AEON†: TITAN ARUM, Justin Shoulder
June Miskell

“To be attentive to otherwise possibilities for our existence, to think otherwise possibilities for modes of inhabitation, for means to perform the love and care of flesh is to live into the ongoing resistance that will have already begun, a resistance to stilling and stasis, a resistance to severance and violence”.1
Ashon Crawley

“While progressing from leaf to flower the plant undergoes a decisive ebb in its vitality. Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a 'dying into being”.2
Ernst Lehrs

I’m watching a YouTube video of Perry the Corpse Flower, also known as titan arum (bunga bakai or amorphopallus titanium) cultivating in a greenhouse. Endemic to the rainforests of Sumatra, the endangered titan arum is known for its extraordinary size, as well as its potent rotting fragrance which attracts carrion-eating insects to pollinate it. Over 45 days, the video documents, from multiple angles, the full bloom cycle of the titan arum after lying dormant for several years. The soundtrack of this time-lapse is an orchestral score by Tchaikovsky called Waltz of the Flowers (1892). What opens as a brisk melodious crawl (spadix sprouts from its corm) turns into a harmonic dance (spadix grows skyward) turns into a spacious harmony (spathe opens and expands) turns into a brassy crescendo (spathe closes and retreats) turns into a highly anticipated, abrupt closing (spadix falls limp) — the corpse flower and Tchaikovsky having performed the perfect final dip.

Justin Shoulder, AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 2021, mixed-media installation, stereo sound, live work, installation dimensions variable, for The National 2021: New Australian Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney. Photo: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins. Courtesy of the artist and Insite Arts, Naarm (Melbourne). Copyright the artist.

Mga nilalang ng hinaharap ka-bloom
Umusbong mula sa bangkay ng nakaraang mundo

AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 2021 is a mixed-media installation of sound work and live performance created and performed by Justin Shoulder in collaboration with Matthew Stegh, Corin Ileto and Fausto Brusamolino. Presented on Gadigal Country, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) for The National 2021: New Australian Art, AEON†: TITAN ARUM forms part of Shoulder’s current, larger accumulative body of work AEON† — aeon, meaning indefinite period of time and (dagger), the typographical marker indicating a species has become extinct. Taken together, AEON† “speculates a realm between the infinite and the definite” through a kaleidoscope of live performance, video, and installation works.4

The blooming of AEON†: TITAN ARUM was scheduled over a cycle of four performance seasons during the course of the exhibition period (26 March – 5 September), however only the first two seasons came to fruition as the gallery temporarily closed its doors due to another wave of COVID-19 restrictions, thus cancelling the remainder of Shoulder’s performances. I was fortunate enough to attend these first two seasons and sit with the installation at various times, experiencing its magic. When I first pitched this text to Performance Review, I did so in the hope of writing alongside the full cycle of performances and speculating on what may be revealed to us across (and beyond) each encounter. So, in some way, I feel as though this text is unfinished, as it only deals with what did occur. Yet perhaps this ‘unfinishedness’ speaks to the larger ongoing mythos and cumulative work that AEON† is beholden to.

Ang simula ay ang wakas

I arrive at AGNSW on the first of the three nights that constitute the first performance season. I stand against the wall anticipating the start of the performance. The entire room is pitch-black except for the effulgent and alive installation of TITAN ARUM – a carnivalesque garden float, comprised of three large glowing and inflated sculptures made from upcycled materials, surrounded by a muck of tubular carnage. One of the three sculptures resembles another corpse flower family member, the Zulu giant (stapelia gigantea), except its petals are semi-zipped up and its inner spadix is ballooning out. The other two are more bulbous and egg-like, with small apertures and aposematic patterning. It’s as if they’ve been transplanted from another world, now cultivating to the timbre of Ileto’s ambient, yet guttural soundscape. In a glimpse I feel like I’m back at the last ‘Monsta Gras’ organised by Glitter Militia (of which Shoulder is a founding member) at the Red Rattler – high on caps and ready to dance – but it isn’t too long before that memory of this sweaty pre-COVID gathering is interrupted by the click of the metal bollard closing and I’m back in the belly of the gallery on lower level two. I feel enchanted by the monstrous and spectacular atmosphere, as I listen deeply to the glitchy, belching sound around me. It is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, but wholly non-human.

Justin Shoulder, AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 2021, mixed-media installation, stereo sound, live work, for The National 2021: New Australian Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling. Courtesy of and copyright the artist.

Nagsimulang magtawag ang malumanay na baklang Engkanto5

A slow procession of inflated balloons whimper out onto the floor from the top of the tallest bulbous form, revealing Shoulder inside. The apertures plume into a sort of bulging eye as the spotlight of a torch shines through and seemingly inspects the environment and the onlooking audience around it. In a brief pause, I watch the audience watch the ‘eye’ recede, curious and awaiting what happens next. Limbs billow and plume. Donning a white shiny mask, Shoulder’s face creeps out from the top aperture and scans the room with laser red eyes. There is a likeness shared between the laser red eyes of Shoulder’s creature and the vein-like markings of the form he embodies, prompting me to wonder what this creature is, where they have come from and what they wish to communicate.

It is not long before we are given a clue and something phenomenal happens: Prokofiev’s grand and strident score, the Dance of the Knights (1935) roars through the overhead speakers, while the fierce prophetic acapella of C’hantal’s The Realm (1992) is overlaid. At once masked creature and other-than-human body, Shoulder stretches and cocks his neck to recite the lyrics that play overhead: something for your mind, your body, and your soul (…) the purpose, the goal which one acts on (…) rhythmatic movements in unison with others (…) no limits or boundaries, eternity is past, wrong is right (…) pleasures of the highest sense (…) the ultimate seduction, the realm. The forceful tone of C’hantal’s voice, echoed here through the creature that Shoulder embodies, makes it feel as though we are a part of a ritual or ceremony – being initiated or ushered into another ‘realm’ – an invigorating yet cautious mattering at play. Charged with such an exhilarating energy, Shoulder’s baggy limbs expand to interact with the tar-like spadix that oozes beyond the flower’s petals. Licking and fondling back and forth, spadix, stamen and stigma co-mingle and communicate in cahoots with one another until the soundscape draws silent and Shoulder retracts his limbs and recedes back into his sculptural cocoon. A robotic text to audio voice hauntingly announces the performance’s end: AEON†: TITAN ARUM, Episode One.

