Exhibition review: From The Other Side, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Local and international works focus on the fear of the monstrous-feminine.
Close up of artwork of a white female chest, with eyes in the place of nipples.

Co-Curator Elyse Goldfinch writes, ‘It begins with the eye.’ And this is clear as you walk into the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCCA) signature exhibition of Australian and international work. You’ll be confronted by a series of veil-like cobwebs of beautifully embroidered small eyelashes.

This entreaty is from the work Never Let Me Go by Heather B Swann, which invites you into a world of the feminist and feminine, a world of monstrousness and revolt. Swann then leads you through two additionally intricate works, Human Frailty and The Three Sisters.

Human Frailty is a work that witnesses horror and feels for it, with disembodied eyes crying crystal tears. The Three Sisters meanwhile, shows three nude female figures, with eyes gazing from unfamiliar places in their bodies.

From The Other Side is beautifully multicultural in its portrayal of the protective and the harrowing in the feminine. The catalogue contains an introduction from the Australia-based cinema professor Barbara Creed, whose theory of the monstrous-feminine draws on the French theorist Julia Kristeva’s ideas of abjection and revolt. The monstrous-feminine is embodied for artist Clare Milledge by the Celtic mythological figure of the “Badb”, a shapeshifting, crow-formed warrior queen, and Naomi Kantjuriny’s ink drawings of “Mamu”, night-dwelling spirits that are often described as tricksters but can be forces of protection too. 

In this exhibition, the Australian uncanny takes on resonances of place as well as bodies. Tracey Moffatt’s A Haunting lights a weatherboard house with a deep red light that pulses like a heartbeat, transforming this real-life remote Australian house into an installation that evokes a crime scene.

Pieces like this and like Karla Dickens’ Warrior Woman, which wittily incorporates modern objects into traditional Indigenous ceremonial fighting garments, highlight the spectre of domestic violence that continues to haunt Australia’s collective unconscious. Korean artist Minyoung Kim’s pastel drawings highlight the cute and sometimes lurid nature of horror fantasia, a cultural phenomenon driven by the unlikely interplay of voyeurism and witnessing. What she calls ‘creepy-cute’ drawings show how the eye has a role in connecting violence with myth and magic. 

Holding the exhibition together like both a structure and an embrace, the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois’ Spider perfectly articulates the haunting element of the monstrous-feminine. Bourgeois, currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Gallery of NSW in Sydney, became preoccupied with the spider late in life, exploring the protective as well as the threatening elements of the mother.

Bourgeois has stated of the sculpture – the sketches and designs of which figure in the last part of the ACCA exhibition – that if you came to it as an adversary you would be intimidated by it, but if you came to it as a child, you would be protected by it.

This thought-provoking exhibition is as intricate as it is polemical and complemented by a suite of films put together by some of Australia’s brightest arts minds. It promises to make you think as well as shiver. 

From the other side is at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art until 3 March 2024.
Curators: Elyse Goldfinch and Jessica Clark


Screams on Screen, a curated exhibition of horror films including Australian critical favourite The Babadook, plays at The Capitol Theatre from the evening of 16-17 February.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin