Arts & Theater

Terra Nullius embodies the art of ‘social practice’

“Terra Nullius”
“Terra Nullius” Courtesy of the artist

Amid increasingly urgent movements to determine a new social order, artists have begun using collaborative strategies of public outreach to mobilize and inform. These artists have been gaining traction with this new model of art called “social practice.”

Critical to social practice is the community and public environment in which the artist engages discussion and interaction. Los Angeles-based artist and Verge resident Lisa Oxley’s installation, “Terra Nullius” falls within this form. The goal is social evolution and political change.

“Terra Nullius” is Latin for “nobody’s land or territory” or “nobody’s thing.” It is also a legal term used in international law, describing land that can be seized or acquired by a government or by a state’s occupation of that territory. The exhibition brings to mind two salient recent and current power narratives, the dispossession of Aborigines in Australia and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, raising the question “settled or conquered?”

Terra Nullius is a mixed media installation composed of painting as image, architectural intervention, and public discussion. The pivot point is “Thirty Foot Wall,” which is just that: a thirty-foot expanse of white on white paint on door skin that bifurcates the exhibition area, delineating and restricting both pictorial and physical space.

Two words or almost words emerge from the surface of the thickly troweled paint. These words are based on CAPTCHA, the security system used to block spam bots from entering Internet sites, serving as a kind of virtual border control.

As a wall or sign, it posits subtle questions of access and sovereignty. As a painting, it is a strikingly elegant piece of sensory haiku. The physicality of its painterly texture and layered treatment of white recall the minimally charged paintings of Robert Ryman.

Less successful is “Sanctuary,” a soft sculpture or thickly padded, un-stretched painting spread out on the floor behind the wall like an oversized bedroom comforter. Depicted on the surface is a partially completed rendering of Minerva and the California grizzly bear, the California State seal and motif of the state Capitol building’s tile floor.

Why the piece is only partially painted is obscure. Most likely it’s a metaphor for the ongoing debates about still unsettled issues, such as democracy, citizenship, and civil liberties, and posits the notion that as a state we are, and may always be, a work in progress.

Given how the work is treated, however, with a complete outline of the image, much of which is left unpainted, it also gives the impression the work is simply not done. Gallery literature indicates the piece is meant for public use, as a blanket for contemplation and discussion, but to casual gallery viewers that intention may also be unclear.

During the opening weekend of the exhibition, Oxley collaborated with My Daily Constitution, a social practice project that produces loosely directed events encouraging public conversations about constitutional issues. The signature event was the Constitution Café, an informally constructed discussion about the meaning of citizenship and the evolution of immigration laws, which was led by UC Davis law professor Jack Chin.

Without continual programming however, the intent of “Terra Nullius” as a socially charged exhibition may be partially lost.

To be sure, the brevity of Oxley’s components serves to energize Verge’s large exhibition space, tacitly underscoring the extent and need for global conversations about the justification of possession and policies that are currently polarizing and dividing cultures, economies, and nations.


Where: Verge Center for the Arts. 625 S St.

When: Gallery hours: Tues-Sat 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 12 p.m.-5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Information: 916-448-2985