Shadow Spirit

Shadow Spirit is a haunting First Nations exhibition that stirs the soul and makes Western belief systems seem myopic and droll. Set in the newly rediscovered ballroom of Flinders St Station (and the surrounding rooms), curator Kimberly Moulton (Yorta Yorta), commissioned fourteen artists from across Australia to create works that embed the spirit of country and embody networks of First Peoples knowledge and inherited memory. The artists are at different stages of their artistic careers and take on an eclectic use of mediums ranging from sculpture and weaving to digital art and installation.

The exhibition is designed to bring the viewer through a series of rooms each with a site-specific artwork and artist statement. Moulton has clearly worked hard to ensure that while each work stands alone in its revered beauty, it also builds on the work preceding it, and together as a show is cleverly woven together to bring not so spiritual minds into a world that is both simultaneously dark and enlightening. Moulton’s curatorial experience at organisations such as Museums Victoria shines through. With an eye for knowing what will connect an audience to the work and furthermore connect the work to the artist’s voice, Moulton has pushed the retired Station space to its edges.

The eerie juxtaposition of ancient First Nations wisdom being enveloped by Flinders Street Station’s Victorian turn of the century architectural pillars and rooves is not lost on the audience. Bamboo frames with bush dye and colourful pandanus are housed in dank Station classrooms, where the doors read “English on the Job”. Level 3 of Flinders Street Station was completed in 1910 and included a ballroom, leisure rooms for sports like boxing, billiards and dancing and reading rooms. Managed by the Victorian Railway Institute, the space was used for social events, meetings, learning, and gatherings. The Ballroom’s last dance was in 1985 after which it fell into disrepair and was deemed derelict.

In 2015, $100 million was allocated to the resurrection of the space to be redesigned into an art space. Post Covid, there have been two shows; Patricia Piccinini’s, A Miracle Constantly Repeated and Rone’s Time. Both sold out. Bringing this iconic venue into the Rising fold, with other signature venues like Federation Square, St Pauls Cathedral, The Forum, Arts Centre Melbourne and Birrarung Marr, makes perfect sense. And Moulton seized the opportunity to install a show that could anchor Rising and showcase the breadth and incredible talent of so many First Nations artists.  

Each work sits within the sub-themes of Absent Present, Spirit Ecologies, Weaving Time and The Guides. These sub-themes, Moulton says “link to the universal human experience of connecting to place and ecologies—some we are yet to understand.” Even though the Spirit theme is strong, it is, by its very nature entwined with urgent public issues like climate change, deaths in custody and land rights.  The journey through the exhibition is thrilling and moving. Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) uses video projections of people dressed as Jedi Knights under an expansive celestial sky.

“They’re called ‘Ngangkari’: chosen men and women who have the force to wield good and evil on an astral plane. With the power to heal (or to kill), the Ngangkari traverse the central desert, turning up wherever their spiritual services are needed”*

Thornton half-mocks science fiction’s portrayal of galaxies and our obsession with Star Wars, when the real story of our galaxies has been studied and understood by First Nations people for thousands of years.

Wiradjuri artist  Karla Dickens’ sculptures named Deeply Rooted,  intricately join found objects, memorabilia and native hardwood from her country in the Northern Rivers. These sculptures poignantly capture the stereotypes and failures of successive governments. There’s a dolls head, petrol nozzle, saw-mill blades, rabbit trap remnants and old iron sitting uncomfortably on beautiful tree branches – all acknowledging the land in the multiple dimensions of past, present and future.

Another compelling piece is Rene Wanuny Kulitja’s (Pitjantjatjara) Tiirtjungalpai – practicing care for the spirits of the dead. There is a simple recreation of the desert with a majestic projection of the artist sitting, singing and connecting with the land. This immersive piece is hard to describe as it is more of an intangible feeling experienced when appreciating the work. It really encapsulates the Absent/Present theme of the space between what we feel and what we know.

The most popular piece is finale in the Ballroom. The Mulka Project and Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda (Yolŋu) have collaborated on an installation called Rarrirarri. It is a captivating piece, part termite mound, animation, ancient song-lines, leaves, branches, dreaming and more. Senior Artist Muluymuluy Wirrpanda has depicted plant species such as berries, yams and other edible species including Buwakul (native grape), Dilminyin (scaly ash), and Ganguri/Manmuna (long yam). Her bark paintings depict Bulwutja, which grow in and around the billabongs and swampy areas. It shows the passing of time on the land with striking graphics and motion; bringing the sounds and vision of the top end desert to the middle of urban Melbourne. Take a few minutes to really absorb this piece as it requires absolute attention to appreciate the complexity of its story.

Shadow Spirit is an important exhibition tying together the multi-faceted layers of First Peoples stories in an accessible and engaging way – meaning those with little knowledge of Indigenous culture can feel transformed and enlightened by the works (and the spirits within them). Within any luck this show won’t be dismantled after Rising, but will travel to other parts of the country. It is a significant body of work that must be seen by every single Australian.

Shadow Spirit is on until July 30.
More information here