A haunting look at the interconnections between life forms and global interventions is what underpins ‘Animate/Inanimate’ at TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA). The exhibition features six leading contemporary artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (USA), Amar Kanwar (India), Lin Tianmiao (China), Janet Laurence and Louise Weaver (Australia), who explore how the co-existence of the animate and inanimate can help to reconsider themes such as climate change, economic crisis, new technologies and the natural environment.

In her catalogue essay, curator Victoria Lynn emphasises that the collection of works is not intended to be a didactic or documentary approach to these issues. The artists instead aim to express sensations, emotions, and energy that engage us on a human level, and they do so with ambitious works across many forms of media and materiality: bird calls resonating through the space, animal specimens contained in mesh, and the deathly nature of bones presented in beautiful ways.

Lin Tianmiao’s installation, All the Same (2011), is made of synthetic human bones bound in colourful silk thread. By deconstructing a skeleton and wrapping the individual bones, Tianmiao reduces a human to the parts in which we are all the same. The material of thread reflects femininity related to domestic notions of civilisation. While the underlying theme of the work revolves around death, the outer layers of excess thread fall to the floor in a cascade of colour, the room takes on a contradictory sense of simple beauty – almost a celebration of spirituality and the materials and rituals in which social conventions approach death, life, and life after death. Reaction (2013) employs the same technique, using human skulls wrapped in pink thread, where each skull is pierced or fused with a man-made object – for example, an iron, a trumpet, or a shovel. This work speaks of violence with a contradictory sense of fragility, a reflection on the politics and society of everyday life in China.

Collaborative duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla create an intimate bond between animal worlds and our cultural history of music. In their work Raptor’s Rapture (2012), a prehistoric flute made from the bone of an extinct griffon plays the soundtrack to a video of a living vulture. The relationship between the music and the creature conveys historical and cultural associations of the object – as an instrument and bone of the vulture’s distant relative, and the music, and what we imagine it might mean to animals.

Janet Laurence brings together specimens of endangered species with video, objects, and mirrors, and presents them as assemblages in circular cells. Their juxtapositions reflect new ecologies that emerge between human, animals and technology, framing the ethical and political issues with a sense of fragility and intimacy.

The works by Louise Weaver and Amar Kanwar tackle issues of landscape and space. Kanwar’s video work shows the devastating impact of the mining industry on Adivasi (indigenous) people in Odisha (Orissa), India, and their land and agriculture. Weaver creates an installation of sculptural, sonic, and textural elements that suggest new relationships between habitats that are shared by natural and built worlds.

‘Animate/Inanimate’ is dense with interconnecting ideas on complex issues that extend through many elements of our lives. However, it is because of the artists’ expression of the fundamental elements of these topics that the works strike a chord on an emotional level. The living and dead, animal and human, individual and collective, wild and contained, ephemeral and material, collide as interwoven contradictions, in which the artists conjure a space, and a spirit, in which the animate and inanimate co-exist.

TarraWarra Museum of Art
Until 6 October, 2013

Lin Tianmiao, Reaction (detail), 2013, coloured silk threads, stainless steel wires, synthetic skeletons and metal constructions, twelve parts, installation view

Janet Laurence, Fugitive, 2013, multimedia installation with video, installation view

Photography: Mark Ashkanasy
Courtesy the artists and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne