Last Saturday night (September 20) I visited Rumpus Room, a garage ARI in Maribyrnong, Melbourne. It’s run by artist Ashlee Laing who opens his garage once a month to artists wanting to experiment, to test, to play or as the name on the door suggests “have a romp.”
It was already dark by the time I got to Rumpus Room. The garage door was open – so I walked straight in. Facing me was a black and white silent film playing on a sheet, artfully draped across some ropes. It showed a group of Greek women in traditional dress working outside their houses — spinning wool, talking, smiling, busy, looking happy. It was a scene from another time, another world. The filmic image played as if a moving photograph – it was like a moving instant in time. Later, Helen Pallikaros, whose work this was, explained that it was a scene taken from a documentary film from the late 19th century of an unknown Greek village. It was a compelling image. I wanted to know more about these people. Who are they? Where are they? What happened to them? There’s something about black and white film, in this age of saturated digital imagery, that draws you in and soothes your nerves.
Other than the film, the space was bare except for a wooden chair, a small copse of candles with some delicate lace patterns sifted onto the floor nearby, and a metronome.
I walked through to the backyard where a group of people were sitting around an open fire. It was warm and friendly and the talk was animated.
At 7pm the call went out that the performance was about to begin. We all filed into the garage/artspace. Helen entered, her face and body covered in white body makeup, giving the impression of a deathly white presence, possibly a ghost or a lost soul – or a figure from a butoh performance. The candles flickered and the only sound was the concise, insistent ticking of the metronome – the sound of time passing.
Helen’s movements were precise and solemn. She began by placing herself in front of the film, sitting on the lonely chair. The figures of the women in the film played across her body; sometimes the face of one of the women flickered across her own, creating a link between these separate and separated worlds. Pallikaros, sitting alone in the space, seemed to highlight the companionableness of the filmic women. And vice versa, the alone-ness of Pallikaros, in contrast, became palpable. Pallikaros wore a hand mirror, hanging from her neck. She spoke words in Greek that I didn’t understand, but yet could feel some affinity with. There was a sense of pain and unfinished business. At times the mirror was held up to the audience – as if suggesting we may be looking at our own likeness, our own reflection, our own sense of loss.
The mirror is an evocative object – especially within the Western art tradition, itself springing from the Ancient Greek idea of mimesis, or likeness. In art/Art the power of representation as illusion reigned supreme until broken by Modernity, where art was at last allowed to break free and roam freely — (probably around the time this film was taken!). With the end of mimesis the mirror was shattered, the idea of the ‘real’ became problematic. I was intrigued by all of these rich allusions that Pallikaros had brought together when the seriousness of the mood suddenly changed. Pallikaros’s pained voice rose suddenly and unexpectedly. The chair was thrown down, and now you could feel anger.
Leaving one’s country, and in particular one’s culture, especially under duress or a feeling of necessity, is always complicated and painful. And the recent refugee crisis bears witness to this in our contemporary moment. Pallikaros’s performance reminds us of the less well-known after-affect of those great journeys — if and when the migrant or refugee arrives at their destination safely — that is, the plight of the children who grow up in a culture foreign to their parents, to their forebears. Their heritage becomes complicated and rife with a sense of absence, strange longings, and painful no-man’s land feelings of abandonment. Feeling uncomfortable and inauthentic in both cultures – forever not quite belonging. There always seems to be a gap – you could call it the generation gap, with a twist. You will never grow up to be like your parents. The chain has been broken.
The performance ended. The atmosphere in the space was intense. People felt moved, and yet glad to have witnessed this singular performance.
Afterwards, we all gathered again around the fire, surrounded by the darkness of night. Lots to talk about, lots to share. The barbecue was lit. The food appeared, the wine flowed. Rumpus Room is one of those spaces where anything can happen. It’s wild, creative and unpredictable and always a great pleasure and privilege to be there.
Recently I visited the opening day of BUNKERED, a project initiated and curated by the artist Sarah Nolan. Sarah had invited 14 artists and architects to install work in her inner city terrace, in the Sydney suburb of Forest Lodge. As the title of the project suggests, the house is the framing device for artists who were invited to respond to our current environmental and weather crisis, where the house is imagined as our last refuge, as a defensive fortress against some un-knowable future threat.
In 1970 Martin Sharp and several of his art friends set up The Yellow House in Sydney’s Kings Cross, where the house itself became “the canvas.” Apparently it was inspired by Van Gogh’s Yellow House in the south of France. Watching archival footage of the Yellow House and the performances, multi-media shows, visitations, groggy occupants, and exuberant psychedelic imagery covering every surface of the house, there’s an innocence and optimism that seems almost foreign to our anxiety-laced psyche today. We’re worried. They were spaced out, grooving, thinking up ‘creative’ stuff, just for fun. For the artists in BUNKERED the whole house is again “the canvas” but true to today’s zeitgeist the mood is uncertain, precarious, unpredictable, problematic. We are no longer so sure…of anything.
The house is not only the real-life home of Sarah and her partner Gavin, it is also the site of Branch 3D, the window gallery that Sarah curates from the front room. This project expands the window gallery to include the whole house, which has now become an immersive experience where visitors can roam freely throughout.
My experience begins in the pub. The Facebook post had said that The Forest Lodge Hotel was to be the meeting point for registered visitors. On arriving at the Hotel I was greeted warmly by Sarah and Micheal, who had volunteered to guide visitors from the Hotel to BUNKERED. It was a short walk, and the rainy Saturday afternoon was a perfect backdrop for a project concerned with future forecasts. We walked in small groups and two-by-two, chatting as we went. Unlike most art openings this was a social event where strangers allow their reticence to recede, just a bit. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of what lay ahead, or perhaps it was the intimacy of the group meeting first in a pub, but the occasion drew us together, made us curious about each other.
Sarah greeted us at the front door and we were all ushered into the tiny front room. From this initial gathering we all moved slowly off into the bowels of the house. Some people wandered upstairs. In the living room a video was playing, so I sat down on the couch to watch Katy B Plummer’s video titled The Allegory of the Cave, Or How to Light the Night When the Walls Are Rocks and Everything is Stopping. The video shows a woman lighting dozens of candles in a dark and gloomy place, (a cave) before lying down to sleep, or dream, perhaps. In Plato’s allegory of the cave, a keystone of Western philosophy, reality is only shadows on a wall for the prisoners who reside there. It is only when the philosopher escapes does the ‘true’ nature of reality reveal itself – The Truth is revealed. Yet here we are, back in the cave. This time it is a shelter against unseen forces outside. The candles’ flickering light seems warm and soft. The video’s rich imagery brings together paradoxical trajectories. On the one hand the lighting of candles evokes a sacred ritual, even an offering to unknown gods. “Everything is Stopping” – on the other handwe are back in the cave, having travelled full circle, through Reason and Truth to Dream, once again. Can we escape for a second time? Or will the candles go out forever?
Hanging above the fireplace is Rachael McCallum’s ceramic painting. The colours of blood red and acid green evoke the ‘glamour poison fun times’ of the title. Poison being the operative word. So too the twists and turns and textures of the ceramic as you can feel the artist pushing and pulling the material into and out of shape. The full pull of gravity is sensed in the material nature of the ceramic form. A nice pun in the title. It hangs from sturdy ropes, dramatically above the fireplace, while the chemical combinations ooze and flow in and on its surfaces.
Further into the house is the kitchen. In Madeleine Preston’s Hunger Scale, the kitchen is hidden behind plastic curtains and silver foil coverings. It seems to be completely sealed, almost airtight.There is no food anywhere. It is as if it has been quarantined, awaiting the inevitable epidemic or untreatable disease that catastrophe brings.
Before I climb the narrow wooden stairs to the next level I admire Marlene Sarroff’s Temperature Rising. This delightful and clever piece of abstraction acts as a material, bodily thermometer. The lower treads are painted bright green, and as you step upstairs the colour changes to a blistering red. As the saying goes, “heat rises.” In this work you see and tread the change in temperature as your body moves up the steps.
The bathroom is full of white pots and plants and greenery. On first impression it’s a wonderland, all green and white and fungal. Something about the green-ness, wetness and mossy plantings, creates this impression of being underwater. It’s a breath of fresh air. This is an intervention by Lotte Schwerdtfeger, where the bathroom has been conceived as a “wilderness cabinet” while also a “wellness centre.” Following the logic of “Bunkered” I imagine that as people move inside in the future, out of danger, so too will gardens and our relations to ‘wilderness’– perhaps wilderness will be lost or out of reach. A “wilderness Cabinet”, reminiscent of earlier european Cabinets of Curiosity from the 17th century, will be where the exotic, the wild things will be contained. It will be contained within a tiny room like this and will be a place of refuge. An anxious thought arises, perhaps this is not a future scenario – but is already with us.
Perhaps because BUNKERED is a site specific project played out in a house, in fact a home, whose most basic function is to shelter and protect us, it is no surprise that the image of the cave arises in several of the works. In Sarah Nolan’s Grotty, it is the image of a grotto, that is invoked. Although by substituting “y” for “o” – any elevated ideas about grottos and their associations with sacred places where holy virgins appear, is lost. In an adroit shift of letters, grotto becomes simply grotty. An “unpleasant, nasty or unattractive” place. The artist has created a shimmering textured silver wall, gemlike and bewitching. Apparently sourced from ‘tetra packs’ (Tetra Pak is a multinational food packaging and processing company of Swedish origin, wikipedia) Rather than the ‘natural’ walls of rocks with their “shimmering surfaces of mineral deposits,” the artist has substituted this with the detritus of our plastic consumer world.
Upstairs is Lisa Andrew’s Droom, a sci-fi fantasy of home travel, where the place of sleep and dreams becomes a way to travel. The bed is hidden behind walls of brick-like curtains, matching perfectly the walls of the terrace. The camouflage is real enough to confound me.
In a corner of the room is a TV with a strange and often hilarious program of news and weather. The news broadcaster opens his mouth, but no words come out. He looks away. The weather guy looks lost and uncertain, he holds his hands out to point to weather schematics that should appear on the green screen, but instead vagues out and looks at his hands. This inspired, yet disturbing work is titled Emergency Broadcast News, by Kuba Dorabialski.
Upstairs an attractive patterned structure hangs in front of the windows, at first they reminded me of Mashrabiya, the elaborate carved wooden latticework that traditionally adorned second storey buildings in Egypt, Iraq and the Levant, as well as India. Their role was both to protect privacy and to act as a shade for the sun. In Block Out Sarah Breen Lovett has documented and traced the cracks in the house’s brickwork, highlighting the vulnerability of the house to possible toxic fumes or seepages. But like the double role of the Mashrabiya, Block Out filters out the sunlight as well as acting as a delicate portrait of possible intrusions.
Fuzzy Window by Office Feuerman, could suggest a similar connection with Mashrabiya latticework, however here the patterns create blurring effects, striated, optical and electronic. The connection with the past fails, these window blinds suggest TV glitches rather than ancient latticework. With three different windows, two upstairs (one in the bedroom and one in the top backroom; one in the living room), Fuzzy Window creates an interrupted view, playing with our sense of clear vision, disturbing any straightforward relation to outside.
Taper by Kath Fries dangles provocatively from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It’s life-like tendrils evoke a gothic sensibility. Is it roots or shoots of an unknown plant, or something more alien?
In the computer room, Anna Horne has created an artificial ‘campfire’ – this campfire stands, almost like an alter or shrine. Ironically, the pointy top holds aloft a black bulb that causes the white rocks to glow in the dark, as if in homage.
As I leave I get a better chance to see Yvette Hamilton’s Hello. It blinks on and off as if greeting you when you walk in the front door. It has a charming yet minimalist aesthetic appeal. The two round lights sitting perfectly in the middle of their square ‘box’ immediately evince our anthropomorphic sensibility. Two circles sitting side by side is all that is needed to suggest a human-like presence. As the catalogue suggests, “Hello acts as an introduction to a conversation about these potential living futures.”
The front window is piled with Aaron Anderson’s dystopian vision of suburbia titled Suburban Ruin #9. The broken jagged glasses in fluorescent green look, and feel, dangerously sharp and lethal. Something bad has happened here. The table-like structure seems all wrong and broken. In the catalogue notes a character named Neddy laments, “Nothing’s turned out the way I thought it would.” This seems like a broken and shattered world. The Yellow House of yesteryear is long gone from this garish green nightmare.
It’s still Saturday night: after leaving Kings ARI I drove out to Aspendale to see Artmeet ARI. I had received an invitation through Facebook, to visit the inaugural event – titled “Open For Inspection”. It was very dark and quite a long drive. The opening was located in a suburban house, recently vacated and very close to the sea. Lots of people were gathered outside in the covered verandah/driveway.
The show included 21 artists who made all sorts of inventive, imaginative and crazy interventions throughout the empty house. All the walls in the house were painted white.
In the bathroom the bath was half full with milky water, a swirl of paint transformed the bath into an immersive canvas. Out in the back verandah a banana peel hung loosely from a ladder, a slapstick composition – in advance of a fall, perhaps.
And Grace Thomson’s small objects placed carefully on the floor, that followed me – or perhaps I followed them – throughout the house.
The front rooms housed video installations. One installation, made by one of the key organisers, Jacqueline Stojanović utilised an old TV monitor used and then discarded by the recent Douglas Gordon show at ACCA. The monitor, now a piece of exceptional detritus showed blurry pinkish images, constantly shifting, that the artist explained were samples of skin colour taken from all the Australian TV dramas currently on our screens.
In the front corridor I picked up a black and white printout with six portraits on the front and two essays within. The significance of the portraits became clear only after reading the two essays; one by Gemma Crocetti, titled The Phenomenon of the Queue and the other by Ghassan Hage Racism as Excessive Legalism. Crocetti writes of the queue from the micro level, the phenomenon itself, “the interaction of space and time within this everyday custom” placing it together with the Hage article, this seemingly calm examination of what it means to queue becomes something else. Hage pulls no punches. The oft repeated and pedantic argument that asylum seekers are jumping the queue is named for what it is, “a long history of colonial racist viciousness.”
The organising group consists of the 21 artists. And later speaking to two of the organisers, Gemma Crocetti and Jacqueline Stojanović, they explained that the group of artists don’t have a permanent space, but rather they intend to find a different space each month, wherever they can. For next month they are already working on a site in the CBD. Something to watch out for. I’m looking forward to what they do next.
Last Saturday night Kings ARI and Dudspace opened with big happy crowds of people flocking to the space. Peter Hill’s The Art Fair Murders filled all the spaces at Kings with murder and mayhem. Everyone loves a good murder mystery, and to choose the art fairs as a location for such murders seems perfectly plausible. “Twelve bizarre murders in twelve cities around the world.” This is an ongoing project for Hill and brings together the four strands of his practice: installation art, independent curating, novel writing and art writing.
For the curating strand of the installation he included works by many of his students – including a performance piece by two artists dressed in shades of fluorescent pink. Their project titled “Love is in the Fair’ was a sort of performative intervention into the installation, making the opening night itself a performance by all of us. The two performers very gently, and persuasively, asked art-goers the questions “Are you dying to date an art dealer” Would you kill to cuddle a curator?” Their project sought to hook you up with a “5 minute date” from a perfectly matched other from the crowd of art gallery goers . I was matched with a smiling older man from out of town – very nice, but unfortunately neither an art dealer nor a curator. No matter, it was a fun date and the project highlighted the unspoken requirement of what it takes to make it in the art world. Connections.
There seemed to be performance in the Fair/air. In the middle of my date a piercing scream rent the air and the noisy crowd fell silent. I rushed into the adjoining room to witness the Age art critic, Robert Nelson slashing a minimalist green canvas with evil relish.
DUDSPACE: The project at Dudspace was an incisive and perceptive exploration of artistic collaboration through the counter-intuitive idea of inviting 3 artistic duos to make work singly and in secret, without the other knowing what they were up to. Titled “Simpatico with practice” it presented the work of 6 artists, Aiden Madden, Ellen Fairbairn, Nella Themelios, Ricard Bigolin, Annabelle Kingston and Alan Kingston, who were asked “to make a quintessential work”, completely independently from their partner.
This witty provocation proved productive. The artists, working solo and independently, produced very different work from each other. It showed how differently the two artists approached a work. And yet together each artist’s ideas would theoretically come together and eventually produce something else, a third outcome. Which reminded me of Charles Green’s ideas about collaboration in the 1960s and 1970s and what he called The Third Hand. As I angled my way into the tiny space I could hear noisy peals of laughter and recognition as each of the separate artists revealed their work to their other half. It made me wonder what sort of piece would they have made together, given the same brief?
I’ve published my keynote address to the Artist Run Festival in Copenhagen, (9- 10 May, 2014) on ISSU. Titled: Dark Matter, Icebergs and The Underground: potentials and possibilities for artist-run initiatives. You can find it here.
There’s also a link on the Conference Papers page.