This Is Where We Meet
AirSpace Projects November 2016
Exhibition catalogue by Yvette Hamilton
No man is an island, Entire of itself. (John Donne 1623)
An island is a powerful place. Taut with tension, it is a defined and limited space, which is, however, lapped on all sides by the vast and limitless sea. As a construct of time and space that exists outside of the ‘real world’, the island also plays host to dreams and illusions that run from utopian idyll to dystopian hell. Island territory contains a dynamic of opposition - the known/unknown, contained/contingent and insider/outsider. The tensions between these polarities create the ground for difficult conversations, amplified in today’s socio-political situation, where waves of displaced people desperately seek refuge on distant shores. An island also exerts a magnetic pull that draws in the individual, where many seek to fasten their identity to its shores. Nationalistic sentiments are found here, and they come to the fore at a time where an island’s shores can become a hard border and the imagined paradise evolves to punitive holding pen. In This Is Where We Meet, Dahl takes a speculative circumnavigation of island territory, revealing the island as a site for the meeting of politics, person and place.
In her anonymous island-scapes Dahl presents us with the concept of an island stripped bare. There is no geographical context for us to orient our being and no human trace for us to establish connection. Like a person washed ashore we are lost and we must hold tight to these images for clues as to where we stand. Dahl presents us with island shapes to hold onto, yet these are ice-cold or rocky and give the most meagre foothold in an unknown world. The inhospitality of her images paradoxically invites the viewer into the frame. We try to orient ourselves in relation to these uncanny landscapes and in doing so define our own stance in relation to the island.
This attempt at orientation in an unfamiliar world is reflected in the current world situation where millions of people are displaced from their land and homes. When massive waves of humanity shift and seek refuge in the most desperate of circumstances, the notion of us and them, and insider and outsider, are challenged. As a Norwegian-born artist, Dahl hails from a land where tradition and national identity are rooted to the bedrock of her homeland. The sense of self within place is almost a mandated part of being Norwegian. But Norway, like countless other countries, must now grapple with its identity in the face of the displaced who need to tie themselves to new lands.
In This Is Where We Meet, Dahl saps the colour from her photographic prints, heightening alienation, separation and a sense of ‘us and them’. In Adrift I, a cluster of boulders emerges from the sea - the scantest of refuges - these rocky outcrops speak of haven and hell in equal measure. What could be the only lifeline in a vast ocean, these slabs also speak of hard choices - die here or die at sea. In New World this tension is heightened by the distant landmass at the horizon – is this the haven we have been seeking? The impulse to propel forward into the ocean and make for solid land is almost irresistible. The parallels to the current worldwide refugee crisis and Australia’s offshore detention policy resonate strongly.
While Dahl’s images speak of alienation from the mainland and humanity, they also speak of alienation from the world as we know it. In Disintegration I, a crisp disk of white floats in a black sea. As an initial reading, this all-white zone acts as a beacon of refuge in a murky and unknown territory. However, examining this reductive landscape further, a question begins to emerge - is this island really solid, or is it mere illusion? The stark black and white contrast seems to present a world inverted. In Disentegration II, the all-black sky is echoed by a central black void - a gaping maw that could swallow us whole? Or the one piece of solid ground in a shifting landscape? By disorienting her viewer in such a manner Dahl encourages us to think carefully about the power of the island with its ability to concurrently unite and divide. Are we an insider or an outsider? Do we place ourselves on land or at sea?
Perhaps the best clue we have to unlock the uncanny island-scapes that Dahl presents is her title - This Is Where We Meet. Her images are sites where opposing concepts meet, exchange ideas, and begin a conversation. “This” - these islands - are the sites that host the overlay of the self onto the land. “We meet” here, in these depictions of unknown landscapes and grapple with our relationship to place, to ourselves and to our sense of identity. Dahl provides us with the black and white, the here and there, the inside and outside, and yet paradoxically what these works speak most strongly of, is the oscillation between these polarities. As Donne states, No man is an island, Entire of itself - there is no clear definition here, we cannot be complete, entire and certain. There exists only the struggle to map a territory where a multiplicity of desires and identities can meet and navigate a way to co-exist in place.
Yvette Hamilton is an Australian artist and writer whose interdisciplinary practice charts the evolution of the notions of self, being and presence, as influenced by evolving technological heterotopias.