Monday 4 December 2023

The Amazing NGV Triennial 2023 Makes us Question our World and Forces us to See it Differently

Installation view of SMACK's Speculum on display 2019 at Matadero Madrid © SMACK. Courtesy of the artist and Onkaos

By Sasha Grishin, Australian National University

What the previous two National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennials have taught us is that the visitor should be prepared to be surprised, amazed and challenged. NGV Triennial 2023 does this in spades.

By the third iteration, the NGV Triennial has developed its own DNA signature. It is eager to redefine the parameters of art and design practice; it incorporates the entire curatorial team at the gallery; and the triennial interventions affect every level of the NGV building.

There is a case to be made, when the curatorial staff is large enough, for a project like a triennial to galvanise the staff into a creative collective with each person contributing according to their speciality, as well as working across disciplines.

Although it may be a large show – about 120 artists, designers and collectives from over 30 countries are involved in about 100 projects – it is manageable and is contained at the one site. It is designed to create a single knockout blow and largely manages to pull it off.

Newcomers and iconic names

As with its predecessors, this triennial contains a mixture of iconic names, including Tracey Emin, Sheila Hicks, Maison Schiaparelli and Yoko Ono, all represented by major works, together with those less well known, except to art insiders.

In an attempt to impose some sort of structure, three thematic pillars have been devised – Magic, Matter and Memory – and the artists have been loosely corralled into these categories.

In an exhibition of this nature, it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to speak of highlights. Perhaps it is more meaningful to comment on the pieces that make you question your reading of reality.

Installation view of Mun-dirra, a collaborative work by artists from the Maningrida Arts Centre. Work on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

Mun-dirra is a monumental woven fish fence created over two years by 13 Maningrida artists plus three apprentices. It creates a mesmerising installation that runs for about 100 metres. When questioned, the artists simply related how they collected the pandanus leaf, how they made the dyes, and then wove these eel traps to create this most wondrous installed environment in which you lose yourself among the veils.

Almost as a complement to it, Wurundjeri artist Aunty Kim Wandin has installed a bronze eight-metre-long eel trap in the moat in front of the gallery.

Installation view of Aunty Kim Wandin’s work Luk Burgurrk Gunga, on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

American-born French-based veteran artist Sheila Hicks in her Nowhere to Go sculptural installation creates a pyramid, almost seven metres high, where the rounded textile balls become both an architectural structure as well as a celebration of the power of colour. Quite simple in concept, at the same time memorable and effective.

Installation view of Sheila Hicks’ work Nowhere to go. On display as part of NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

Dutch digital artists’ collective SMACK has created a tantalising and haunting installation Speculum.

It could be described as a digital animation of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1500). Here, each of the hundreds of little figures has been given an individual digital identity and is fully animated as it undergoes its various tortures and torments. It is an absorbing kinetic narrative that completely draws you in and reveals many troubling contemporary aspects to eternal questions concerning the human condition.

Installation view of SMACK’s work on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

Questioning our world

Polish-born American-based artist Agnieska Pilat and her Hetrobots, especially commissioned for NGV Triennial 2023, is one of a number of pieces at the triennial that questions the role of artificial intelligence in art, design and in our lives.

Pilat has appropriated three robot “dogs” from engineering company Boston Dynamics, which have been used by militaries and police forces. Here her quite “cute” dogs have their own built environment in which they creatively rearrange the interior, create marks on canvases and shape their environment as a non-programmed act.

In a way, nothing much happens, but incrementally they are changing our world.

Installation view of Agnieszka Pilat’s work Heterobota on display as part of NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

One of the more spectacular exhibits comes from the Paris haute couture house Maison Schiaparelli. Artistic director Daniel Roseberry presents a selection of recent costumes, gilded accessories and surreal body adornments within an immersive celestial environment. It is a strangely out-of-this-world experience.

Installation view of designs by Maison Schiaparelli on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 to 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

A surprising but very effective inclusion is a cameo exhibition of Prudence Flint’s paintings titled Hunting and Fishing.

This Melbourne painter has created over a number of decades a peculiar figurative language where fairly spartan and slightly surreal interiors are populated by a series of scantily clad models. Over the years, her paintings have developed an uncanny atmosphere – calm, accessible and frequently carrying the sense of a suppressed silent scream.

Installation view of Prudence Flint’s work on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

The proof of a great exhibition is that it makes us question our world and forces us to see the world differently. NGV Triennial 2023 assaults our senses as we encounter architecture that breathes, mega-cities that fracture into human fragments, a huge hand that either tells us that all is OK or flicks us the bird and Yoko Ono who defiantly asserts “I LOVE YOU EARTH”.

The NGV has managed to raise A$8.5 million to pay for many of these newly commissioned projects and presents the triennial as a free event. This exhibition celebrates the freedom of the human spirit and will amuse, delight and shock over a million people who will visit it over the next four months.

Installation view of Yoko Ono’s work I LOVE YOU EARTH on display in NGV Triennial from 3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024 at NGV International, Melbourne. Photo: Sean Fennessy.

The NGV Triennial 2023 is at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 7 2024.The Conversation

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Thursday 30 November 2023

Escape to the Côte d’Azur: Fashion Editorial by Elli Ioannou in Cannes, France

Liubava Kanarchuk wears a diaphanous, rose-hued pleated gown by Gemy Maalouf with pearls by Bijou de la Mer, as she catches the breeze at Cannes, France

As winter's chill embrace tightens its grip across Europe, hearts yearn for the vivid hues and warm caress of summer days. We embark on a journey to the enchanting city of Cannes in the South of France, where the azure skies and vibrant colors of the French Riviera beckon like a siren's song. Photography by Elli Ioannou; styled by Giorgia Viola & JSN Fashion; modelled by Liubava Kanarchuk; gowns by Gemy Maalouf, Vivienna Lorikeet and RVNG Couture;  jewels by Bijou De La Mer and Helena Joy; location at the Hotel Martinez, Cannes

Running away into the lush 
gardens of the Hotel Martinez
in a gown by Gemy Maalouf
A sense of escape from frosty quotidian days is embodied by a warm afternoon at the Hotel Martinez on Cannes' palm-tree lined Promenade de la Croisette. The Art Deco opulence of this storied place has offered respite to Hollywood stars every May during the film festival. 

Opened in 1929 by Emmanuel Michele Martinez, the son of Sicilian aristocrats, the hotel is a walk to the Palais des Festivals and looks over the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Cannes and out to the Lerin Islands. The languorous gardens and dramatic, wrought-iron stairway provide the perfect canvas for a fashion tale that unfolds against vibrant plants and flowers.  

Flowing gowns designed by Gemy Maalouf, Vivienna Lorikeet and RVNG Couture are a vision of modern elegance. Brilliant orange and bougainvillea hues embody summer afternoons and evenings with an effortless chic. Melbourne-based designer Vivienna Lorikeet's silk organza Blossom Gown (see below) has a glimmering look with hand-beaded sequins on an evanescent digital print. 

While Gemy Maalouf's delicious deep fuchsia dress is from the Lebanese designer's Spring/Summer 2023 collection called Midnight Capri. Whereas the dashing dress and cape by RVNG Couture head designer Jordan Stweart is created from satin with a captivating embroidery. 

The diaphanous dresses and vivid hues mirror the vibrancy of the Mediterranean and tell a story of adventure, and the promise of sun-filled days. Fluid skirts are caught by sea breezes from the nearby plage and drift in the wind. Yet the fine details and delicate embellishments echo the panache of the French Riviera and the allure of a summer escape. 
A brilliant, bougainvillea-hued
 gown by Gemm Maalouf 
shimmers in  the sunshine

Couture Against a Canvas of Azure Skies 

The atmospheric Côte d'Azur and the gowns' evocative silhouettes, textures and colours provide a dynamic contrast to the beauty of French gardens and the seashore where our editorial was shot.

Silken scarves dance in the wind, mimicking the rhythm of the waves, while a molten maxi dress billows with grace, emulating the gentle rustle of palm leaves. 

Beautiful, bold pearls from Bijoux de la Mer and scintillating jewels from Helena Joy enhance the classic lines, creating a perfect look for having an aperitif and dancing the night away: Cannes becomes a living, breathing runway. 

Wintry frosts may envelop those in the Northern Hemisphere, but these transporting images are from a world where the sun always shines, and the days are filled with the promise of new escapades. 

We find solace in the fantasy of the South of France, a visual reverie that warms the soul and ignites the anticipation of brighter, sunnier days to come. ~ Jeanne-Marie Cilento

See the full fashion editorial at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, France below.  

Looking across the winding stairs of the Hotel Martinez wearing a RVNG Couture gown and capeJewels by Helena Joy.
Romantic, long gown with embellished bodice by Gemy Maalouf at the Hotel Martinez. Jewels by Bijoux de la Mer. 

On the dramatic stairway in the vivid and elegant gown by Vivienna Lorikeet with its rich tones in silk chiffon. Jewels by Helena Joy.

The colours of flowers in a summer garden, this graceful gown by Gemy Maalouf at the Hotel Martinez. 

The swirling skirt of Vivienna Lorikeet's exquisite couture "Blossom Dress" with sparkling sequins. Jewels by Helena Joy.
The soft pinks and pleats of this delicate dress that is like a pale summer sunset by Gemy Maalouf. Pearls by Bijoux de la Mer.
Gemy Maalouf's gown from her Spring/Summer 2023 collection is perfect for an escape to the South of France. Jewels by Helena Joy.

Amid the summer greenery of the Hotel Martinez Garden, this brightly hued dress by Gemy Maalouf is the perfect foil.

Striking a pose on the stairway wearing the exhilarating cape and gown from RVNG couture with its exquisite embroidery.
Catching the sea breeze on the Hotel Martinez' beachside boardwalk in Gemy Maalouf's diaphanous creation. Jewels by Bijoux de la Mer. 

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Monday 20 November 2023

Did Napoleon Really Fire at the Pyramids? A Historian Explains the Truth Behind the Legends of Ridley Scott’s Biopic

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon. Photograph: courtesy of Apple

By Joan Tumblety, University of Southampton

Directors of historical feature films face a difficult task. How can they make the characters familiar to an audience without reducing them to caricature? How can they make sure that knowledge of the outcome – battles won or lost, empires built then ruined – doesn’t make the story seem like it’s writing itself?

Director Ridley Scott is not a historian and presumably wants to entertain rather than to enlighten. But the problem of historical truth is an interesting one.

The trailer for Napoleon.

It is not easy to know the “real” Napoleon. There’s a recognisable version of him – the confident general beloved of his troops, the instinctive military tactician who could run on empty for days at a time, his stern and somewhat petulant gaze. But much of this is the product of layers of historical storytelling, accrued by the labour of generations of artists, journalists and memoirists – and of course, Napoleon himself.

Abel Gance’s spectacular silent film Napoleon (1927), for example, charted the life and career of Napoleon up to his departure as a military general for the Italian campaign in 1796. In one scene, a heavy winter snowfall interrupts classes at Napoleon’s military college. The boys run outside to play and inevitably start throwing snowballs at each other. The scene depicts a very young Napoleon emerging as a natural commander, directing the combat as though on the field of battle.

Yet the veracity of this moment rests primarily on a single account – the memoir of one of Napoleon’s childhood friends, Louis de Bourrienne, who attended the same school. The author was later an employee of Napoleon, who sacked him for embezzlement in 1802.

Many years later, in 1829, de Bourrienne penned a memoir in the hope of cashing in on the popular appetite for authentic tales of the great general. What we think we know about the “real” Napoleon is often filtered through self-interested and partial accounts like this one.

Here are the facts and legends behind some of the major scenes from Ridley Scott’s new Napoleon biopic.

Did Napoleon crown himself?

Napoleon went to great lengths to craft his image as a benign ruler and man of the people, often enlisting the talents of artists to do so.

Most notoriously, Jacques-Louis David was commissioned to produce a series of grand paintings depicting Napoleon’s coronation in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris in December 1804. In the most famous, we see Napoleon place a crown on the head of the new Empress Josephine while a reluctant Pope Pius VII looks on.

In an astonishing act of hubris, Napoleon had indeed already placed a crown on his own head, though the oil painting shows him only in laurel leaves to signify his martial triumphs. What Scott’s film depicts is the magnificence of the oil paintings, which showed Napoleon and his empress in the most flattering light, rather than the coronation ceremony itself.

His relationship with Josephine

There is no doubt that Napoleon felt a deep passion for Marie Joséphe Rose de la Pagerie – known to him as Joséphine – whom he married in 1796 as his military career was in the ascendant. Yet her depiction in Ridley Scott’s film as a young seductress probably speaks more to sexist cliche than to Joséphine’s undoubted self-assuredness.

She was six years older than Napoleon, a widow and mother of two young children when they met, and the young general’s romantic feelings were seemingly stronger than hers. While on campaign he wrote to her virtually every day, his pen sometimes piercing the parchment, such was the force of his emotions. Yet some of these letters to her remained unopened.

Their relationship was as tumultuous as it was passionate, and both spouses had several affairs. Yet when Napoleon instigated divorce in 1809 for want of an heir, it was surprisingly amicable. The Empress retained her imperial title until her death in 1814 and was permitted to continue living in the imperial Château de Malmaison.

Was Napoleon present at the execution of Marie Antoinette?

The autumn of 1793 was especially busy for Napoleon given his increasingly important role in the Siege of Toulon. Federalist rebels had handed over the French fleet to the British admiral Samuel Hood, and the young artillery officer commanded the operation that eventually seized it back.

Therefore it is highly unlikely that he ventured to Paris in October to be among the crowd that witnessed the execution of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Another trailer for Napoleon shows the lead up to Marie Antionette’s execution.

In a letter to his older brother Joseph, however, Napoleon did claim to witness the storming of the Tuileries Palace by an angry crowd of republican protesters in June 1792. It revolted him.

Did Napoleon really fire at the pyramids?

Napoleon began his Egyptian campaign in 1798. The cultural legacy of the campaign can be seen in the well-stocked Egyptology section of the Louvre. But it was also the scene of atrocities.

At one point, several thousand Ottoman soldiers were shot or driven into the sea on Napoleon’s orders, rather than taken prisoner. You don’t need to invent ice traps or Napoleon ordering his men to fire at the pyramids, as Ridley Scott’s biopic does, to convey his callous disregard for life.

It was the rumour that he had ordered his own plague-stricken troops to be poisoned in the town of Jaffa that finally tarnished Napoleon’s reputation in the early 19th century. It stuck, no matter how brilliant the sanitising riposte of the artist Antoine-Jean Gros, whom Napoleon commissioned in 1804 to paint a different story.

Ridley Scott’s film does not represent the past so much as carry versions of the tales and images depicting Napoleon that have spun him into existence since his own lifetime – many of which were crafted by his own hand.

Joan Tumblety, Associate Professor of French History, University of Southampton

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Monday 13 November 2023

Kandinsky at the Art Gallery of New South Wales: A Precious Gem of a Show Celebrating the Transformative Power of Art

Vasily Kandinsky 'Sketch for Composition II' 1909–10, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 131.1 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

By Sasha Grishin, Australian National University 

Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a pioneer of abstract art. His work and theories on art profoundly influenced the School of Paris, the American Abstract Expressionists, as well as the expressionist painters working in Australia. 

Drawing on the extensive holdings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, this new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is the largest Kandinsky exhibition to be held in Australia. 

In about 50 works, it covers the full range of the artist’s vision: the early “folky” works carrying the impact of the Jugendstil (German art nouveau) and Impressionism; the groundbreaking abstracts with their impressions, improvisations and compositions; and finally the wonderful, refined late geometric and biomorphic paintings. 

This is a precious gem of a show that celebrates the transformative power of art – its ability to transcend the material realm and to nourish us spiritually. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Landscape with factory chimney' 1910, oil on canvas, 66 x 81.9 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Russian imagery, spiritual realm and colour auras

Kandinsky was Russian, born in Moscow in 1866. He never lost links with Russian art and culture. He expressed a profound belief in Russian Orthodoxy as the sole true faith. 

Circumstances of history meant he divided his life between living and travelling in Russia and working in Germany and finally living in France, where he died. 

Nevertheless, even when living in the heart of industrial Munich, he still painted Russian horse-drawn troikas, churches with their cupolas and the great saints of Russia. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Improvisation 28 (second version)' 1912, oil on canvas, 112.6 x 162.5 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By Gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Building on the heritage of spiritualism inherent in Russian Orthodox icons and the inventive whimsical narratives in Russian folk art, Kandinsky also explored the spiritual realm and colour auras integral to theosophy.He was one of the most influential teachers at the German Bauhaus, before the Nazis closed it. He wrote the single most influential essay in 20th-century art, On the spiritual in art, in 1911. 

