sense of that word) as a metaphor for the human condition.
In 1969, as a teenager, Marijana Tadić migrated to Australia with her parents and younger brother. Initially the family stayed in a migrant hostel in New South Wales. When her father Joko found work at Chrysler’s Adelaide plant as a skilled tradesman, the Tadić family moved to South Australia, settling in Adelaide, for a while living near the beach at the Glenelg Migrant Hostel and later renting a bungalow at St Marys. After several years in Australia, the family returned to Yugoslavia, but their return was short-lived. Once back in Adelaide, Marijana Tadić took up office work, also taking on several other part-time jobs, mostly in the building industry. In 1983 she enrolled in the South Australian School of Art, majoring in sculpture. Whilst attending art school Tadić began seriously planning for an artistic future. After graduating in 1986 she began working as professional artist.
Wandering Albatross, the umbrella title of Tadić’s two 2011 Fringe Festival exhibitions showing more or less concurrently at BMGART and AC Arts Light Square, marks the culmination of Tadić’s art-making. In a career that now spans 25 years of uninterrupted practice, Tadić, who lives and breathes her artistic métier, has developed a distinctive body of work characterised by subject matter to which she keeps returning. Tadić’s enduring themes and affiliations are clearly apparent in the titles that she bestows upon her artworks.
Tadić has conceived Wandering Albatross as two interrelated exhibitions, distinct but connected spaces, one a public art gallery and the other, private. These elegantly mounted, provocative art exhibitions have been conceptualized as spaces between which audiences will travel, like birds of passage. In these exhibitions the artist evokes, in powerful visual terms, concepts relating to birds, flight, navigation, and the traversal of large stretches of water for the purpose of survival or simply that of seeking a better life. Balancing these ideas are artistic and thematic concerns about nesting and sanctuary.
The artworks in Wandering Albatross are analysable as visual metaphors relating to border crossing, the migration experience and its double, ‘arrival’. Implicitly posing questions about what might truly constitute a ‘destination’, Tadić also explores the connected concepts of ‘destination’ and ‘destiny’, words that share the same Latin root. [The journey that you set off on may take you to a very different place than that which was originally envisaged].
Poetic visual tropes about what old Chinese philosophers so tellingly described as ‘crossing the great water’ act as guiding metaphors in Tadić’s work in another sense too, leading viewers towards understanding the tacit side of the emotions relating to the migration experience, since emotions also have a metaphoric structure. In part, Tadić expresses this affective dimension by means of the often rowdy, occasionally argumentative, but mostly joyous songfulness of Australian native birds, whose songs have been recorded in Australian backyards. Interspersed by meaningful silences, these sounds accompany the exhibition.
Birdsong (Bird Sounds) is therefore an integral part of the AC Arts exhibition, as is its companion piece, Songlines, which comprises 24 wall screens, each of which has been beautifully crafted from recycled Australian hardwood. Computerised lighting emanates from each separate panel, to suggest dawn or dusk – the times of day when birds are most communicative. They are also the times when the early or fading light is filtered enticingly through the nooks and crannies of the wooded areas. Each bird song is represented visually by its own unique sonogram pattern, which appears on an individual screen.
Included in this glorious syncopated avian chatter are the idiosyncratic musical sounds of various Australian native birds. Among those that can be heard are Australian magpies, three-wattled bellbirds, rainbow lorikeets, crimson rosellas and laughing kookaburras, intermixed with the distinctive twittering of various introduced species. These include an albatross and her chick, field sparrows, and a spotted turtledove, native to eastern Asia. All are talking nineteen to the dozen. Regardless of whether the birds are natives or introduced species, they are philopatric and migratory at certain points in their life cycle.
This exhibition entails a celebration of the life force and more specifically, a songful salute to Australia’s unique environment and to our cultural diversity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the occasionally quarrelsome and belligerent, but mostly joyful, cacophony of this sound installation.
The sound installations in Wandering Albatross are also significant insofar as Tadić deploys bird sounds and short silences as vehicles for explaining the short bursts of happiness and the convivial, familial chatter that is sometimes followed by a soundless lull of self-reflection on the part of those human beings who brave long, hazardous voyages across the sea, by plane or by boat. Often they are traveling to destinations that are only partially known or even totally unknown. At various stages of such journeys different emotions will predominate; hope and fear will ebb and flow according to circumstance.
Hanging from the AC Arts Light Square Gallery ceiling is Suspended Sanctuary, a large nest created from recycled hardwood and resin. This work speaks eloquently to the need for a place of respite from the ravages of journeying. Offering these art works as visual tropes, Marijana Tadić emphasises the interconnectedness of the human family and the importance of balanced, mutually respectful and reciprocal relations in all human interactions. Humans’ interactions with the natural environment are also highlighted.
The centrepiece of this exhibition is undoubtedly the eponymously named Wandering Albatross on display at the BMGART. This splendid minimalist, four-panelled exhibit is comprised of acrylic boxes and recycled acupuncture needles on MDF. The focal point of the work is an albatross, its distinctive shape delineated by a wingspan magnificently extended in full flight. The bird’s majestic form has been traced in outline using acupuncture needles, and the delicate patterning that results is an inspired touch. Tadić’s ‘needlepoint’ albatross soars across waves, or perhaps mountains, or whatever the imagination can supply. Outlines of breakers or landforms cast delicate shadows over the stark white backdrop, lending this work a quality akin to that of fine lacework on patterned openwork fabric. Tadić’s subtle use of skilfully arranged acupuncture needles to create pictorial representations affords this work – along with others in which she uses acupuncture needles – an exquisite calligraphic quality, especially when viewed from a distance.
Marijana Tadić’s refined visual patterning also provides us, as viewers, with a fresh narrative in relation to particular groups of recent émigrés who are less fortunate than many other Australians – including the artist and her immediate family members. Understanding Wandering Albatross simultaneously as something-in-itself and also a coherent visual metaphor – which is what Tadić asks of viewers – this work presents an important counterpoint to the largely populist, raucous and often ill-informed railing about asylum seekers that currently prevails on both sides of politics. The elaborate trans-Pacific and transatlantic networks traced in Tadić’s artworks apply to those human beings who seek life and refuge (temporary or permanent) away from their own points of origin whilst at the same time needing to retain a concept of ‘home’ relating to their ‘first place’.
So, while philopatry is a concept most often associated with birds, and for which avian species are neurologically hardwired, it can also be applicable to human populations. The notion is particularly relevant to many members of migrant groups living in Australia today, who regularly travel back and forth between their new home and their places of origin, where they have strong, often inalienable, ties. That Australia’s philopatric communities are marked by a high level of diversity is observable in the differing but complementary forms that Tadić has created for her Philopatric Colony, another work that functions as a potent visual metaphor. In titling this work Tadić has carefully chosen the word ‘colony’; the concept’s multivalency is purposeful. Formed from marble dust and white cement, standing erect on black granite, these distinctive abstract shapes suggest that notwithstanding the fact that there is considerable variation between humans, we nevertheless belong to the same larger family.
Like other birds, albatrosses demonstrate strong philopatry, returning to the same breeding and nesting sites for many years. Albatrosses are also colonial, most often nesting on remote islands free from natural predators. (1) One aspect of Tadić’s granite-based, cast bronze sculptures, Sky-pointing ritual I & II, is the specific allusion that these works make to the complex courtship rituals of particular albatross species, noisy events that involve honking, whistling, performing synchronised dances, bill-flanking, stretching their necks and pointing their bills vertically, skyward. The latter is described as ‘sky-calling’ or ‘sky-pointing’. Following this display, the actual mating is a short-lived affair, but like (some) humans, albatrosses mate for life. The sleek, quasi-avian forms that Tadić has created in her Sky-pointing ritual sculptures are influenced by the shapes of the fallen palm leaves that she loves to collect from the Arboretum at Urrbrae.
