by Imogen Dixon-Smith
Angelica Mesiti’s ASSEMBLY, a three-channel video installation, premiered at the Venice Biennale two weeks prior to the shocking outcome of Australia’s federal election. International politics in a post-Brexit/Trump presidency era continues to offer unexpected results from complex democratic systems previously considered ironclad. Increased political polarisation continues to erode functioning democracies and unorthodox leaders are taking advantage of these widening divides.(1) ASSEMBLY, set amongst the national pavilions of the world’s economic and political stalwarts, is a work that encourages audiences to reflect on the legacy of democracy and its current state of crisis.
Paradoxically, this degradation of democratic systems is happening in tandem with a rise in voter turnout.(2) Is the contribution of more voices creating less functional societies? This proposition tugs at the inherent tension in both ritual and democracy: the reliance on a private decision or act to answer an external impetus and responsibility. In ASSEMBLY, Mesiti constructs a multi-sensory dialogue between sound, imagery and space to embody a spirit of collective action that gracefully traces this pressure.
The enjoyment of screen-based work can often feel passive and one-dimensional, but Mesiti’s organisation of the exhibition space has produced a Gesamtkunstwerk, where the total sum of the parts equates to a complete embodiment of meaning. Entering the pavilion, the monumental scale, sumptuous red carpet and clean organic lines of the central sunken amphitheatre immediately demand a degree of reverence. The viewer is flanked on all sides by three large screens facing inwards, which display lingering stills from senate interiors. Communicated through the physicality of architecture, the culmination of colour, geometry and spatial relations instantly plays on our shared conditioning to observe authority.
This architecture invites the audience to gather centrally in a circle. Each position affords an equally democratic view, but provides a different outlook. The three channels of the work continue to move together in sequence through various spaces and actors, but always privilege different aspects and details. The amphitheatre provides everyone access and the freedom to choose where to focus their attention. It is a solitary choice, but when made in this intimate space becomes a shared one. Interaction is unavoidable and potentially influential. From protest to voting, in the overall ritual of democracy we continuously move between these private and public acts. Much like rituals of a religious order, this private gesture is carried out to observe the expectations of a higher power – the body politic – and a disconnect between the two which is currently driving our social instability.
Communication is central to Mesiti’s practice. Through her research she discovered the Michela machine; a stenographic device resembling a truncated piano keyboard invented in Italy in 1863 to transcribe senate proceedings. She selected this bureaucratic, yet oddly creative device as the first mechanism of translation within the piece alongside David Malouf’s poem To be written in another tongue, which acts as the source text. Working with composer Max Lyandevat, the transcript generated has been transformed into a musical score, which is played out by a raft of different performers. The piece layers and replaces meaning through this series of translations, which gradually build phonically and visually to mimic both the problem and solution. The work alludes to the widening gap between socio-political ideologies but suggests the foundation of democracy is built on interaction and dialogue.
The broken rhythm of pressed keys from the Michela machine is the first sound you encounter in the work. A lone actor is positioned centrally in the Italian senate translating David Malouf’s poem on this hybrid machine of both musical and textual origins. In an environment designed for lively, constructive debate, but often exploited by politicians for inappropriate slander and vocal training – note David Leyonhjelm’s comments towards Senator Sarah Hanson-Young – the initial silence is palpable. In this heightened state, the tension between the singular and collective lingers in the thud of the piano keys, which bear no melody but preempt the entry of Malouf’s text into the score of the work.
Dissonant sounds gradually build throughout ASSEMBLY, with moments of harmony and moments of discord. As more actors are introduced, the score pulls and stretches. The work progresses from conventional orchestral instruments, which play out the transcoded poem in a relatively direct sense to the Persian santūr, a hammered string instrument that adds melody and flow. A group of men bouncing off the beat of their Lebanese drums break through the still interiors, marrying together these disparate voices, but we are later brought back to the rawness of a young female choir skirting the juncture of harmony. Here, Mesiti is engaging with the concept of polyphony, which curator, Julia Engberg defines as the addition of distinct, independent voices in unity or ‘the will to combine many wills’.(3)(4) This cycle of evolution throughout the work is a constant reminder that the collective is made up of individuals that are strident when assembled.
Mesiti admits to remaining ambiguous in her work: one can walk out of the space feeling uplifted, but can later reflect on the enormity of uniting an increasingly divided body politic.(5) This ambiguity gives the work a certain vulnerability. If its critical potential goes unnoticed, a privileging of Western modes of thought becomes prominent. The twentieth century was characterised by a zealous imposition of democracy by the West on regions such as the Middle East, the failed results of which continue to play out in this century. Explicit critical engagement with the blind idealisation of democracy is necessary, yet, as our best option it is worth defending. In his post-election analysis, Richard Denniss argued that to bridge the fault lines between young and old, metropolitan and regional, it is essential to ‘build a powerful case that unites a broad church of people’.(6) Democracy relies on consensus and with diametric poles moving further apart, ASSEMBLY urges a return to the democratic act of debate. A debate that is open to diverse voices so shared needs are actually captured by the collective.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2018: Me too?: Political participation, protest and democracy, 2018, The Economist: London, New York, Hong Kong, p. 10-13.
ibid. p. 5.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetrics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 21.
Juliana Engberg, ‘Listen to the Music of the Other: Angelica Mesiti’s ASSEMBLY,’ in ASSEMBLY, Australia Council for the Arts, Australia, 2019, p. 15.
Richard Denniss, ‘The Morrison election: What we know now’, The Monthly, June 2019.