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Robert Andrew is an Australian artist and descendant of the Yawuru people. His art installation at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane is technically fascinating.

Robert Andrew is a descendant of the Yawuru people; his Country is the lands
and waters of the Broome area in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia. In
Presence, Andrew makes metaphysical links with his Country as well as Aboriginal
understandings of place as abstract ideas of belonging and connection. Country
might be interpreted as interconnecting spiritual, cultural, physical, and historical
relationships with the land, waters, sky, and all living things. Andrew’s practice
makes visible these complex connecting layers through the interplay of energy and
matter. He does this by embracing two very different sensibilities: contemporary
technology and natural materials.

In this exhibition, Andrew expands on previous kinetic based work to create a
dynamic physical landscape that stretches across the floor, rises, floats, and
travels. At the centre of this installation is a large reconfigured, stratified block of
natural material. String is embedded within this form, woven into the layers of soil
and ochre, and connected to a mechanical device that activates the movements
of this thread. As the string transitions through and beyond the form, it is imbued
with the signature of Country-carrying residue of the soil and stained gently in
earth pigments.

String creates the substructure of the soil form but as it unravels it undermines the
form, returning the material to a soil-like state. Over the course of the exhibition, a
strong and enduring internal core is revealed within the layered earth.

Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane

“Country might be interpreted as interconnecting spiritual, cultural, physical, and historical relationships with the land, water, sky and all living things …these complex connecting layers through the interplay of energy and matter.”

Country, circularity, interconnectedness, energy and matter, presence and consciousness… I cannot help to think of the thousands of South Africans who have left their country to move to Australia, and what it would feel like to leave the soil of Africa forever. The peace of this country is alluring, almost mesmerizing. We are not used to this level of safety. Seeing young women/girls walking outside alone at night is unusual. One suddenly becomes aware of how we live in constant fear in South Africa. It is real.

Looking at the installation I cannot help but think that our Being-in-the-world is a bit like the rope buried in the concrete. Slowly but surely the rope is unearthed, leaving behind what seems like chaos, disruption, and mess. As the rope escapes the set concrete, pieces of the earth are flung all over the floor. The rope is then very slowly spun to create symmetry and order. Very slowly a pattern is formed. On the other hand, the core of the earth is exposed. Raw and vulnerable.

Living in South Africa, I think we all sometimes feel that our core is ripped open, leaving us extremely vulnerable. The contrasts of beauty and cruelty, life and death, rich and poor, healthy and sick are a daily in-your-face reality. You cannot escape it. The desperate pleading faces of the people looking for work next to the road. The grieving faces of a family whose daughter had been brutally raped and murdered. Slowly but surely we feel that our layers of protection are no longer effective, we feel raw and exposed.

As we grow older, this vulnerability is exacerbated by the way in which society positions older people, especially those who live with memory loss. Many older people feel that they no longer have a purpose, but more so, that they have so much to feel guilty about. Were they good enough parents? Why did they not do more to prevent climate change? Why did they not fight harder against Apartheid? What will happen if they outlive their savings? Would they become a burden to their children? For those who do not have children, the fear of being lonely and helpless can be overwhelming. Slowly but surely, this fear eats away at one’s sense of self-worth and independence. These feelings are often not shared or verbalised, quietly churning away inside, escaping only in the dark of night when you lie awake, worrying about the future.

We need protective layering. Life can be cruel and people unkind. Sometimes the protective layering becomes an outer shield – the friendly face we present to the world. We adapt our communication, develop strategies that help us cope, make us t in, and feel that we are part of something out there. We become part of the consensus reality where we agree to the norms and standards of society in order to be part of a broader tribe. Often as we approach our late fifties this starts to change. We enter an era of discontent. Our menopause leaves us grumpy and sweaty. We lie awake at night, contemplating. Worrying. Fretting. We wake up tired, our nerves are raw and our sense of humour distant. People begin to irritate us more and more, and we are no longer interested in the tribal connection.

This process can go in one of two ways – individuation or mid-life crisis. Either way is messy, but the latter seldom has any good outcomes. When the novelty of the new hairdo/car/botox/girlfriend/lover wears off, we are inevitably faced with another opportunity for individuation. It is the course that we should take, albeit kicking and screaming. And it is in this process that we start to be stripped like the concrete block in the art installation. Layer by layer we are exposed, revealing our Core, our essence of reality. It is the rope that is deeply embedded in us, our Soul, that is escaping the mould, ripping apart what seems to be our very Being, shattering pieces all over the place. But what is revealed is pure and solid, the rope forming a perfect pattern, the pattern of our Connectedness to everything on the planet. No amount of fretting or fear or regret will change this, and the sooner we realise that we are part of the Pattern, that indeed we are the Pattern, our deep inner peace will come.

I see this happening with people living with dementia. Sometimes the stripping of outer layers goes deeper than intended. Some people get stripped to the bone, exposing them to severe vulnerability. They enter an altered reality and state of Being-in-the-world where they no longer operate on the consensus level. Try as they might to “ t in” or adapt to the world out there, their different reality is just not compatible. The conflict, frustration and helplessness that they experience in trying to Be with us can hurt deeply and cause total withdrawal. It is only when we begin to see the pattern of the entire tapestry that we can make sense of the whole. Looking too closely, we have no perspective. We only see the trees and not the forest. We are not sure whether we should look closer or stand further back. We need to do both, we need to circulate – go deep inside and step far back. The circularity brings us back time and time again to the interplay between energy and matter until we eventually realise that they are the same. Matter is energy, energy is matter. Mind is Soul, and Soul is Mind. I am enough. I AM.

The person living with dementia is living in the I Am. There is no more aspiring to consensus reality, yet sadly consensus reality keeps on trying to draw them back into the world of what we call reason. And the more we try and pull them in the more they will resist, often kicking and screaming. What if this altered reality could be rephrased or reconstructed, given a different status, viewed through a different lens, narrated with different words, or reflected with different images? Somehow we are not there yet. I hope that as we grow in our Selves, we will begin to grow in our ability to move beyond the apocalyptic rhetoric of the biomedical world and that we will begin to see our Selves and others as One. That we will not notice the difference, but honour the sameness.

To tell a story […] is to relate, in narrative, the occurrences
of the past, retracing a path through the world that others,
recursively picking up the threads of past lives, can follow in
the process of spinning out their own. But rather as in looping
or knitting, the thread being spun now and the thread picked
up from the past are both of the same yarn. There is no point
at which the story ends and life begins. – Tim Ingold

(From the introduction to The Blackridge House, by Julia Martin).

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