Image:  Zanny Begg with Elise McLeod, ‘The City of Ladies’, 2017, still from single-channel durational video – looped variation.

Historically, across the broad oeuvre of contemporary conceptual art, an ever-present notion of crisis—and crisis in representation—has constantly reoccurred. The relationship between art and the real has been one of constant debate. What kind of relationship has danced in the space between our perception of reality and illusion of appearance? How have modern artists sort to redefine their often-complex relationship between life and art, and what does this mean in relation to the real? It is curator Anthony Bond’s TRACE – A Historical Contextualisation of the theme that encouraged broader contextual explanation in understanding these histories and their broader conceptual connection to the function of trace. His belief was that the opening of dialogue between artist, artwork and viewer had the inherent power to connect internal and external worlds. The work holds its own as a malleable entity; and with every viewing, recreates itself anew. This function—caught in the abstract space between form and viewer—operates in the present, whilst functioning as an absent referent and sign of the past.

We live a shared experience where social, personal and political histories have left their trace on the way we interact with world around us. Our fractured trauma is a shared one. We have been hurt, buried, forgotten, hunted, displaced, removed and erased—a collective annihilation of experience that has spread across global communities, and one which continues to dig into the centre of our humanity, identity and consciousness. In a contemporary society that is constantly moving forward, faster than ever before, we must continue to value those that take the time to pause and look backwards at their own personal histories. Our materiality is underpinned by the re-animation of historical memory and presence. Our re-understanding of history creates meaning that stretches across temporality. Memory, both past and present, can be experienced concurrently. Yet, it is contemplation and afterthought that turn traumatic dissonance into catharsis. Security, through understanding can be offered post-trauma, delivering a depth of presence by re-contextualising the past.

It is this theory—one where the trace of objects and materials can act as signifiers of history—that inspired Antidote’s The Trace. Presenting a body of work that explores this multiplicity of experiences, punctuated by hybridity, rupture, fragmentation and reunion—the audience is offered an opportunity to face the living past in the dying present. Past, present and future simultaneously inform how we live our lives. The Trace allows moments and stories pervaded by violence and volatility to not only be acknowledged, but recognised by both artist and audience. The viewer is welcomed by the artist into an incredibly personal moment of afterthought—invited to contemplate their present experience as they are faced with these inescapable traces of past history.

The Trace opens this space between the internal and external worlds of Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, Rushdi Anwar, Zanny Begg, Justin Dingwall and Lindy Lee. Traces deeply influence the practice of these contemporary artists. Their works cover a social and personal space, delving into themes from gods to racial beauty, feminism to terrorism, history, culture, philosophy and diaspora. Each piece strives to bring these traces to the forefront and into the light. Their collective past histories provide the backbone for rich visual narratives of violence, volatility, loss and misfortune. And yet, despite this trauma, each artist’s trace ignites individual strategies for adaption and survival.

Many of the artists involved in the exhibition have deep, personal involvement in history, memory and trace. Displacement is no stranger to Rushdi Anwar. After living and practicing in Melbourne, the now Thailand-based artist holds an incredibly unique insight into violence, displacement and erasure. Born in Halabja-Kurdistan, Anwar has experienced the turbulent nature of war, his Kurdish heritage influencing the basis of his artistic practice. As a socio-political refugee, he seeks to create work informed by the transience of his personal experience. Past in the present (2016) is a two-panel installation work, a further iteration of Anwar’s six-part, 2012 series. This piece reflects on the genocidal massacre of the Kurdish people near the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Anwar documents the 1988 Halabja poison gas attack through a series of photographs; each image individually treated with smoke and sandpaper, detailing notions of erasure and loss of clarity. These intimate portraits chronicle Anwar’s Iraqi diaspora in Australia; yet simultaneously offer a modern approach to historical analysis—fighting against the destruction of history and memory. Anwar’s photographs act as a bridge between his personal and social narrative, capturing the traces left behind as his past and present experiences combine.

Comparatively, Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s practice explores history and narrative through a cultural lens, influenced by his Australian-Muslim upbringing. As a Western Australian artist, it is this impact of cultural identity—and the importance of memory, narrative and the domestic environment—that allows him to engage with elements of his Muslim heritage. Abdullah’s solo exhibition, Among Monsters, explores childhood experiences of fear—growing up in urban Australia while living in a Muslim home. It is proximity to the supernatural and spiritual realms that force us to negotiate our relationship to fear. Offerings (2017) combines the cultural fear that exists between humans and gods. In Islamic mythology, it has been said that humans were derived from clay, Angels from light, and Djinn from smokeless fire. Djinn function outside the range of human perception, sustaining themselves on bone, leaving traces of ash as they pass. The installation of blackened bones made from charred wood, connotes this ashen trace which these gods leave behind. By exploring life through the lens of Islamic mythology, Abdullah considers what it means to be human.

Much like the stories of folklore and fiery ash in Abdullah’s work, a fire of transformation is equally important in the works of Lindy Lee. Flame from the Dragon’s Pearl: Open as the Sky (2013) uses this notion of fire as a perennial theme in her Buddhist-related practice. Lee uses fire to invoke that which is elemental in our existence. She mediates on nature and life, incorporating influences from Taoist and Buddhist philosophies to consider the transition of her story from China to Australia. Her bronze sculptures become a natural extension of the ‘flung ink’. Using element of Ch’an Zen practice to explore her own experience with diaspora, transition and loss, Lee throws the searing molten bronze liquid across her foundry floor to create ‘accidental’ cosmic marks. Her connection to history, combined with the traditional Chinese practice that influences her process, encapsulates the totality of our universe—releasing the internal self out into the world. 

Justin Dingwall’s Albus (2015) is an ongoing development, which echoes the connections between social and personal history. As a South African photographic artist, Dingwall’s series of collaborative portraits with Sowetan Thando Hopa raise intense cultural questions about aesthetics and the accepted racial definition of beauty. By illuminating the current and lived experience of a black African person with albinism, Dingwall draws attention to prominent political issues of discrimination and death. There are those that believe the bones and body parts of people with albinism have magic powers, and they are hunted for this. Dingwall delves into an ongoing, violent history that is still being written.

Whereas Dingwall’s work positions itself firmly in present narrative, Zanny Begg takes a step back into the past. Inspired by Christine de Pizan’s ‘The City of Ladies’ (1402), Begg and Australian, Paris-based director, Elise McLoud have created a twenty-minute, non-linear film installation. The video draws loosely on materials cross-time to engage with current issues that affect women in Paris today. In a city divided by social and political rifts, The City of Ladies (2017) collaborates with young activists and feminists, using traces of spoken fragments to compile over 300,000 possible narratives and readings of feminism and its relationship to misogyny. The Trace will display a looped variation created by Begg, running for a film-length hour and a half. Begg’s work reimagines and presents an alternate feminist future—built, governed and populated by women—enhancing the multiplicity of how we understand feminism.

Traces are an entity—able to enhance our depth of understanding and personal narrative—existing in a space that hovers, cross temporally, between history and meaning. The Trace unites our collective narratives. Each artist and their work force us to embrace catharsis and heal ourselves, exploring contemporary conflict that reverberates across the present. This artistic collaboration calls into question the potential of our own trace as we enter a shifting future. Traces influence our personal narrative. By combining something so personal and subjective, The Trace transfers the power of past experiences to present identity. These moments left behind are collectively re-contextualised. We use this to heal ourselves—illuminating the visceral echoes of our potential via a contemporary lens.