Will The Museum Please Move Out Of The Way?

If the Powerhouse Museum’s exhibition A Line A Web A World is anything to go by, drawing is a domain to which we still look for connection with the long continuum of human ingenuity. “Drawings” the exhibition notes state, “are an integral part of the creative process for humankind,” and with 230 drawings from the Powerhouse vaults, Senior Curator Katie Dyer presents an exhibition that shifts our focus from drawings executed by artists—just a handful—to an abundance of works from the applied arts, the sciences and beyond.

Visitors find their way into the exhibition by following an exceedingly long loosely drafted nineteenth century chart of of the Darling River. In a low lit room, a central row of columns impairs sightlines and movement, but the exhibits are soon found, with engineers’ sketches and architects’ plans placed alongside digital concept drawings by game designers. Numbers of moveable walls, light and beautifully wrought, manifest a considerable visual presence and in some instances lure the eye away from the drawings they display.

There are many arresting drawings and if others are patently ordinary examples of their kind, they nevertheless establish the myriad ways drawing has been used in non-artistic contexts. The oldest artefact is a 4000-year-old terracotta tablet from Sumer incised with the record of a trade transaction, displayed behind a magnifying glass; a group of protest signs drawn in 2021 by school students marching are some of the most recent. A notable exhibit is Cat Hope’s digital tabulation of a musical score, projected on the wall as a work-not-on-paper. It doesn’t carry the maker’s touch, but its graphic language and representational function surely qualify it as a drawing, and with the inclusion of works like this the exhibition pushes beyond what may be, for some visitors, the comfortable limits of drawing.

But not without a glib touch of theoretical correctness. Pointing out that the exhibition “refuses hierarchical definitions of what a drawing can be,” the notes gesture vaguely towards traditional scales of value without naming or illuminating any particular history of ideas. Is it the plodding predictability of pencil-on-paper that is the bugbear here or perhaps the ascendancy of the fine arts over the applied? Whatever the case, a shot at the villain of judgment never goes astray.

In fact, A Line A Web A World re-enforces two familiar hierarchies of the museum sphere, invoking the authority of written language to define visual objects and engaging a high-profile contemporary artist to select them. Agatha Gothe-Snape has devised an extended conceptual scheme of single words and short descriptors to encapsulate the resonances of the exhibited items. Thus, the aforementioned Sumerian tablet is introduced as “A receipt,” while a commercial artist’s advertisement for Bally is cast as “A mood” and the climate protest signs of 2021 are deemed “A fury.” Roughly ninety large wall labels ensure that Gothe-Snape’s view—and by implication, the museum’s role in constructing knowledge—is held constantly in mind. If this is not constraining enough, basic information about the dates and origins of the exhibits is confoundingly difficult to retrieve from a folding booklet that classifies only thirty-six of the labels. The necessary back-and forth between interpretation and factual information is forestalled and after two visits I can attest that grappling in a dark room with a complicated list is not the way to enlightenment.

I have no doubt that A Line A Web A World is meant to awaken its audience to the subject of drawing by taking a look beyond the domain of art at the wider state of the discipline, yet the energies that could have been released are hemmed in by a preponderance of framing devices. Some are physical, others are conceptual and with the NGV’s Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi lingering in recent memory I have come to wonder whether the curatorial profession’s highest aspiration in 2023 is to immerse us all in the recognition of its own techniques and dogmas. My enduring memory of A Line A Web A World is not of a particular image or a juxtaposition of objects, nor being brought to a consideration of the nature of drawing, but the frustration of trying to see past everything the Powerhouse had put in the way.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 65 

A Line, A Web, A World 
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 
1 July 2023 – 4 February 2024

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