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.
The artists: Aaron Anderson Lisa Andrew Sarah Breen Lovett Kuba Dorabialski Kath Fries Yvette Hamilton Anna Horne Rachael McCallum Sarah Nolan Office Feuerman Katy B Plummer Madeleine Preston Marlene Sarroff Lotte Schwerdtfeger
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 hand we 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.