now the voyage is over, I don’t want any trouble to begin
Detached Cultural Organisation / Michael Bugelli Gallery
Images: Rémi Chauvin
now that the journey is over Catalogue Essay by Dr. Miriam McGarry
Sitting outside a Melbourne library, I watched a truck laden with hundreds of huge glass plates take a sharp turn down the tram-only street in search of a short-cut. The driver got out, swore, and impressively choreographed Tetris with other obliging vehicles to reverse his clinking cargo over the middle of a roundabout. It was a 2020 urban re-imagining of the glass cathedral floating down the river in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Less poetic, but equally absurd.
An ambitious turn down a one-way street is a short-cut, as is a presidential hopeful personally cancelling the debt of 600,000 of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens while exploiting tax havens to accumulate wealth. Developers being gifted public land is a short-cut. Extractive industries subsidised by government tax-breaks are a short-cut. Uber is a short-cut. You get there faster and cheaper, at the expense of someone else. The cost of the journey is hidden, and absorbed by those least able to pay for it.
Grace Herbert’s work has often found points of puncture that reveal the inherent absurdity of broader systems, by drawing attention to moments where the cracks appear. The works don’t name capitalism, imperialism, or climate change (pick your interchangeable poison), but highlight the material and spatial outcomes of these forces. She pieces together abstracted chains of connection, while also finding moments of conflict to demonstrate the vulnerabilities of these strangling systems.
In contrast to her previous works that patch together, then pierce and deflate, Now The Journey Is Over (2019) captures a moment of fully-formed absurdity. The video contains found footage from a Georgian youtube artist that chronicles the removal of 100 year old trees and their 7 hour journey floating on a barge along the river, to the private residence of the ex-president of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Setting sail to these displaced trees required the building of a road that leads into the sea. An augury of extractivism. A metaphor so explicit it is difficult to know how to bite into it, without necessitating a dislocated jaw to swallow it whole. Uprooting is a short-cut.
As a viewer, Grace allows us this short-cut, but also cleaves open the conditions that facilitate ‘tree sailing season.’ When Ivanishvili came to power, he promised to plant a million trees in Tbilisi. In 2012, Georgia had the world’s highest mortality rate attributed to air pollution. The tree promise was a carbon offset that allows business-as-usual.
Growing a tree has a direct relationship between action, time and outcome. No middle-manager can expedite the process, and the wealth of time it takes to grow a tree cannot be purchased. Rather than presenting a floating tree as a realisation of capitalism, Grace frames it is an omen, a driver, and an instrument - all in one.
The orchestration of sending a tree down the river for the purpose of making an artwork would be visually beautiful, but a conceptual failure because the metaphor is obnoxiously blatant, and the ‘performance’ too heavy-handed. But in employing this found footage of tree sailing, interspersed with her own documentation of Ivanishvili’s hotel (complete with exotic fish tank), Grace exposes a deeper conflict: our lives are already structured around and built upon absurdity. An uprooted tree sailing down the river can’t work as an artwork in isolation, because it is unbelievable. But we can build society on economic imaginaries, which have no grounding in reality. We demand more logic of art, than of life.
In This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, legal scholar and author Jebediah Purdy writes:
‘... politics is how a moral lie becomes a physical truth… this has never been more true than today, when the emissions we ignore come back in the weather and the poisons we would rather not see follow us everywhere in the water and soil.’
Grace shows how the physical truth of the floating trees is both a driver and an example of a larger moral lie. Now that the journey is over, the trouble is inherent. We have taken cosmic short-cuts.