The Ancient Universe
Dominik Mersch Gallery 18 November 2023 - 16 December 2023
Take a virtual tour of the show
“I started this series of drawings and paintings at the end of January 2023 after one night camping in the World Heritage Site of Wollemi on Wiradjuri country: a culturally significant place for the Wiradjuri, Dharug, Wanaruah and Darkinjung people. After three brutal hours of cross-country tramping through three years of rain induced growth, we came upon a cave that we used to shelter in for the night. I went to bed and awoke at about midnight to wander out into the bush. I looked up and before me was the most wondrous spectacle. A firmament of galaxies and seemingly infinite clusters of stars. A shooting star came into focus. I forgot about my normal life where my inspiration comes from the daily news. Instead, all I could see were Black Holes, Dark Matter, Infinity. Satellites, Orbits, Moons, Planets Wonder.
This spectacle sustained me throughout the year, topped up with other overnight camping trips. I sit here, on October 8th 2023, conjuring the last eight months of this new journey that I have been blessed with. And now this morning I have been momentarily pulled back into the trappings of modern connected life by the news of the hour and had to struggle to free myself from the clutches of it.
- Locust Jones, October 2023
Locust Jones’ Night Vision
By Douglas Kahn – 2023
Black paper because it was the middle of the night outside a cave in Wollemi.. Each point of light the end of so many years traversed, the momentum of time intensifying the brightness across the entire sky, the only cloud the galaxy. Locust was overwhelmed in proportion to how much he had lost contact. People call the full feeling of this embrace oceanic, but that seems like the wrong word in a logic of light. Oceans are not their surfaces. The nearest star is four years away and others still shine after thousands. The sun instead darkens myopically mere meters below the waves in a sliver of a second and then disappears under crushing pressure. The Wollemi sky allowed events their depth, all vastness to make contact.
Nearby night skies are washed away by streetlights, office blocks, headlights, phones that glow in the hand, swiping and scrolling pyropolitics. Days before the Wollemi night, the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its eleventh month. Following successful counteroffensives fighting became centred in Bakhmut. In his studio in the Blue Mountains, Locust becomes pinned to Al Jazeera’s Live Tracker: “The Russian offensive enters its nth week, we track where battles are taking place and the human cost of war.” Misery, cruelty, and disaster likewise make contact from a distance. Nevertheless, the Wollemi sky had, for a time, washed them away.
Locust is an empath, a raw one at that, raw in the strength required to remain open and what happens when one does. Not the marketed self-help kind of empath. He is more akin to Avalokitesvara, the compassionate Mahayana bodhisattva who ‘looks down in empathy,’ but whose head will ‘split into multiple skulls when he beholds the suffering of the world.’ Looking down is the wrong term since it implies a position where looking is optional. And drones look down. More accurate is across, with or within.
The word empathy is of fairly recent origin. It is an English translation from the early twentieth century of the German word Einfühlung, where the verb einfühlen meant ‘to understand sympathetically’ or, literally, to ‘feel into.’ Feeling in this case was not limited to other people, the way we think of empathy now. It also included feeling into phenomena, objects and, specifically, aesthetic objects. The word aesthetics itself is based in perceiving and feeling with the senses and the mind. Compare with anaesthesia, being numb to the world. Aesthetes, however, dwell in refinement and delectation whereas empaths must also embrace the terrible. Locust is open to both beauty and suffering from around the world. To the extent we are open to the aesthetic objects that are his works, we are feeling into a feeling into.
Who knows what made him raw, it may have coincided with how he became an artist in the first place. In his twenties, he worked as a geologist’s assistant mapping gold and drilling core samples around Marvel Loch. You can still see maps and gold in his work now. The job provided funds to head to Southeast Asia, then off to Europe for several months. In France one night at 3 a.m. he and two friends were riding in a Kombi when it was t-boned by a BMW that had run a stop sign. He was crushed underneath, DOA at the hospital, and one of his friends died. His father sent him sketch pads and pencils to occupy his time while he recovered. Although he had had no previous interest in art, he made a pact with it. Often lost in academic, professional, and commercial worlds is that art is itself capacious. It accepts people other activities of life won’t. It has its own compassion.
The sketch pads stretched out onto rolls over the years. When I first saw them they reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road, the one he typed out on a continuous scroll. They also share a similarity in drive, in a sustained, crafted improvisation, and in an adamance that is hard to describe. Certain artists decide what to do next rather than being compelled. Kerouac logged words-per-day like kms-per-hour, as he wrote in a letter to Neal Cassady, ‘averaging 6 thous. a day, 12 thous. first day, 15,000 thous. last day,’ evoking all-nighters over vast stretches of highway. Once completed, ‘I’ve telled all the road now. Went fast because the road is fast…wrote whole thing on strip of paper 120 foot long (…)–just rolled it through typewriter and in fact no paragraphs…rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road.’
They differ in that Kerouac stored up and reworked personal memories, conversations, stories, written sketches, and what he called bookmovies, continually circling back to himself to process his own experience. Locust’s works are instead populated with a cognisance of others and events elsewhere. He is fully present with in his personal style and iconography transforming and regenerating over bodies of work, yet unlike Kerouac he is not his own topic.
His studio has been compared to a newsroom. The mistake some people make is to think he is reporting. His works are streams of consciousness coalescing with streams of information. Coalescence means a growing together, so it is more than that, because growth is not intrinsically good, things also mutate, pull apart, or never meet in the first place. He channels them among their own abeyances.
The complexity of what happens is released and broken as news, then reduced to items of a sentence or two listed in daily briefings and talking points. Even smaller units of words, images, and concepts take on inordinate power of the forces they focus, and the violence from which they draw and deploy. Despite their size they mask enormous depths of meaning, feeling and fate, in every direction. Their concentration is meant to relieve ours, but Locust brings them into a literature. The way they gather and accumulate means these works are poetic objects and well as aesthetic objects.
For example, SEMICONDUCTOR. Not just a device of an electrical relation, on its day it harboured recourse left to the United States should China capture the industry in Taiwan. Chips are needed for weapons of war to reproduce their own chips, says the semiconductors delivering the news. Words are not their own surfaces. Here’s a new one–AUKUS–for running undetected in all the oceans and south seas. WOODPECKER was wrenched from its normal habitat to denote a hopeful, rhythmic sound of tapping reported while searching the pitch black for the submersible that imploded searching for the Titanic.
Elsewhere, images of fish mutate and school with drones, sharks, peel off into the deep as bombs, subs, and tears mix with ink. The black holding together the Wollemi sky is a vacuum foreshortening the ancient universe. It settles onto the surfaces of ocean beds as a vice. In one work he maps CELESTIAL and EARTH, including the depths where spirits harden into skulls. But these are not merely maps, CELESTIAL and EARTH frame and coalesce in all the works. There is no split in compassionate pacts between the sweep of the universal and the punctuations of the political. They unfurl here in the streaming logics of gold, silver, white and light.
During the completion of this show horrible events intervened. Al Jazeera has added a Live Tracker of the ‘Israel-Gaza war in maps and charts.’ Thousands have died, thousands around the world have spilled onto the streets. Locust has been to and exhibited in the Middle East several times, including a Sydney-Beirut exchange of artists, and collaborating with kids in the Aida Refugee Camp in the Palestinian West Bank. Friendships and suffering are not in the abstract and, besides, distances don’t matter.
Douglas Kahn is Honorary Professor, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, author and editor of several books, including ‘Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts’ (2013), ‘Energies in the Arts’ (2019), and ‘Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts’ (1999).