For the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire, Angelica Mesiti presents a new video installation, In the Ear of the Tyrant (2013–14), inspired by songs of lamentation from southern Italy and women known as Prefiche, who were traditionally employed to sing songs of mourning on behalf of a community after the death of one of its members.
Drawing on her own southern Italian heritage, and in collaboration with Italian vocalist Enza Pagliara, Mesiti re-imagines the grieving ritual, depicting a vocal performance on location at the Ear of Dionysius, an ancient limestone cave carved out of the Temenites Hill in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. According to legend, the tyrant Dionysius the Elder once used the cave to incarcerate political captives. Due to the flawless acoustics – the cave is famed for its extraordinary aural properties – Dionysius was able to eavesdrop on his prisoners’ covert plans.
Sung in its language of origin, this ancient funeral lament connects to another layer of the history of the cave, which was quarried when Syracuse was a Greek territory. In the Ear of the Tyrant honours a musical and cultural tradition on the edge of extinction; Pagliara’s evocative singing is not only an expression of the ritualisation of corporeal death, but also a lament for the death of the tradition itself. Presented at the Art Gallery of NSW, In the Ear of the Tyrant continues the artist’s interest in, as she notes, ‘performed cultural traditions in a state of transformation, or at risk of extinction due to complex social, economic or cultural shifts’.
Mesiti works with the mediums of video and installation, incorporating performance and musicality to explore ideas of community, cultural tradition and spirituality. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales and was recently awarded the inaugural Ian Potter Moving Image Commission to create a new work, The Calling, which premiered at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, in February 2014. In 2009, Mesiti was the first video artist to win the Blake Prize for religious and spiritual art with her single-channel video work titled Rapture (silent anthem) (2009), and in 2013 she won the Anne Landa Award for video and new media arts.
Utilising a variety of methods to create her video pieces, including staged situations, site-specific performances and documentary-style footage, Mesiti has become increasingly well known for pieces that observe collective behaviour and the dynamics of group activity. Rapture (silent anthem) features slow-motion footage of a crowd of young people at a concert, set to a soundtrack of silence. Shot from a concealed location beneath the stage, the film focuses on the faces of the crowd as they collectively fixate on the unseen performance. Wide-eyed, with hands raised in the misty afternoon sunlight, they appear as a mass of worshippers revelling in the throes of religious fervour.
Music and performance are recurring themes in Mesiti’s films. In Citizens Band (2012), a four-channel video installation, the artist examines the preservation of cultural traditions and identity through music. The four short films, filmed in both Paris and Sydney, feature different musicians who are also immigrants. Each gives a musical performance in an unexpected urban environment, drawing on traditions from their heritage. The performers carry their customs with them; even though they are a long way from their place of birth, their cultural traditions are an integral part of their individuality and identity.
Mesiti has exhibited in prestigious exhibitions worldwide, including the 12th Biennale de Lyon (2013–14); Sharjah Biennale 11 (2013); Aichi Triennale (2013); 5th Auckland Triennial (2013); Bienal de Montevideo (2012); ‘NEW12’, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2012); 17th London Australian Film Festival, Barbican, London (2011); Videonale 13: Festival for Contemporary Video Art, Kunstmuseum Bonn (2011); and ‘No Soul For Sale’, Tate Modern, London (2010).