Review: Shapes of Knowledge, MUMA

Paul Isbel

The first of its kind in Australia, this active exhibition is a collection of projects driven by artists from Australia, Africa, Europe and Asia that investigate ways that knowledge is produced and shared.
Review: Shapes of Knowledge, MUMA

Kym Maxwell, Objects of Longing 2018–19, Shapes of Knowledge, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, 2019. Photo: Christian Capurro.

If Shapes of Knowledge feels a little strange to you, it should. It's the first exhibition of its kind in Australia. Yes, it's displayed in an art space, but what you won’t get is a static display of finished works on a wall or a floor that stay that way from opening night to closing day. Knowledge is expansive, not reductive, and it's collaborative, not singular, so by its very nature, as a theme for an exhibition, it's not going to be contained in a frame or a space.

The first challenge of a viewer coming to Shapes of Knowledge is to overcome the notion of what an exhibition should be and take it for what it is: an exploration of the way art animates ideas or is a derivative of discourse. The second challenge is to shed the role of a viewer and become what curator Hannah Matthews calls ‘active agents’ in the dynamic projects that reach into communities, around the campus and across the globe.

This is a live exhibition of eight projects of inquiry that locate learning along different points of their development. Their subject is the nature of knowledge and the behaviours that nurture it. Formal notions of art can be found in them, but it is not always obvious, nor is it the primary intent. Take, for instance, Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal by Collingwood-based A Centre for Everything (ACE). The eye alights on a sculptural form, something that looks like something that belongs in an art exhibition. It is a super-sized lump of coal in a sinister sheen of black, but it is also a mobile ice cream machine, selling carbon-flavoured treats. Like the whole exhibition, this is not a piece in and of itself, it is the shape given to a body of knowledge. It is a critique of the way the fossil fuel industry likes to sweeten its products to be legitimised, as it does in the institutional world of art with its sponsorships and prizes.

A Centre for Everything, Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal 2019, Shapes of Knowledge, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, 2019. Photo: Christian Capurro.

As an informal arts collective, ACE works backwards from one imperative: the urgency of the climate crisis. Nothing affects our lives more. So their artistic imperative is to confront the crisis directly and constantly, and to understand art institutions as part captives of the coal culprits, and part collaborators too. On a wall is a large complex piece that looks something like string art, except its threads connect the fossil fuels industry in all its forms and functions to the arts sector via major university galleries, contemporary arts organisations, state galleries, major performing arts companies, the Australia Council and major festivals. Each thread connects one with another in a string of investigations that are dense in research detail. It’s an ingenious design that in one visual display configures all the collusions of coal and art in a neural network that is the mindset of mining.

No two days of Shapes of Knowledge will be alike for the viewer or 'active agent'. It changes by the people present or the associated events and performances that are products of the knowledge learnt and the knowledge shared, and is not fully formed until Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station (PASS) comes live in a broadcast over the last three days of the exhibition from 11-13 April in the gallery foyer. For that reason this review is only partial and short on participation. However, as a guide, this is what the experience will be like for most of us most days.

Your first step is into Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land. The prints on the four walls locate you in the heart of Yolngu country and in the centre of the room are seven large screens on legs and pedestals that operate like people gathered in a circle. This is the Mulka Project and on screen live is access to a digital document of their culture from ceremony to footy as curated and archived by Gurrutu, the Yolgnu kinship system. One monitor is a display of the shared learning in action in real time across the community, old and young, in coloured tiles shaped by the size of the files. There, in front of your eyes, is a new representation of ‘Aboriginal art’.

The Mulka Project, Shapes of Knowledge, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, 2019. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Nothing in Shapes of Knowledge is predictable. Each project inhabits its own universe, and so you proceed from Mulka to Utrecht-based artist Annette Krauss and her peer Ying Que who present Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation) that works principally with MUMA staff in exercises that reverse engineer their habits of thinking and behaving.

From there you will enter an industrial/agricultural site where stands a machine called the Yeomans Carbon Still that measures the carbon content of soils. Named after its inventor Allan Yeomans, the only equivalent of such a sight in an exhibition space might be Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca at MONA, but in this case Wollongong-based artist Lucas Ihlein has installed the machine as a prototype for the market in a future carbon economy.

In an adjacent space, Melbourne-based artist Kym Maxwell works with students and staff from Dandenong Primary School to investigate play and cultural production in Objects of Longing, a project that mobilised the entire school community and finishes with a live theatre work.

Kym Maxwell, Objects of Longing 2018–19, Shapes of Knowledge, installation view: Monash University Museum of Art, 2019. Photo: Christian Capurro.

First in the last, large space is Canberra-based artist Alex Martinis Roe’s feature-length film Our Future Network that documents a four-day meeting of 22 contributors proposing new forms of feminist collective practice and leads to workshops and a salon-style public forum. Next to that is Maps of Gratitude, Cones of Silence and Lumps of Coal, and at the other end of the room Asia Art Archive creates a display and a series of lectures and workshops from experimental art schools in Baroda, India, Bigakko in Japan, and Zhejiang in China to trace the influence and effect of arts schools on arts practices in Asia.

Shapes of Knowledge is held by MUMA on university grounds and in an academic environment, so it stands principally as a work of new scholarship with all the rigours and standards of Australia’s largest tertiary institution behind it. Accordingly, the exhibition catalogue is an anthology of 300 pages of dense academic text. This is one pole of the exhibition, one that comes from the foundations of academic traditions, and the other is a pole that invites people of all ages and backgrounds outside of academia to become active agents in shaping the experience.

This is an exhibition that sticks. It lasts in the mind for weeks. It alters attitudes. It shifts the shape of exhibition spaces. It calls, ‘Come to MUMA'.

Rating: 4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
Shapes of Knowledge

Participants: A Centre for Everything (AU), Asia Art Archive (HK), Chimurenga (SA), Lucas Ihlein (AU), Annette Krauss & Casco Art Institute (NLD), Alex Martinis Roe (AU/DE), Kym Maxwell (AU) and The Mulka Project (AU).
Curator: Hannah Mathews

9 February 2019 – 13 April 2019
Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne

About the author

Paul Isbel is a former ArtsHub contributor and a publicist for the Australasian Arts and Antiques Dealers Association. Most recently he was a course designer for an entry-level vocational training program for the arts sector.