Sensing the Way, in which Tadić uses seagrass and resin, interwoven bowerbird-like, and related works Staging the Way, Power of the Group and Reciprocity, further extend this exhibition’s thématique into the realms of the social and cultural, while expanding upon the concept of philopatry. Another compelling sub-theme emerges in Wandering Albatross: that of the imperative to care about the welfare of our fellow human beings. Included in this equation, by implication, is the idea of caring for those asylum seekers who, in the hope of starting a new life on these shores, venture out in rickety boats, some losing their lives, some arriving safely by sea.(2)
Equally significant in terms of the thématique of this exhibition are the words ‘RECIPROCITY’, and ‘Sanctuary’, the only text-based elements in Wandering Albatross, sketched out with acupuncture needles that cast beautifully suggestive shadows. These are key words and concepts in Marijana Tadić’s artistic vocabulary, indirectly evoking the graffiti-word ‘ETERNITY’ written with chalk around Sydney last century by the reformed alcoholic Arthur Stace. For Stace, who continued writing that same, single word for a period of more than 35 years, it was a means of spreading the Christian gospel in which he so fervently believed. While Marijana Tadić’s worldview is a secular one, like many others of similar persuasion, she seeks an ethical and meaningful basis for co-existing with others in today’s complex, highly mobile world. These two cornerstone word-concepts provide insight into Tadić’s core values, especially with respect to the need to accept responsibility for less fortunate others – including those others whose worldviews and life experiences may be very different from one’s own.
Such a philosophy also comes to mind with respect to Tadić’s two Subjective Destination works (Subjective Destination 1, created from seagrass and resin, and Subjective Destination 11, sculpted from marble dust and white cement). Subjective Destination 1 has been sculpted from seagrass washed up on Carrickalinga Beach to the south of Adelaide. The sea’s strong currents twist and twirl the little sticks of seagrass, fashioning them into compact, interlocking balls. Tadić has re-shaped these into forms that are suggestive, to use her own words, of “circular migration patterns and navigation between the northern and southern hemispheres”(3), whilst remaining redolent of natural processes. These semi-circular forms, balanced precariously like small rocking boats or cradles, seem to embody the expectations and anticipation that migrants bring with them as they embark on their journeying.
The key word here is ‘anticipation’, which can entail a range of emotions including eager expectation, doubt, hope and fear. When the judge and poet Barron Field (1786-1846), himself an English migrant, and the author of the first book of verse to be published in this country, claimed that in Australia “We’ve nothing left us except anticipation”(4), he might well have been describing the mixed feelings of today’s migrants – especially asylum seekers, many of whom have endured firsthand the miseries of war and exile – as they make their way towards Australia.
To conclude, Wandering Albatross is a coherent, important exhibition that is beautifully realised in aesthetic terms. The urgent themes and issues that it raises are significant at this time in Australian history and also in our shared human history, (mostly) characterised as it is now by aesthetic and conceptual vacuity. Conceptually complex, technically perfect, rehearsing themes and ideas about migrancy, belonging and ‘unbelonging’, navigation and the environment, nesting, home-making, kinesis and resting, the artworks in these two interrelated exhibitions contribute to our understanding of migrant Australians’ lifeways while speaking eloquently to the extraordinarily generative effects of dislocation and relocation on cultures and identity. In Wandering Albatross Tadic’s complexities are provocative; evoking the flight of the migratory birds that daily ply their hazardous course over strong ocean currents, eventually nesting in strange, distant lands. This exhibition also speaks to the migrants who come to these shores in small, leaky boats, seeking a good life. That Tadic has the capacity to realise and express such subtly interconnected themes in visual terms is testament to her originality and artistic power.
1. For more on albatrosses and on the concept of philopatry, please see Fisher, H.I., 1976, “Some dynamics of a breeding colony of Laysan Albatrosses”, in The Wilson Bulletin 88:121–142 and also Rabouam, C., Thibault, J.-C., Bretagnolle, V., 1998, “Natal Philopatry and Close Inbreeding in Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea)” in Auk 115 (2): 483–486.
2. Please note that the overwhelming number of migrants to Australia come by air.
3. Personal Communication, Marijana Tadić to Christine Nicholls, Adelaide, 26/1/11.
4. This is an excerpt from Barron Field’s poem ‘On Reading the Controversy Between Lord Byron and Mr Bowles’, (1823). Parenthetically, Field’s parents themselves either had very low expectations or a very good sense of humour in thus naming their son.