Robyn Maree Pickens responds to Deborah Rundle's exhibition Tomorrow is Today Now.
Even read through translation, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière is palpably intoxicated by the capacity of words to travel; to become flesh and take excursions.1 A similar investment in textual migration characterises Deborah Rundle’s art practice and her exhibition Tomorrow is Today Now. The title is itself an historical artefact first uttered by Prime Minister Sydney Holland on the 21st of February in 1951 during his declaration of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first state of national emergency in response to the waterfront worker’s lock-out.2 In Holland’s urgent utterance he conflates future and present at warp speed into one potent now. Rundle repurposes this fragment of speech to not only revisit her investigation of the 1951 state of national emergency via video, sculpture, and photographic print in the back gallery, but to establish her own temporal frame. That is, these three works: a coastline viewed from inside an undulating boat, an anchor, and photo of a 1951 commemorative plaque not only document the event, they encapsulate time, the time of the past, the first state of national emergency. This event, this first, can be read as the ‘first’ from the textual fragment FIRST AS TRAGEDY THEN AS FARCE AND TRAGEDY in the front gallery. The fragment, which appears branded into a long strip of fake grass, has also been taken on an excursion.
Rundle’s pivot on ‘first’ and her adaption of the longer phrase serves to conceptually underpin the exhibition as a whole. But this only becomes accessible through an encounter with the original phrase in its first iteration. Marx, who was reading Hegel, nuanced the latter’s commentary on the repetition of history, by adding, ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’3 According to Marx, when an event similar in kind occurs twice it cannot be taken seriously. A recent example of such an event can be seen in the reinstatement of Boris Johnson as the prime minster of the UK. Once was, for Labour supporters and those opposed to Brexit, a tragedy, which makes the second time utter farce. The repetition cannot be apprehended (‘How did this happen? Did this happen?’). However, beyond the specificity of one person or event occurring twice and becoming farcical in the process, life is ever increasingly farcical — to the extent that ‘unprecedented’ and ‘the new normal’ have almost lost meaning. The unprecedented happens so fast and so frequently that it is difficult to keep up, let alone comprehend.
Rundle streamlines Marx’s amendment by editing out ‘the’ and ‘time’ (twice) and ‘second’ but her iteration still retains a sense of progression and sequence with the addition of ‘then.’ To the modified fragment FIRST AS TRAGEDY THEN AS FARCE, Rundle adds AND TRAGEDY. Emphatic in all-caps, each word is positioned beneath the former and centred on—or rather cut out of—the long strip of artificial grass (Then as Tragedy, 2022). The addition opens up several interpretations. On one reading the repetition of TRAGEDY returns a sense of gravitas to FARCE. Both are theatrical terms: tragedy triggers grief through a reckoning with betrayal (to take one example), while farce makes you laugh or laugh-cry. But while both grief (tragedy) and laughter (farce) can be cathartic, the latter can elicit a dismissive response. The repetition of ‘it’s happened again’ can simply be too much. But what about the repetition of TRAGEDY? Can we bear tragedy after tragedy?
If the three works in the back gallery take as their focus the 1951 state of national emergency and function as the first event of its kind—the FIRST in Then as Tragedy—then (to echo the fourth word in this very work) the successive and sequential FARCE and TRAGEDY, loosely following Marx’s observations of history repeating itself, orbit as subsequent protests and states of national emergency. Excluding the Christchurch earthquake(s) of 2011 (the first ‘natural’ disaster to be elevated to a national emergency), the next state of national emergency was to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 in 2020. It lasted from 12.21pm on 25th of March 2020 to 12.21pm on 13th of May 2020, and as with the 1951 resulted in an extraordinary curtailment of rights — though with the intention to save lives (and widely believed to have succeeded).4
On one hand states of national emergency are rare in Aotearoa, yet on the other there are new and ongoing states of emergency that intersect and impact on people and countries differently. These many ongoing emergencies, such as neo-colonialism, extractive capitalism, systemic racism, and socio-ecological crises occur across states and geo-political borders. Without romanticising the resilience of people made marginalised, community grassroots groups nevertheless do exist. In the same breath they can however be co-opted or ‘Astroturfed’ by extremist organisations — to make their cause appear ‘authentic’ (grassroots) and widespread. States of national emergency in particular—framed, that is, through the lens of the state with its attendant supporters and detractors (and theorists)—operate as flashpoints of constraint and resistance. Within this rupture there lies emergency, and through a shared Latin word of origin (emergere) there is also the verb ‘emerge.’ The dual meaning of emergency and emerge both spring from emergere, which, translated into English means to arise or bring to light. Tomorrow is Today Now invites contemplation of who and what can be brought to light and nourished.