A Response to Excess Baggage Written by Hannah Sharples

Paraire 10 Hūrae

Friday 10 July


The word ‘baggage’ comprises of three connotations; suitcases and bags containing personal belongings packed for travelling; past experiences or long-held attitudes perceived as burdensome encumbrances; a cheeky or disagreeable girl or woman. With this in mind, Excess Baggage, curated by Claudia Arozqueta, brings together five videos by female artists from Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand and Russia that explore dislocation and perseverance—examining aspects and experiences that shape the human life through the eyes of each artist.

Upon entering the gallery you are met with a sense of emptiness, there is no baggage so to speak. Four sleek black television screens are placed sparsely in the gallery, either on mute or with headphones. It seems as though each video is a private screening, unrelated to the next. The only sound that can be heard is a voice travelling from the second room of the gallery. As the content is not immediately visible, it further adds to a feeling of isolation and removal that is present in this exhibition.

Placed near the entrance to the gallery is Sin huella [Without a Trace], a performance piece depicting the artist Gina Arizpe bound to a tyre by rope. Arizpe, who is Mexican, drags the beaten tyre behind her through the vast yellow sands of the Chihuahua dessert in Northern Mexico close to the US border. The physical effort required to pull the tyre behind her seems to not exist as when she pulls it—the sand quickly swallows up her tracks leaving an untraceable path. Her journey appears to mirror the struggle that many people experience when attempting to cross the US border: they are on a continuous journey where they leave no evidence of their previous existence.

Endurance is explored in the next video, also a documentation of a performance by the artist. Russian artist Elena Kovylina takes on the role of a caryatid: a female-shaped column that supports its attached structure. Greek in origin, such columns supported temples. Literally taking on this role, Kovylina stands before a gallery audience supporting the weight of a large model house. The house is pink, her dress is pink and aspects of her make up are pink, tying into a feminine cliché. As the audience watches her there is a sense of admiration that she has managed to support the house for the duration of the performance. However I am conflicted in deciding whether or not they were admiring her for the fact she endured the physical aspects of this performance or for the strong women she seems to be representing. Kovylina’s performance embodies women who not only create homes but also have to hold up their houses and family’s with very little choice.

Claire Harris’ Born in Gore is a cathartic video. With a picturesque Southland landscape rolling out behind her, she stands on a green hillside with a bagpiper as her only company. The bagpiper begins to play and after a few moments Harris joins in, hysterically screaming. Her charged lament barely reaches her listeners as it drowned out by the drone of the bagpipes. Inspired by her nostalgic love and hate for her hometown Gore, she appears conflicted—she will never be able to separate herself from her hometown because as much as she tries. The juxtaposition between her emotional out put and the lack of emotion from the bagpiper in the southern landscape is perplexing and amusing. Contrary to Kovylina‘s work the camera never pans in any closer; her emotion is conveyed more through sound and action rather than her facial expression. Both these aspects lead to a feeling of emotional removal.

Moving to the second room of the exhibition you are now invited to listen to the story of Irina Birger, narrated by Irina Birger. The content of Irina Birger Thinks Drawing is Important contemplates her nomadic existence and her relationships—or lack of—with the many people in her life as well as the development of her artistic practice. The video opens with a multitude of photos forming layer upon layer; documented by the artist over her life time. They layer in quick succession, which creates confusion resulting in the need to look away. This contributes to an overall difficulty in grasping a connection with Birger as the subject of the video. This appears to be something the artist struggles with herself as it becomes clear that she carries a lack of identity partly due to her nomadic lifestyle and childhood. This is revealed as she takes the viewer through her time in Eastern Europe and Israel during political unrest, and as she reveals herself as a restless artist keen to express herself. Throughout the short video she is constantly in front of you and her voice can be heard narrating over top, however you still cannot help but ask: who is she?

The fifth and final video of the exhibition is by Russian artist Elena Astashova. Titled Body Building, it depicts a Russian weight lifter exercising in an airport terminal full of people in transit. Watching this absurd performance are seasonal workers from ex-Soviet nations such as Uzbekistan. They look on quietly as the man lifts weights, skips and sweats, building up muscle mass, excising his right. Often victims of discrimination in Russia, these workers are faced with what they do for living but for the pleasure of sport. A social comment, Astashova’s video leaves the viewer wondering, is this necessary?

By bringing together five female artists from contrasting countries, presents the idea that having baggage is universal. While sometimes mischievous but certainly not disagreeable, in many ways theses female artists challenge their perceived roles in society through presenting how much one should have to or is able to withstand. The ‘excess’ comes from the audience: watching muted videos or patiently waiting to listen to the video with the corresponding audio. Through this experience we the audience are unanimously starting to question the excessiveness of our own baggage. While not commented on, it is internally acknowledged as we watch the artists give their own insight into what they carry along and endure during their journeys.

Hannah Sharples