Thinking back to my first visit to However Vast the Darkness at
John Curtin Gallery in March, I now remember that moment as being unusually bookended by the subject of death. In the months prior to seeing the exhibition, death seemed to be a recurring theme in my life; a sequence that I can only describe as cosmic. It felt fitting then that when I received an email informing me of an upcoming local Death Café event I would take it as an obligation more so than an invitation.
The idea of sharing tea with strangers evokes a certain image in my mind’s eye: a glassy sun-lit room where drab conversational niceties are exchanged. A Death Café isn’t quite this — although the sharing of tea with strangers is a commonality. The impetus is the universal and imminent reality of death; a provocation for participants to divulge their hopes and fears relating to their own passing.
Having had no prior experience with partaking in such an event, I mostly engaged with little expectation. Aside from this possibly? celestial? calling? my intention with attending was to perform a kind of civic responsibility. I wouldn’t consider myself an especially spiritual person, however the Muslim teachings learnt from my father have instilled in me a dutifulness to think about what it means to be a good ancestor; to think about how I can show up in the world with care and consciousness. In Western culture, where the duty of caring for vulnerable people has been
largely outsourced to health professionals trained under the watchful eye of the institution, what space is there left to hold,
listen and grieve between one body and another, let alone as a
community? My participation in the Death Café was in this way
an opportunity for me to renew my power as an active citizen.
In the aftermath of death, bureaucracy very quickly takes the reins. Amidst the Café exchange, I found myself pondering on the ways in which the settler state robs us of even the most natural and inevitable experiences of our humanness, including the ability to return to and compost within the earth’s soil without a trail of paperwork to accompany it.
As you can imagine, a Death Café presents the occasion
to better acquaint oneself with vulnerability. However, what I
found especially enlightening was the degree to which the event
revealed the capacity for people to self-organise. Even as a group
of eight, I tallied our networks and skills to find that we were
collectively proficient with deciphering legal documentation,
delivering front-line mental health care support, coordinating
complicated time-sensitive logistical matters and constructing
machinery, furniture and equipment; enough, surely, to bypass
the colonial formalities that follow death.
Leaving the event, I felt consolidated in my views that a performance of any kind of civic responsibility maintains its
momentum through collective action. It was this reflection that
compelled me to return to the gallery on its final day of showing
However Vast the Darkness.
However Vast the Darkness comprises a trio of exhibitions
including Bow Echo (2019) by Aziz Hazara, OCCURRENT
AFFAIR (2021) by proppaNOW and In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) (2015 – 17) by Lisa Reihana. Unlike my first visit, the works which I had initially interpreted as being quite disparate were imbued with new meaning following my experience at the Death Café.
Each of the works enacts a form of collective action that is palpable to the viewer. In Bow Echo, a group of young boys precariously balance against fierce winds atop a boulder in Kabul
while they blow furiously into flimsy plastic bugle horns. Through
epic cinematic installation, In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) imagines the rising tensions between Polynesian, Māori and Indigenous Australian groups and European settlers as their contradicting performances of ownership compete with one another. And, curatorially, OCCURRENT AFFAIR announces itself with the staunch energy of a protest. Text frequently reinforces this relationship such as in Vernon Ah Kee’s Austracism (2003) where an index of racialized rhetoric: ‘I’m not racist but… us White people have it pretty hard too you know and…’ sprawls across polypropylene board.
Across each of the rooms, bodies extend themselves in
relentless feats of endurance, physically resisting different forms
of imperialism. The urgency of their efforts is strengthened as a
collective, placing the onus on the viewer: will you be privy to this struggle as a silent voyeur, or will you help?
I will not insist that an artwork is a solution, nor will I argue for it as the necessary avenue through which to grapple with the existential fears as expansive and complex as death. Yet returning to my earlier musings on collective action and the practical application of it in a room full of strangers sharing tea, I consider However Vast the Darkness a solicitation to this fight. If death is assured — and if, perhaps, my views on being a good ancestor are somewhat an antidote during our finite lives — However Vast the Darkness poses a question that I intend to continue exploring: in the time we have alive, alert and able, what can we do to resist the structural conditions that whiteness imposes on us?