Thursday, May 16, 2024

Navigating Histories

Exhibition Review: Photography | Brian Rope

Navigating Histories  | Ren Gregorčič, Phuong Le, Chris Siu, Estelle Yoon

Photo Access | 2 May – 1 June 2024

Weaving together stories from the past with their present-day echoes, Navigating Histories explores themes of displacement, resilience, and identity. The artists consider individuals and communities in transition through video, installation and documentary photography.   

This curated exhibition navigates the intricate webs of geopolitical complexities and historical legacies, mirroring how communities assert their narratives in new settings or amid changing landscapes at home, continuously adapting and redefining their connections to place  

Ren Gregorčič is  an Australian-Slovenian artist. His video work, Under the Foot of Neptune, explores the artificial symbolism of a human-constructed sculpture (in Florence, Italy) which interprets the Roman sea god Neptune and his aquatic creatures. The video focuses on the floodlights that illuminate that fountain, showing them as stylised stars. The same stars are also seen in his polaroids also on display. That work plus chairs made from recycled Blackbutt timber address the relationships between materiality and power.

Under the Foot of Neptune, 2022, polaroids by Ren Gregorčič

- installation shot by Eunie Kim

Phuong Le is an emerging Vietnamese artist who uses photography to cater to his inner curiosity and reflect on his sense of self. He uses photography not only to document where he lives, but also confront his outsider status in Australia. He is constantly reminded that he is 7000 km away from his home in Vietnam, in Sunshine, a Melbourne suburb, that disguises itself as home. Sunshine incorporates installation, photography, and video to explore the suburb. The work serves as a geographic reference point to investigate the lasting impact of the Vietnam War on Australian Vietnamese migrants, including the post-war trauma and resettlement experiences they faced.

I found myself thinking of Joan Wakelin, the late British photojournalist, who I had the good fortune to get to know 40 years ago. A passionate person, her philosophy was ‘when one can laugh and cry with people, one is beginning to understand people, and only then can one begin to photograph them.’ Her photography was non-judgmental but did not hesitate to take a view. Le also has certainly taken a clear view with this work.

My home library includes Wakelin’s book The Different Drum which includes an image taken at a Transit Camp for Vietnamese boat refugees. It is of a woman who had given premature birth on a crowded refugee boat two hours prior to being rescued from that boat. Wakelin’s photographs at the closed centres for refugees were taken without permission from the authorities. Quite possibly some of Le’s family or friends spent time in that transit camp or were even photographed by Wakelin.

Having assisted Vietnamese refugees to settle in Canberra, I very much appreciated Le’s works documenting how refugees who settled in Sunshine have created new lives there. The subject matter and the intense colours convey complementary messages about the power of survival and adjustment.

Phuong Le, Untitled (from the series Sunshine), 2023

Chris Siu is a Hong Kong-born photographer who primarily works with medium-format analogue photography to explore the intricate relationships within his surrounding social landscapes, pivoting around representations of civil unrest, diasporic experience, cultural displacement, and marginality within contemporary existence.

Here he shows four imposing and high quality black and white prints. For me the most powerful image is of a cancelled passport set against the front page of a newspaper with its story about the transfer of Hong Kong back to China in 1997. I hope Siu is familiar with Hedda Morrison’s wonderful images of Hong Kong, published in a book by Edward Stokes which also is in my library.

Expired Passport by Chris Siu

Estelle Yoon is a queer, Korean-Australian visual artist. Her Prussian blue 16mm film video work 쎄쎄쎄 (sse-sse-sse) is a poetic homage to inter-generational love. It weaves a cultural tapestry, harmonising the South Korean traditional lullaby 반달 (ban-dal) and its hand gestures to nurture deep familial bonds in their most simple form.

Estelle Yoon, 쎄쎄쎄 (sse-sse-sse) (film still), 2023

I arrived in Australia as a migrant with my parents and brother after a five week’s ship voyage from England as an 8-year-old. We had to make considerable adjustments and adapt to an entirely new lifestyle in a very different place. This exhibition caused me to revisit my experiences.

This review is also available on the author's blog here.