Geophagy by Ruth Watson

Gus Fisher Gallery–Auckland, 28 April – 27 May 2017

A recent solo exhibition by Ruth Watson in Auckland disrupts notions of surface and place in works that express a desire to understand the world anew. The title of her show Geophagy describes the practice of eating dirt(1), an unsettling idea from a Western point of view, raising questions such as: What impurities and contaminants does our earth already contain? As a bodily gesture, ‘geophagy’ is unnerving for the way it transgresses an ordinary boundary between self and the outside; ‘nature’, or our material separation from ‘the world’.

An installation with the same title, Geophagy 2017 is the centerpiece of the show. Towering in the centre of the gallery foyer, tiers of construction palettes are piled high in a circular stack that is covered in secondhand clothing. The cheap, dull tones of the garments clutter the surface of the structure, like discarded wrappers stuffed into a giant Jenga game. From a collection of monitors distributed throughout, a loud murmur of voices emanate, each displaying a single-channel video loop. Video content includes a hand repetitively squeezing a stress ball in the image of the world, the artist’s mouth chewing something dark brown and sticky, a game of Candy Crush and an Apple slide show that cycles JPEGs from the artist’s hard drive. This unlikely blend of digital content and the hundreds of kilograms of recycled clothing in Geophagy generate a frenetic surface which feels almost at saturation, or breaking point. This sensory burden makes it difficult on you, as the viewer, to focus on the content of any single message or channel and this is perhaps the point. It is possible to discern the male and female voices reading theoretical texts aloud in the videos, however, and the wall label cites these as: The Stack by Benjamin Bratton theorising how network technologies shape geopolitics; Slick images: the photogenic politics of oil by Susan Schuppli; Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna Haraway; In defense of the poor image by Hito Steyerl, and The library of babel by Jorge Luis Borges, a short story which imagines the universe as an infinite library of unrelated texts. While the videos likely contain important information, they compete against one another, leaving the contents to behave more as a formal device, emphasising the time-poor, distracted space of the viewer. For those familiar with Steyerl’s influential essay, Geophagy’s image content is like the ‘poor image’ that Steyerl describes, whose cynical viewer is already in conflicting states of contemplation and distraction.

Intensified by the mass of clothing that bulges and sags from its structure, Geophagy speaks to excess, stressing at least in part that it is human-centred design and philosophy that drives the global systems of production that destroy our planet. The clothes exhibit a kind of material lag against what is proposed by the content of the videos—the random and unchecked flow of information in a digital era. I would note though, that the screens in this installation more closely reference the format of the television, not the iPhone, and in that way join a general atmosphere of obsolescence in the work. And while its contents are fragmented, the lumpy structure has a totalising, obstinate quality; bearing down on the viewer like a mountainous waste dump. And so again, the focus becomes less on the contents and more on the unwieldy nature of the object and its comprehension. Through its multiple intensities, Geophagy critiques the image of the world as a complete and workable object (such as the globe which is made fun of in the video of the stress ball) in favour of a view of the Anthropocene as a desperate and swollen state of incompatible forces.

In the large gallery, a film titled Unmapping the world 2017 plays on a retrograde projection screen. In the film a female voiceover recites a narrative about geographical distance, loss and belonging. Behind the voice you can hear a mature, well-educated woman who, as the autobiographic aspects of the story suggest, is recounting a version of the artist’s own story. This 1:1 relationship with the viewer in Unmapping the world is a welcome shift in gear in the show. The narrative offers a discussion on the nature of memory, whakapapa (genealogy), and the movement of dominant cultures across the globe, informed by a combination of research and personal reflection. The story overlays sequences of staged and found film footage, as well as scrolling views of the personal contents of a hard drive (as in Geophagy) which produces a record of destinations travelled to, exhibitions visited and films watched. The latter evokes a sense of sifting through photographs in an effort to jog one’s memory of things and events.

