From the 8-12 April 2015 the small town of Kandos in NSW hosted its second biennial of contemporary art, called Cementa15 – the name is a humorous twist on both cement – a reference to the nearby cement works which had been the main employer for Kandos, until recently – as well as Manifesta, the nomadic European art festival. I had heard about Cementa two years before and had followed Cementa13 online, so it was thrilling to be able to be there this year for Cementa15 and experience this unique and inspiring artist-run festival. With over 60 artists showing and installing work throughout the town – in shop windows, backyards, paddocks, the pavements and walls as well as the little-used train line and a myriad of other places – Kandos hummed with energy. So much art so little time. Kandos is a small post-industrial town, about three hours north-west of Sydney — just keep driving over the Blue Mountains, and there it is, sitting below a towering and majestic escarpment, surrounded by lush green hills. At night you can look up into a huge star-studded sky. For over one hundred years the Kandos Cement Works mined the limestone quarry below this escarpment and the town itself housed the work force. Apparently much of Sydney is built from Kandos cement, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 2012 the cement works closed. Already several Sydney artists had moved into the town and so began dreaming and planning – over a few drinks. The story of the ‘origin’ of Cementa is hazy, mythic and a bloody good story about how great things can emerge from chance beginnings, especially when a bottle of shiraz is involved. What seems to be clear is that three visionary thinkers and dreamers Ann Finegan, Georgie Pollard and Alex Wisser founded the Cementa Festival back in 2013 – a generous, progressive and inclusive Festival that, at its heart, is a gift and desire to simply “give pleasure.” Not wanting to simply foist ‘outside’ artists on to the town, the organisers imagined instead, a festival that would take “the town itself as its site and material”. And it seems, from all reports, that the 2013 Cementa festival was wildly successful, for both the town’s people and the artists. This year’s co-directors Ann Finegan, Christine McMillan and Alex Wisser have brought together urban and regional, indigenous and non-indigenous artists, together with strong local involvement.
We believe that the presence of this industrial heritage in the rural heartland of NSW provides an ideal context for the demonstration of contemporary art’s capacity to describe, engage, critique, and celebrate both the world and our living in it.
In 1993 Suzi Gablik published Conversations Before the End of Time. By some strange twist of fate I was carrying this book with me while walking around Kandos. It turned out to be a propitious choice for my Kandos/Cementa experience. Written more than twenty years ago, it has an uncanny sense of speaking to our situation today: our ecological anxieties, our worries about complex social inequalities and intractable political catastrophes, our ongoing attempts at shifting, expanding and accommodating art and art practices beyond modernist purity and commodity capitalism. The conversations cover it all.
The book too is testament to that moment when artists had begun to move out of their studios and into public space. Culture in Action, curated and organised by Mary Jane Jacobs was one such groundbreaking event and it was fascinating to read about and to think about how radical that was at the time, with for instance, artists like Mark Dion who worked with inner city high school students to examine issues related to the rain forest ecosystem. According to Jacobs, the program’s goal was social interaction, not simply to engage a broader audience, but to transform the role of audience itself – from spectator to participant. This might just be the mother lode and a sort of precursor for Cementa itself.
But even more significantly, it was also the moment when understandings of art itself, of who and who couldn’t be an artist, were challenged. The 1993 Whitney Biennial was the “first multicultural and political Biennial in which racial and ethnic minorities were given free reign to speak up for themselves…” This event and its aftermath cuts through the book like a thunderous river that has finally been crossed.
Twenty-two years later I’m standing in Kandos, in many ways the other side of the river, so to speak. Many of the issues and troubles Gablik discusses are still with us today, yet there have been enormous shifts in thinking – and Cementa is testament to that, in the Australian context. In particular I notice the sizeable number of women, and in particular older women artists, invited to participate in the festival, along with indigenous artists. The intense and often vicious battles over diversity and inclusion that Gablik describes seem far away from the sunny streets of Kandos. (And just to give you a taste of the vitriol that was aimed at the artists at that time – one critic of the 1993 Whitney Biennial advised visitors to pick up an air sickness bag, another wrote that the whole experience was “like a waiting room at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service,” and yet another commented, “This is the most alienating, depressing, horrifying show I have ever seen.”)
With these conversations and previous cultural battles in mind there seemed to be something marvellous and wonderful about walking down the main street of a country town in NSW and seeing contemporary, engaged and sophisticated artwork – and from a deeply diverse range of artists.
To orient myself I took one of the several Art Tours that were run everyday. Art Tour number 1. The first stop was Scout Hall where the Williams River Valley Artist’s Project (WRVAP) performed Instruments of Democracy. This was a short but powerful collaborative performance using synchronised action with voice and stamping feet. The performers had workshopped the piece for over six months wanting to bear witness to the current ongoing ecological catastrophe that is unfolding in NSW, in particular the Maules Creek mine protests. This particular coal mine received national coverage when the football hero David Pocock chained himself, with others, to a piece of mining equipment. Small actions by people up against huge forces have always been the driving force for change (thinking here of the abolitionist movement in Britain and US, as well as the anti-smoking campaign) The works and performance in Scout Hall seemed to acknowledge the powerful role of ritual and symbol in both creating changes in ourselves, while inspiring others to act. The performers included in their ritualised actions a cardboard recreation of the iron glove-thingy that the protesters used. This had the effect of both remembering and amplifying this action of peaceful protest, and, as if an underground river, passing the message along. And this, I suspect, is what is meant when they write of the important role of witnessing in non-violent direct action. All up, I found this very moving and within the reverberating sounds of stamping feet and raised voices, I felt and understood the urgency of the situation.
Kandos Museum is an imposing building. Outside, on its outer walls Djon Mundine’s moving and impressive project Gibir – Yinaa A Man – A Woman was in progress. The catalogue notes that it will be a 24 square metre mural depicting the last full blood members of the local Dabee tribe of the Wiradjuri people, Jimmy Lambert (1830 -1900) and Peggy Lambert (1830-1884). As children they had survived the massacre of the Dabee tribe. For the project Mundine had invited local descendants of Jimmy Lambert and Peggy Lambert to paint a mural based on original photographs of these survivors. “Nearly 60 descendants contributed to painting but the major people were; Lynne Syme, Kevin Williams (not a descenant-husband of Lynne) , Wendy Lewis, Robyn Williams, and Edward Windle.” The painting was made using thumbprints, recalling the dot painting method of Western Desert people. By using thumbprints, Mundine proposed, it would be like stroking or caressing the elders in a process he called “haptic-specificity” a process of connection and recognition. “It is an opportunity to leave a permanent image or mark of the Aboriginal presence in the area in the explicit, identified way of named personalities.” This was a powerful and confronting work on so many levels – a complex and brilliant idea, perfectly placed outside, on the walls of the museum, rather than inside. As the figures neared completion, you could feel their presence looking out over the town and so it spoke powerfully to the ongoing aboriginal presence of the Wiradjuri people.
Inside the Kandos Museum: The museum is a revelation, with fascinating displays of local history. Artists presented their work amongst the local history displays. One of the nice things about going on the Tour was the opportunity to hear artists talk about their work and the process and ideas behind it. I’m a sucker for an artist talk.
Nicole Barakat, an artist who works with textiles – although not only textiles – spoke eloquently of her work with found and discarded materials. During her residency at Kandos she had found lots of old traced linen doilies in the local op-shop, which she used to make new work. Sitting on a display case of rocks and stones were some of the delicate, intense and sometimes disturbing pieces of reworked embroidery that Nicole had made. As we all gathered around, Nicole talked about her first night in Kandos, which she spent in terror and anxiety as she recounted discovering the story of the 1824 brutal massacre of Wiradjuri people in the Capertee Valley. The works she made during her residency, Meditation (Decolonisation) were an intuitive response to the knowledge of this brutal massacre – and some of that sadness and horror that she felt could clearly be seen in the finished work.
