Living the Exhibition Life

Melissa Wear visits Mario Pfeifer's Exhibition at John Joyce Building, Gateshead

5th November 2015

Sometimes at uni it may feel like you need a passport to reach Gateshead. The journey to James Joyce & Sons, previously a bookbinding factory, will require a good map, a couple of phone calls, at least three modes of transport and perhaps a compass.

However, on arrival at this beautifully raw and industrial space, you will be transported to Navarino Island at the southern-most tip of Chile and suddenly your perception of distance shrinks.

Mario Pfeifer began his four-month research project of the Yaghan people (notably, the planet’s most ancient and remote indigenous people) not as an artist but in a search for a role to play in this small community. It is unclear whether he settles as an anthropologist, photographer, global activist, or simply a participator in living. The answer is left to the viewer, who is dynamically entered into a conversation with the exhibition.


With replica artefacts, sculptures of collected industrial items, and a centrepiece of a three-channel video, Pfeifer submerges the audience into Chilean society with simplicity. Pfeifer explores the relationship between local and industrial production, questioning how international trade encourages communication between distant parts of the world.

This ambiguous inquest into human existence is on going through the exhibition. Constant juxtaposition, of the digital and the ancient; the central and the remote, raises concerns of our cultural existence.


We are not invaded with images of tribal paint, curious expressions, and foreign speech in the film as is popular with similar investigations into ancient, indigenous communities. Instead, Pfeifer’s filming is sensitive and polite. We see hand gestures, comfortable movements of factory workers and the slow pace of home life. This is set quite jarringly against conveyer belts in crab factories, fishing boats and indications of a greater industrial network. Contrasting the 10 000 year past of these people with contemporary technologies really adds depth to the concept of durability.

"its presence in newcastle plays aptly with the heavy character of industry"

Pleasingly, tribal aesthetics are not totally lost. Ancient chants are laid over 1923 field recordings, percussion, and minimal electronic bass melodies that resonate the factory space like a dance. This contribution of New York-based musician Kamran Sadeghi confuses perceptions of archives and modernity.

Approximation in the digital age to a humanity condemned to disappear has visited Berlin, Brussels, New York, South Korea, Brazil, as well as returning to Chile. Its presence in Newcastle plays aptly with the heavy character of industry; the proximity to a dominion of fishing hints that the experiences of these aquatic nomads are not as far from our lives as we consider.

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