Exhibition review: Frances Barrett, Meatus

Light and sound exhibition beguiles in various spaces.

The now famous motto by Mark Zuckerberg to ‘move fast and break things,’ captures much of what we value in our post-haste, digital age; the founder of Facebook’s affirmation for the necessity of speed and disruption to learn and get ahead, speaks volumes about the way we inhabit space and time in contemporary life. Frances Barrett, in her current exhibition, Meatus, presently showing at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne’s Southbank arts precinct, also explores the notions of space and time but through the bodily experience of listening, requiring a very different notion of tempo.

Artist and Lecturer in Contemporary Art at the University of South Australia, Barrett’s work straddles the domains of performance, installation and curating; her recent focus draws from works completed during her PhD studies and revolve around the modalities of listening and touch. Curated by Barrett , these new sonic compositions, supported by The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship, are collaborative in nature. 

Reimagining ACCA as a meatus, a bodily opening or passage such as nasal or ear canals, the visitor undergoes an entire bodily experience by means of what the artist terms a ‘wormhole’; a way of moving from the exterior to the interior of the body through the physical space of the gallery. Her aim is ‘for the body to be transmitted as sonic waves wriggling like worms across space and time.’

The first and largest of ACCA’s four gallery spaces presents a major sound installation, worm divination (segmented realities), 2020, 32:30mins, an immersive sound environment using a Yamaha speaker system. Developed by Barrett, Hayley Forward and Brian Fuata, it consists of performance art, poetry and improvisation. Barrett also references various literary and artistic sources that explore notions of the body and queer spaces. Three smaller, adjacent galleries play specially commissioned sound works by artists Nina Buchanan, Del Lumanta and Sione Teumohenga and are curated by Barrett also using a Yamaha sound system. Accompanying these works are ‘a series of incursions by Debris Facility Pty Ltd’ that respond to the concept of the exhibition.

On entering the spaces the visitor is presented with a sound and light experience, the compositions in the three smaller galleries running on a rotating sound loop of 15 minutes in each space. Carefully positioned speakers on walls, grouped on the floor or positioned on stands act as a visual and auditory play on the notion of the wormhole. The overall effect is one of a sonic collage, a layering of sounds of different lengths, intensity and frequencies that sit along silence. 

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Conditioned from a young age to equate the gallery experience with something visual the initial response for the visitor may be one of confusion, and not knowing how to experience the spaces. Unlike Zuckerberg’s world, this one requires time and focused listening from the participant and it is worth taking the time. Floor space is available to sit but fold up stools are also available on request, allowing the opportunity to sit and mediate an experience in which sounds morph from low drones and overlapping percussive elements to silence; over time, the sound waves taking on a bodily vibration.

Supported by didactic panel and text labels with reference material and audio labels available online, Meatus is presented in partnership with Carriageworks, Sydney and the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart. The Commissioning Curator is Annika Kristensen.

Frances Barrett, Meatus
ACCA, Southbank, Melbourne
Free entry

Meatus will be opened until 19 June 2022

Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.