What strikes me about this exhibition is Kandinsky has lost none of his timeless magic. 

Frequently when visiting an exhibition of an early modern – for example, Picasso’s cubism – you may be impressed by the work and its avant-garde properties that were so amazing in their day, but they appear of their time and somewhat dated. 

Kandinsky’s paintings have not aged and appear contemporary and relevant to us now. 

Speaking directly to the soul 

In Kandinsky’s early paintings, for example, Blue Mountain (1908-09) and Landscape with factory chimney (1910), the figurative element is still strong. Kandinsky invites the viewer to take a walk in the painting and explore an enchanted landscape. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Blue mountain' 1908–09, oil on canvas, 107.3 x 97.6 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Together with the theosophists, Kandinsky had a mistrust of science. At one stage he remarked: 

The disintegration of the atom was to me like the disintegration of the whole world […] I should not have been surprised if a stone had melted in the air and become invisible before my eyes. 
A mistrust of science was linked to a mistrust of the physical world observed through the senses and the desire to explore a spiritual reality that bypasses empirical observation and speaks directly to the soul. 
Some of the great Kandinsky paintings, including Improvisation 28, second version (1912), Landscape with rain (1913) and the wonderful Painting with white border (May 1913), break free of the figurative realm and create their own reality. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Landscape with rain' January 1913, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 78.4 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Increasingly Kandinsky questioned the importance of the object as a necessary element in a painting and demonstrated a preparedness to embrace the power, fantasy and enchantment of the palette. Colour for Kandinsky was a symbolic spiritual experience, with colours linked with spiritual states. 
In Kandinsky’s work the physiological effect of colour is sensory and short-lived; warm colours like vermilion attract the eye; the bright yellow of a lemon is painful. 

A psychological resonance is produced when the sensory impression causes an emotional vibration directly or through association: red is flame and blood, black a painful silence, the appeal of orange is like the sound of a church bell. 

Vasily Kandinsky 'Blue segment' 1921, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 140 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Writing about the Painting with white border, Kandinsky observed: 
At that time, I tried, by lines and by distributing of patches of colour, to express the musical spirit of Russia. 

One may see in the painting in the top-left-hand corner three black lines that relate to the horses of the Russian troika. In the centre is the lance of the Russian St George slaying the dragon that threatened his homeland with the impending war. Each element in the painting was the subject of a separate study and these studies inform us about the individual elements in the painting. 

In a famous passage in On the spiritual in art, Kandinsky observed: 

Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer, while the soul is a piano of many strings […] [harmony rests] on the principle of innermost necessity. 
Many of Kandinsky’s paintings in the 1920s and 1930s, including Blue segment (1921), Blue painting (January 1924) and Dominant curve (April 1936), refine some of the earlier more organic forms through geometric discipline to create great explorations of intuitive spiritual forms ambiguously suspended in space. 
Vasily Kandinsky 'Composition 8' July 1923, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.7 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Kandinsky was a great innovator, a profound thinker and a superb painter and graphic artist. His vision changed the way we think about art. 

This outstanding landmark exhibition, for the first time, redefines his place in art for an Australian audience. 

Kandinsky is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until March 10 2024.

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University 

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Monday 6 November 2023

Monolith Considers the Cultural and Social Implications of New technology

By Ari Mattes, University of Notre Dame Australia

This review may contain spoilers.

One of the socially redeeming features of mass media has always been its communal aspect, the fact people are drawn together into a shared experience based on network programming. Of course, this, in the English-speaking world at least, has been driven by the desire for profit through selling advertising space to corporations.

In the era of narrowcasting, smaller and smaller audiences can now be targeted online, on various social media sites and channels, on podcast and other apps, and on streaming services, so we feel like we are now able to consume what we want, when we want, even as megacorporations still control the content, and it’s still produced for profit. The result of this is greater social atomisation.

Monolith, the new Australian film from first-time feature director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell, is one of the first Australian films to critically navigate the ramifications of narrowcasting technology.

