Future Ages Will WonderFACT
FUTURE AGES WILL WONDER explores how we receive history; how stories are passed down, by who, who they are told to, how they are retold, and who is left out. Using an amalgamation of old and new technologies and mediums, the exhibition creates an “alternative museum”, to reclaim both the past and the present, with the hopes of a “fairer future”.
The first installation sets the tone, encapsulating the exhibition’s surreality. Miku Aoki’s Zoe (2021) is the imagined parlour of John Hunter, an 18th century surgeon and pioneering researcher of artificial insemination. Inspired by the discovery that she shares a birth year with Dolly the sheep, and was similarly conceived through IVF, Aoki sought to recreate The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow in homage to this shared quasi-father figure. The parlour is entirely hand-stitched, down to the woven tapestries of scientific specimens and the mutated sheep and human skeletons on display. The artist, the surgeon, and the sheep are presented as synchronous, personalising the impersonal and suspending the parlour between the scientific and the domestic, antiquated and modern, advances into gene and DNA research and traditional crafts, museum of curiosities and family sitting room.
Yarli Allison employs the same liminality in her multimedia installations that recreate Liverpool’s old Chinatown and produce new imagined lives for its lost inhabitants. A makeshift shack of corrugated metal and wood stands centrally in the room, demarcating a foreign space distinct from the surrounding gallery. Within the shack are ‘artefacts’ created by the artist: cigarette cards of 20th century Chinese seafarers, a stained letter from a sailor to his daughter, a miniature diorama of another space; even further removed from the gallery yet still domestic and filled with signs of inhabitancy. The space feels at once foreign and deeply personal. Through these found-but-never-lost remnants of an imagined life, a shape begins to form of the person who they belonged to.
Outside, on the walls of the gallery, virtual reality and digital mapping reconstruct the buildings and streets of Liverpool’s old Chinatown in loud colours. Census data and statistics flash up on screen as entire maps are raised from the ground in an instant. The data is all real, detailing the Chinese population in Liverpool before and after World War Two, and after the forced repatriation that followed in 1946, where 20,000 migrant sailors were torn from their families and deported without warning. The abrasive modernity of the video makes the data abstract and impersonal in comparison to the foreign yet familiar space of the shack. Watching the video from within its walls, the viewer is displaced somewhere between worlds, as though they were inhabiting the space of one of the repatriated sailors; separated from their families yet back in their country of origin, both at home and far from it, between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Allison explores sense of place and displacement further in In Virtual Return You (can’t) Dehaunt (2018-2021). Four screens depict reconstructions of the childhood homes of four queer Hong Kong transmigrants, homes that belonged to a colonial Hong Kong which no longer exists. The interviewees discuss identity and diaspora in the context of Hong Kong’s cultural belief that all ghosts desire to return to their place of origin after death, or else suffer a fate of wandering. Unlike the previous work, in which the subjects express a clear desire for permanent place found in Pitt Street, the interviewees all struggle to connect their past memories with their present selves. How do you reclaim a lost identity, a lost origin, if the place it belongs to has changed? What if you return, and the place does not accept you? Or if the place you remember never existed, but was an ideation of an identity? The work explores how the foundations of identity and belonging – memory and nostalgia – are fragile and changeable. Memories can be changed and lost easily, suggest the speakers, therefore identity is also something that can be impermanent and fragile.
Breakwater’s Fermented Flower (2021) also seeks to recontextualise identity, though in a very different way, by reclaiming the field of botany from its colonial and racist roots and reframing the story through those that were left out of the original narrative: the indigenous, the forced labourers, the native soil from which the ‘discovers’ took. The left of the screen is filled with the black and white figures of indentured servants, drawn from archival sources. The scene references the wealth and exploitation embedded within the origins of botany, when Victorian trading companies would commission expeditions to seek out new plant species and return them to British imperial lands for classification. The right of the screen, raggedly marked out as though it were a rip through time, depicts the Morecombe Bay cockling disaster of 2004, where 23 trafficked Chinese immigrant labourers drowned off the coast of Lancashire. The screen is black. Figures of labourers are picked out in white, as are the names of the deceased labourers and the word ‘coolie’ – a racist slur colloquially used to name the holmskioldia plant. Yellow dandelions with bright green leaves are hand-stitched throughout, interspersed in both timelines as though inserted by the artists as transtemporal gifts in the Korean shamanistic tradition of using plants to draw in and expel the spirit of resentment and madness left over by suffering. Red thread is sewn to depict blood pouring from the chest of one the workers into a cup, into multiple cups which two rich corpulent men drink from as they look onto the workers below from a balcony, and into their eyes and the horn-like hats atop their heads, and to tinge the roots of the dandelion plants that have been uprooted from their native soil.
It is a long-held maxim that “History is written by the victors”. There have undeniably been victors outside of war: social ‘victors’, economic ‘victors’, political ‘victors’. Rather fittingly, the quote itself is somewhat of an anachronism, a false narrative. If you walk into a pub and ask who the quote is attributed to, you would be met with assured answers of Winston Churchill. However, there is no certainty that Chruchill ever actually said this. Most likely, it conjured a romantic image of Churchill standing outside Downing Street, cigar in hand, post-victory. Narratives that tend to stick and many like to sustain. Those that people don’t- stories that don’t align with what we want to think of ourselves or society, which make us uncomfortable with distasteful truths- are pushed into the shadows. Future Ages Will Wonder questions these narratives – what makes them stick, how they differ from the truth, and how we shape our own narratives. By looking at the present and revisiting the past, we can shape how future ages will wonder.