Exhibition review: Murmurations, Museum of History

This outdoor animated video and digital artwork is short and mesmerising.

Have you ever seen a murmuration – that dense flock of birds that twists and dives in poetic unison? It is one of nature’s great wonders. Seeing one on a 9- by 10-metre screen is another form of wonder. Murmurations is an animated video/digital artwork and collaboration between First Nations artist Tony Albert and Sāmoan-Australian artist, Angela Tiatia, with production creatives Lillie Madden, Alina Olivares-Panucci and Corin Ileto.

It is being screened outdoors at the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, allowing it be to be viewed 24/7. Indeed, I viewed it drinking my morning coffee before work. Located in the forecourt of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hyde Park Barracks, the video is the latest in a string of annual commissions intended to respond to the unique history of the site.

For Tiatia and Albert, that history is a narrative of forced migration. But it is a nuanced story, turning from the more unilateral bundling of ‘migration’ to rather exploring the story of two separate groups through the lens of indigeneity. For them, there is a timelessness to this movement that is ‘abstracted and ever-morphing’, as they describe it.

The metaphor of a murmuration works beautifully. It sends a message that, through a collective vision, great things can be achieved – rather than the time-worn trope of taking instead of giving.

‘Murmurations’ (detail), Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney. Museum of History. Photo: ArtsHub.

Watching the video, it seemingly blends into its surroundings – the red sand forecourt echoing the opening frames of the video with its red cracked earth, the birds soaring on-screen across open skies seemingly bleeding out into the crisp winter morning.

The narrative is poetic and nuanced on-screen; from that dry earth emerges a silvery ribbon-like form that snakes its way to the sea. It graphically moves over the water shifting form into a kind of stingray (a marine animal that has many spiritual and Dreaming touch points across Indigenous cultures) and then plunges into that briny world below.

The next sequence sees the creature move to the skies, exploding into a murmuration of birds. The connectivity of worlds – or Country, lands, sea and sky – not only makes connections of embedded narratives from a First Nations perspective, but is also a persistent environmental meter for a changing world.

The video then takes a turn, appearing like fluro-pink atoms that hark to science labs and COVID-clusters. But as the camera pulls back, it becomes clear that it is the stamen of a tropical Pacific flower – a signature of Tiatia’s work.

The repeating motif of the murmuration then leads viewers into the final section of the video. It is short – very watchable – and mesmerising. It is very much an Australian story that describes our environment – which is so pervasive and identifies who we are – but then it is quintessentially a First Nations story, where Country is all-encompassing and the meter of life, evolution and cultural beauty is the pulse of life, both spiritual and awe-inspiring.

The digital piece is extended through a series of workshops and talks, with a free Community Cultural Festival including dance, music and storytelling on 28 May.

Murmurations art installation
Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
Until 4 June.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina