Concrete is the ubiquitous Modernist building material; functional, grey, obdurate when moulded, both natural and unnatural, an aggregate primarily of cement and lesser-known particles. First used in construction by the Romans, it was developed in late-18th-century France as a means of surpassing the architectural limitations of rammed earth and reached an apotheosis in the Brutalist architecture of the mid-20th century. Curiously, perhaps, it has also become the favoured material for the building of memorials. When French philosopher Henri Lefebvre deplored the prevalence of concrete used in postwar France for its material antipathy to the realm of memory and history, I doubt he was alone: ‘Here I cannot read the centuries, not time, nor the past, nor what is possible,’ he lamented in his book, Introduction to Modernity (1962).
‘Concrete’, curated by Geraldine Barlow, forged material and metaphoric connections among the 16 selected artists and turned on the pivot of memorializing. Positioned in relation to the centenary of World War I, the exhibition incorporated the memorialization of war within a more oblique meditation on the nature of entropy and destruction. Although conventional forms of monument were presented – such as the iconic ‘digger’ figures of stoicism embodied in ANZAC memorials erected at various sites across Australia and New Zealand, which are soberly documented in the photographs Laurence Aberhart has been taking for over 30 years – most of the works are less explicit.
Nicholas Mangan makes concrete mysterious in Some Kinds of Duration (2011), a moody installation of sculpture and video featuring a slow pan across a Mayan frieze juxtaposed with a cast concrete form that references the architect (and designer of Canberra, the Australian capital) Walter Burley Griffin’s Pyrmont incinerator and an early Canon photocopier. Activated by a soundtrack of a copier’s mechanical whirr, the installation evokes an eerie world of technological obsolescence.
An attraction to architectural fragments is also at play in Justin Trendall’s A House For Two Artists (2010), a shallow, wall-mounted sculpture comprised of white, second-hand Lego blocks interlocked into a surface the patina of which evokes an ancient façade. The reference to antiquity was made explicit in the adjacent sculpture, The Library of Alexandria (2014), whose schematic hollowed form evokes a tonally inverted Piranesi ruin.
Rä di Martino’s wonderfully enigmatic photographs, ‘No More Stars’ (2011), of decaying architectural remnants in the Tunisian desert, suggest ancient civilizations and futuristic worlds – uncanny sci-fi structures that hover impossibly between disintegrating ruins and alien forms. Apparently tricksterish, the photographs ultimately reveal their lack of artful deception when it becomes clear that they are, in fact, shots of the abandoned film sets built almost 40 years ago for George Lucas’s original Star Wars film (1977).
Similarly redolent of both the future and the past are the towering monuments known as the ‘Spomeniks’ – postwar memorials commissioned by Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and ’70s to commemorate Yugoslav battle sites and mark the concentration camps of World War II. Soaring abstract forms in cast concrete, these totemic Brutalist structures dotted across the Yugoslav countryside are explored in Igor Grubić’s 53-minute video Monument (work in progress) (2014). The most subtle and poignant work in the exhibition, Monument conveys an unexpected fragility through its use of slow-panning footage, fragmented viewpoints and close-ups. The abraded, graffitied and waterstained surfaces of the monuments conjure an ineluctable sense of the forlorn. In one sequence, a herd of goats clamber over a broken Spomenik; it’s like a cracked fuselage, a relic of lost time. Grubic´’s video conveys not only the monuments’ material deterioration but their embeddedness in the landscape; this, coupled with the artist’s atmospheric footage intimates the ways in which memorials are themselves re-inhabited by nature and subject to its elemental forces.
The possibility that landscape itself, rather than sculptural forms, might more fulsomely harbour memory is suggested by Ricky Maynard’s photograph, Vansittart Island (2007), a simple image depicting the rocky coast of an island in Bass Strait, Tasmania, in which the artist’s indigenous ancestors were buried. Its caption narrates the clandestine removal of the remains to protect them from the prying eyes of colonial settlers. Part of the series ‘Portrait of a Distant Land’ (2005–ongoing), Maynard’s images connote the dovetailing of the aporias of testimony and the invisible histories of dispossession.
The anti-monument movement in commemorative sculpture in the late 20th century – and, indeed, the move away from monuments towards the idea of sculpture in the expanded field – were also concerns that resurfaced in ‘Concrete’. The exhibition gently examined the question of how to memorialize war, death and the slow tread of time. In so doing, it implicitly contested Lefebvre’s observation, summoning broader issues of material and symbolic oblivion.