The non-linear sequencing of imagery in Unmapping the world against a spoken narrative that runs in parallel is a technique common to contemporary video. Done well, it provides an effective way to render the story more emotive, and the viewer more active in bridging the gap between the image and what they are hearing. Unmapping the world is carefully put together; the narrative carefully told. In the film, the sequencing becomes a process of layering that feels akin to the accumulative, fractious nature of remembering something. Or how a person constructs their own subjectivity; their own story over time, amidst the unordered nature of experience.

Beginning with a shot of hands (perhaps the artist’s) holding up a set of slightly smaller ceramic hands, a definition of ‘living memory’ begins an intergenerational story about the artist’s fear of childbirth. In the telling of the story, comments which critique pro-natal attitudes toward childbearing in the West and histories of religious and imperial domination bubble through. The linkages are hard hitting, but they are softened by the segments of ‘zoomed out’ imagery which make them feel more reflective than bitter. Imagery includes recoloured aerial footage ripped from the internet of the unpopulated landmass of Antartica and short clips of Brittanica videos on how to use maps from the 70s. The viewer is reminded in these montages how antiquated it is that the decision to have a child in the West is still morally weighted to the side of procreation, despite what is known about the environmental impacts.

In a smaller, adjacent gallery, two works are shown: a video work called The Surface of Things 2015 and Transient Global Amnesia 2017, a collection of framed photographs displaying variously disintegrated maps of New Zealand found on the pavement. Of the two, the video resonates more in this show. The Surface of Things plays without audio across three small monitors, a piece of prose by the same title slowly cycling over in the centre screen between two sets of footage. The work offers a short meditation on the artist’s residency at the former military base, Headlands Centre for the Art, in San Francisco in 2015. Shots of decommissioned missile aircraft held in storage on one screen, and slow panning shots of a paint stained studio floor on the other, accompany the text. The prose takes a poetic and philosophical lens to Watson’s interest in mapping systems to consider the notion of ‘surface’ in Western thought. The piece explains a cultural distrust for the term, which holds it synonymous with superficiality. It looks at the opposite of surface and explains a parallel desire to constantly ‘go beneath’; uncover; find meaning; excavate; research. It reads, ‘The surface of things are often derided’, despite that, ‘Without skin we don’t survive.’ A line that also stuck out found notions of surface in unexpected places, comparing the root of cosmetic to ‘Kosmos’—the Greek word for order which became the English word for universe.

Most vividly demonstrated by the inclusion of Unmapping the world, Watson’s exhibition describes a complicated sense of attachment, to a world depicted as a complex set of conflicting forces. Leaving the show, you are left thinking about your own small part in it; the constant negotiation between individual desire and the need to radically shift one’s understanding to embody a sense of the changing material world(s)—which are many and under immense pressure.

(1) ‘Geophagy’ includes the practice of consuming earthy material such as clay or chalk and is practiced by some cultures in developing parts of the world to supplement an already nutritionally deficient diet.

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Ruth Watson, 'Geophagy', (detail) 2017 installation with recycled pallets, second-hand clothing, monitors with 5-single channel, looped HD videos.

Sam Hartnett

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Ruth Watson, 'Unmapping the World', 2017, single-channel, looped HD video with screen and loungers, duration 7:23mins.

Sam Hartnett

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Ruth Watson, 'Geophagy', (detail) 2017 installation with recycled pallets, second-hand clothing, monitors with 5-single channel, looped HD videos.

Sam Hartnett

Unmapping TW-slide and Antarctica.jpg

Ruth Watson, 'Unmapping the World', 2017, single-channel, looped HD video with screen and loungers, duration 7:23 mins.

Sam Hartnett

Unmapping TW-hands and vase.jpg

Ruth Watson, 'Unmapping the World', 2017, single-channel, looped HD video with screen and loungers, duration 7:23 mins.

Sam Hartnett

Rebecca Boswell is a writer and curator currently based in Auckland. Her writing has been published by The Physics Room, Matters, CIRCUIT and ST PAUL St Gallery. She is a founding editor of A Year of Conscious Practice, a journal which supports criticality in emergent curatorial practice in New Zealand. She has a BA/BFA Honours from Elam School of Fine Arts, The University of Auckland.

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