The film follows a podcast journalist, brilliantly played by Lily Sullivan, as she investigates a lead from an anonymous email for her latest show, “Beyond Believable: A Show that Unmasks the Mysteries.”

People around the world have been receiving mysterious black bricks – from Germany to the US to Australia – and this seems suitable fodder for an episode.

Her investigation takes her across the globe and back through time to the 1980s and the Cold War. We watch as she interviews people, often using ethically dubious practices, and assembles the material entirely from inside her home.

The show becomes rapidly successful – we, as well as the main character, recognise its ridiculousness, and this seems to be a dig at new media culture: the idea that this kind of sensationalist, alien-hunting garbage would capture the hearts and minds of the world is preposterous.

Her life, mirroring the investigation, becomes increasingly strange as her own repressed history begins to surface. The dark, moody interiors of her house begin to suggest the inside of a black brick. She starts looking sick, she smokes obsessively, she trembles with anxiety.

What is the monolith?

What is the brick, the monolith of the film’s title? We never definitively find out (which some viewers will surely find annoying). The bricks communicate with each recipient in a personal language related to their memory and history, reflecting their hopes, prejudices and – most pronouncedly – paranoid nightmares.

They may be some kind of alien artefacts that communicate with the recipient “from far, far away,” as Klaus, a German art collector and brick recipient says to the journalist. Or as a recipient from Ohio says, “It’s trying to tell me something and I’ve got to listen […] Something awful is coming.”

Maybe the bricks are an allegory for the contemporary world and the disappearance of social bonds, representing the alienation structured into personal (or narrowcast) communication systems. The obscurity with which the film represents the bricks seems to call for this kind of allegorical reading.

The portrayal of a single character’s descent into a living nightmare could easily become hammy, but Sullivan manages to keep the viewer entranced with her controlled, brilliantly understated performance. Joining Sullivan are the voices of some well-known Australian actors including Damon Herriman, Kate Box and Erik Thomson.

The strange solitude of interpersonal communication

The strange solitude of interpersonal communication in the global information economy underpins the whole thing, and the screen is replete with a plethora of different technologies reflecting this – talking head videos online, audio recording, editing and streaming, mobile phones, smart houses, close-ups of digital text.

We see, first hand, the sadness (and terror) of the journalist’s solitude and alienation – all she seems to do (alarmingly, perhaps, like many people in a post-COVID world) is talk to people on the phone and look stuff up on the internet. At the same time, we watch her go about the day-to-day business of living – making food in the kitchen, eating, showering at night – her deep solitude foregrounded throughout.

The final section of the film is a touch underwhelming, with the whole thing resolving too neatly in a personal register (whereas what had driven the enigma of the bricks was their social aspect – the fact people all over the world had also received a brick).

Rather than developing into a full-on surreal nightmare (which would have made a better film, one suspects, in the vein of media horror thrillers like Lost Highway or The Ring, the ripples of which radiate throughout this) everything comes together in a way that seems a bit too neat.

There are carefully dispensed echoes of class critique thrown in, fitting the current strain of fantastic cinema that seems to think a film needs an explicitly polemical dimension to speak to the zeitgeist.

Similarly, the doomed, portentous tone becomes a little annoying in the final third – it feels like a space film, but without the necessary existential dread that space elicits – and there is a fair quotient of nonsense underpinning the narrative.

Despite this, Monolith remains an effective fantasy-thriller, remarkably engaging given its limitations – one location, one actor (well, two, including pet turtle Ian).

It’s also refreshing to see a high concept Australian film, as opposed to the usual social realist and period dramas.

Like an episode of Black Mirror - but without the heavy-handedness of many episodes of that show - Monolith thinks through the cultural and social implications of new technologies. It considers how we both reflect and are shaped by technology.

Monolith is a decidedly low-key film, but this should not be mistaken for dull. It is an arresting chiller, extremely tightly performed and made, low budget and, thankfully - and unlike virtually everything else playing in cinemas today - not overlong. Given its interest in contemporary audio-visual technologies, it will probably play best in the cinema, one of the last communal bastions against the blissful and anonymously smooth technological hell of narrowcasting.

Monolith is in cinemas from October 26.The Conversation

Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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