Justin Shoulder, AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 2021, mixed-media installation, stereo sound, live work, for The National 2021: New Australian Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling. Courtesy of and copyright the artist.

I’m reminded of Arundhati Roy, who recently described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “portal, a gateway between one world and the next”.6 She continues, “we can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our date banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”7 Again, I’m thinking with and through the darkened hollows, the hopeful enclaves, the carved-out wristband-entry spaces, the ‘secret spots’ if you will, that can effectively allow one to pass through a portal between here and there. This is how I enter into dialogue with TITAN ARUM at large and what I hope to emulate in some way by invoking the solace that possible alternative and existing worlds may offer us, being forged within the world we live in yet always oriented toward past and future realities.

It is a kind of hopeful magic, nakatira sa loob ng mga sinaunang anting-anting.

Kasabay ng tunog ng pangako8

Weeks later, I gather again in the evening amongst a large crowd that encircles TITAN ARUM and wait for the performance to begin. The subsonic sounding has a pluriversal resonance, at once aquatic, stomach-gurgling, plate-shifting and animalistic. Again, balloons blow out from the top aperture in the sculpture. The party has begun. A feather emerges from this same aperture and waves through the air, while a rattling sound intensifies and a triangle tingles. Unzipping the cerise casing, a masked Shoulder hatches from the sculpture’s womb, gently and slowly peeling back its membrane. A chimeric creature, Shoulder stretches out and observes the audience before wandering around infantly and inquisitively in a chimp-like fashion, inspecting the organic forms and carnage that decorate the fertile float. Acquiring golden limbs, Shoulder wrestles amongst streamers in awe of their materiality, before moving on and unzipping the petals of the large Zulu giant, guiding an erect spadix to consummate with another, pulling them all into a three-way kiss. Rubbing up against the muck, peering and blowing into the surrounding organic forms, we see Shoulder move around in a state of play and discovery, as if encountering an outside world for the first time.

Justin Shoulder, AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 2021, mixed-media installation, stereo sound, live work, for The National 2021: New Australian Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling. Courtesy of and copyright the artist.

A deep and meditative growl sounds as Shoulder lies down on the ground and caresses another protruding, lumpy limb. From where I’m sitting, Shoulder is mostly obscured from view. Though a couple of people stand and re-shuffle to get a better look, I’m too anxious to do the same, so I stay where I am and tilt my head. It feels like a moment of rest and after some minutes, when I think the performance is about to end, a deep distorted voice begins to speak: (…) Ninuno help us remember, the spirits in the rocks and the trees, the anito in the rivers, the dewdrop connects to a trickle, a stream connects to a river, connects to an ocean, let us name those unlike us, (whispers) Diwata. After a few moments, Shoulder slowly begins to pack up, pushing materials back inside their encasing and zipping them up. It is in this moment that we hear again the eerie robotic voice close the performance: AEON†: TITAN ARUM, The Nurturing.

We arrive now, after a shared spectacle – sa abot-tanaw – awaiting the next opportunity to pass through the portal into another realm where the final blooming that never fruited eventually dies into being.

Of what I’ve seen so far in AEON†: TITAN ARUM, there is a pervading residue that not only speaks to, but in fact embodies, in some cumulative way, fragments of all of Shoulder’s previous work and expands upon it. Amalgamating mythic storytelling, ceremonial non-human and interspecies encounters and poetic speculation, TITAN ARUM seeps with other-worldly possibilities. It carves out and occupies a space in which hybrid specimens exponentially multiply and co-exist. It is both a beginning in the end and an end in the beginning. Or, a hopeful mourning. And so, we may leave TITAN ARUM in an amazed – even quiet – lament, as we emerge out of the comforting darkness and return to the scolding brightness that is the decomposing planetary indigestion of our world today.

  1. Ashon Crawley, “Otherwise, Instituting,” Performance Research 20, 4 (2015): p. 88,

  2. Ernst Lehrs, Man or Matter (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1985), p. 85.

  3. Wall text written by Justin Shoulder for AEON†: TITAN ARUM, 26 March – 5 September 2021, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney,

  4. Justin Shoulder, AEON† / LIVE WORK – Phasmahammer, 2020,

  5. Wall text written by Justin Shoulder for AEON†: TITAN ARUM.

  6. Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” Financial Times, 4 April 2020,

  7. Roy, “The pandemic is a portal.”

  8. Wall text written by Justin Shoulder for AEON†: TITAN ARUM

June Miskell is a Filipinx writer and editor currently residing on unceded Wangal land. She is a casual academic teaching contemporary art theory and history at UNSW Art and Design and sits on the editorial board of Runway Journal. Her writing has been commissioned for exhibition catalogues and programs by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Artspace, Murray Art Museum Albury, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Artbank, COMA Gallery and Bus Projects. More of her writing has been published by Art + Australia, Running Dog, Runway Journal, unProjects and Free Association. She completed a Bachelor of Art Theory (First Class Honours) from UNSW Art and Design in 2019 with a thesis titled “Embodied Knowledge and Collective Survival: Dance and Community in the work of Bhenji Ra” under the supervision of Dr Verónica Tello.

Performance Review acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate. We pay our respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.