The hidden, unnoticed, suppressed, denied or otherwise unseen–uncomfortable histories and projected futures are explored in Heide Museum of Modern Art’s newest major exhibition: Beneath the Surface, Behind the Scenes. It deals with identities and cultures under threat, as well as intergenerational dialogue between the living and the departed. Latin American art is relatively unfamiliar to Australian audiences – which makes sharing the links between art from this part of the world and Australia all the more important for Senior Curator Melissa Keys.

“Global art practice has always been a major focus for me curatorially,” she says. “I’m particularly interested in exploring the ways the local and global intersect. There are commonalities and differences that I find interesting between the diversity of artists and the practices [in Australia and Latin America]. Both regions have colonial histories that persist today, have long continuing Indigenous cultures and histories, are confronted by the impacts of climate change across varying environments and landscapes, and have diverse societies and communities.”

The exhibition includes works by 21 artists from across Australia and North, South and Central America, most of which have never been exhibited here before. While each piece is culturally and geographically specific, Keys says, many of the artists share points of connection and contribute to complex cross-cultural conversations.

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“The exhibition is shaped by an overarching sense of searching, uncovering and critical looking, exploring and re-examining things spatially, conceptually, socially, geographically and metaphysically,” Keys says. “The works span a period of almost 10 years, and yet they couldn’t be more relevant [to the current context] … In some senses, the show really delves into this moment of breaking down entrenched practices and structures of power and finding new systems of knowledge.”

Christian Capurro’s ‘Young Man Against a White Curtain’ uses altered photography sourced from fashion and lifestyle magazines, while Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza’s ‘Sans Titre (Figurants), (Untitled (Extras))’ features newspaper clippings from around the world – though an eraser has turned anonymous people into ghostly figures. A similar theme of erasure suffuses Marlon de Azambuja’s redacted typographical photographic series ‘Water Towers’.

The name of the exhibition also alludes to the way many of the artists seek to address or encapsulate moments of transience, the mysterious and the unknowable.

“Most of the works have a sensory dimension – they reach for and give shape to what cannot be easily grasped, apprehended or held within an image or form,” Keys says. “It’s a quiet exhibition. I think there’s a nice unfolding – there are sound elements and moving, ever-changing images revealed. You move through five interlocking rooms, and the sightlines mean you can read it in multiple directions at once.”

In Peñafiel Loaiza’s video work, ‘Of the Uncertainty That Comes from Dreams’, the gallery observer becomes the observed; a huge eye represents sight as an interplay of vision, imagination and blindness. For Keys, institutions and the site of the museum are very much part of the project, such as in Jorge Magyaroff’s installation ‘Series Oximoron #2’, which is exhibited in one of the gallery’s storerooms, and Melbourne artist Steven Rendall’s unstretched canvas paintings depicting storeroom objects that lie dormant.

Sydney artist Lauren Brincat’s ‘Backstage’ repurposes drop sheets used by artists, installers and gallery workers in the creation of art or exhibitions, while Peruvian artist Elena Damiai’s installation ‘Excavations’ comprises something like a museum diorama.

The majority of the works are concerned with broader subject matter external to the museum, exemplified in works like Berna Reale’s ‘Palomo’, a video of the artist riding a red-painted horse through Belém do Pará a regional Brazilian capitol city to address institutional violence and misuse of power and authority. Physical and political realities also meet in exhibition pieces concerned with climate disasters and inaction, such as ‘Sarcophagi’ by Nicholas Mangan, a sculptural memorial for the lost corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Both Australian and Latin American works also share themes of intergenerational conversation, colonisation and First Nations stories. Gunditjmara artist Hayley Millar Baker explores women’s power and ancestral experience in ‘Even if the race is fated to disappear (Peeneeyt meerreeng / Before, now, tomorrow), no. 1, 3 and 7’, which use collage to retell and comingle memories and stories of five generations of her grandmothers and their mothers. Peruvian artist Ximena Garrido-Lecca engages with ancestral knowledge, advocating the revival of Indigenous practices against colonial destruction, both cultural and environmental. ‘La Red III (Network III)’ draws on Indigenous Peruvian weaving traditions to critique the impact of copper mining, using pre-industrial practices to recreate industrial materials.

But even within works engaging with heavy subject matter or complex discourse, such as Matías Duville’s drawings of nightmarish apocalyptic visions of fallen futures in imagined landscapes, Keys can perceive moments of lightness in the darkness. Even where not overtly joyous, a number of these pieces celebrate lives or provide breathing space to consider shared experiences, unacknowledged stories, humor, deeply humane and revelatory moments.

“It’s a thought-provoking selection of compelling contemporary artwork,” Keys says “and a particularly strong line-up of artists, each with sustained, substantive practices and distinctive approaches to making and thinking about the world in all its complexity.”

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