At the back of the museum on a small stage the artist Juilee Pryor had assembled one hundred small white figures, a menagerie, a staged performance of sorts. The work, titled A Meditation on the redundancy of Childhood is a reminder of the brevity of childhood, and ultimately of life itself – for all of us. The word ‘redundancy’ in the title reverberates with the recent closure of the cement works, when many miners were made redundant. ‘Redundant’ could win the most used word of the decade, as workers across Australia, in all fields of endeavour, even the hallowed halls of academia, are feeling the effects of the neo-liberal obsession to “restructure” – or else. But that’s another story.
The figures don’t appear to be arranged in any sort of order, yet each figure is placed carefully in its position. Each has its place and space. And it’s this sense of deliberate and careful placement that creates an impression of a traditional sculptor’s studio, as if these clay-like figures are awaiting completion, or further contemplation or perhaps simply waiting for inspiration. Yet, rather than clay, these figures are made of papier maché, that humble yet highly effective method of making. All the toys were found by Pryor in op-shops or around her neighbourhood. Their presence assembled on the stage created an eerie and mysterious feeling – and a sense of abandonment. Like childhood itself. These figures were once childhood toys, now discarded and re-imagined as ghosts from the past, their colour and textures covered up and erased, leaving only their ghostly shapes and spectral presence. This work evoked a tremendous sense of loss and sadness.
On a grassy piece of land known as the “paddock shoulder” I found Karen Golland’s work, The Nature of Things. Karen had placed hundreds, possibly thousands of small, intensely coloured pom poms in arcs of colour on the small rising hill in the vacant lot. The rows of pom poms created an effect of individuals amonst the many. Each pom pom evoked both ‘someone’ and the absence of ‘someone’. In the bright morning light the intense colour field looked, quite simply, beautiful. Karen had begun making these pom poms as her partner was dying and she invited those close, family and friends, into the process of making the pom poms thus sharing their grief through this act of creation. The final work was inspired by a painting made by her partner. “Things come and go; it is in their nature.”
In Jacques Street I find Nola Farman’s complex fictive project The Ministry for the Future of Art. It’s purportedly the inaugural presentation from the eponymous Ministry for the Future of Art, and it’s been assembled by Dr Permangelo E. Regularis. Apparently none of the artists have turned up – too busy with their international art careers – and the presentation, minus any actual work, consisted of elaborate and often hilarious Artist Statements, bios, and descriptions of possible works, all of which, we are told, are up for sale. Nearby a video played a single stationary shot, focused on a Stop sign in Centennial Park, Sydney. I sat down and waited at the Stop sign. I was reminded of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, once you stop and look you see things. From behind the stop sign a figure moved into the frame and began to do tai chi. This was an uncanny sign for those of us mesmerised by a Stop sign.
A suggestion box awaited visitors who would like to comment or “reflect” on the art of the future. Their reward – a Melting Moment biscuit, which I can personally report, was delicious. Like ‘pataphsyics, there’s a sophisticated, sharp edge to this humorous engagement with signs and language, and above all, with art-world language. The project works on many levels, suggestive and provocative, with a big dollop of tongue-firmly-in-cheek. And there’s a great sense of fun and amusement, yet it draws you in to its own universe of artworld characters, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes absurd and weirdly very very close to our own artworld universe. It’s not exactly topsy turvy, more like a parallel universe – making you wonder if perhaps you know these artists. Yet you are also very aware that you only know these characters through their texts. Isn’t this how the art world can sometimes work – hyped up spin, art as commodity? And that is for me the ambiguity and tension in the work, that highlights a conundrum. On the one hand the artist’s sheer delight in writing and language, and her deft play with the infinite potential to create and remake the world through text, on the other, the ironic knowledge of the uses and emptiness of art world spin. Is it an empty sign, pointing to nothing, or a sign full of potential?
Back on the main street I come across a Hopscotch drawing, with a difference, set out on the pavement. I had noticed one of these drawings the previous evening. And then gradually over the course of my stay in Kandos they seemed to appear in greater and greater numbers. As I rushed from one event to another, meeting old friends, meeting new friends, I’d notice, out of the corner of my eye, another drawing. The staggered appearances of these Hopscotch drawings mirrored the way a repressed memory can sometimes surface, gradually at first, and then like an incoming wave, the complete memory/nightmare unfolds before you.
The project was the work of Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill) and is titled CHILDSPLAY. Through creating Hopscrotch drawings Douglas reminds us that it is through childhood games and childhood stories that we learn our own story. And for most of Australia and Australians the real story of Australia has yet to be told, or at least, yet to be heard. Really heard. Kandos has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and Douglas asks “From the outset exactly how was Kandos established?” In 1824, the Dabee tribe, the people who belonged to the country that Kandos now stands on, were massacred. The drawings are not only a reminder of the blood shed and the stolen land, but they are also a way and a means to honour the people of the Dabee tribe, who died, over one hundred years ago.
In the windows of the old Pharmacy, on the main street, Eugenia Raskopoulos installed a two channel video, titled Turning Time. Time is one of those abstract ideas that philosophers have been thinking about, forever. We all live through time yet it is difficult to grasp or even talk about. It’s both personal and universal. And it’s also the first thing that city folk notice about life in the country. Time seems to slow down. There’s all that space, which somehow creates a sense of more time. As Raskopoulos reminds us the ancient Greeks had two words to describe time: chronos (sequential time) and kairos (the right moment). In order to explore these two concepts of time, the artist videoed the laundromat and the town clock, the two things/places in Kandos that remained open twenty-four hours a day. In this exploration of time through video practice, the laundromat and the clocktower are both collaged and montaged. That is, the images were overlaid, one on top of the other, showing a double image and showing the two different ‘times’ simultaneously – through time. The question it raised is which is chronos and which kairos? Perhaps neither and/or both? Lots to think about, not enough time…
In the Kandos Community Centre Hall, Elizabeth Day’s Myco Logic floats luxuriously across the floor. A variety of knitted and hand-made mushrooms of different sizes, colours and shapes sit on a grid, which is itself sitting on an enormously complex and dense arrangement of white threads. These exquisite, colourful creations were made by a network of people, invited by Day during her residency – “embracing fungi’s rhizomatic networks of intercommunicating mycelia as representative of social cohesion.” Mycelia are the mass of thin white threads produced by fungi which act as an underground network – a sort of “superhighway for plants” – connecting neighbouring trees and plants, sharing nutrients and information, and even warning other plants of possible toxic trouble. This amazing ability of fungi to create a network has become known as the “wood wide web”. And it’s reported that around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi. They are also, as Day notes, “natural detoxifiers of the environment.” Through the collaborative making of mushrooms, Myco Logic enacted the very complex communication networks that mycelia perform. And thus offers ways to re-imagine how unsung local social networks are themselves complex networks of communication. It also reminds us that fungi have a lot to teach us, and we too, like most land plants, could benefit from the logic of fungi.
Standing solemnly in an ancient Greek-type robe, Yiorgos Zafiriou talked to the assembled crowd gathered around his makeshift performance shed. His work is titled Un-Performance and was billed as “a new work which engages with audience perceptions of performance.” He was telling the enthralled crowd about ancient Greek clothes…when he suddenly asked would you like to hear a poem by Kurt Schwitters? Yes. we all chorus. He runs inside his shed, now a dressing shed, and puts on a new outfit. This time it is familiar workman’s overalls. He returns to his stage – a workman’s ladder – and proceeds to read a Kurt Schwitters poem. Later he performed his own poem where he mouthed “Concrete”, mouthing each syllable in a staccato of soundings, much like “concrete poetry”. People lingered, not wanting to leave this pleasurable event. I felt as if I could sit on the grass all day listening to Yiorgos ‘unperform’.
The hub of the festival was Kandos Projects based in a classic country-style shop, with wonderful double glass display windows, which are more like rooms than windows. Inside, covering most of the walls was The Salon, a humorous reference to the the Salon de Paris, which my catalogue tells me ran “between 1748 and 1890… and was the greatest annual or biannual art event in the Western world.” Following this tradition The Salon featured local painters who had been invited to hang their work. There’s something wonderful about the abundance and plenitude of a Salon hang. It’s aesthetics at opposite ends of the spectrum from Modern Art’s bare white walls, where emptiness and space is celebrated. Here it is plenitude and heterogeneity. And this Salon didn’t disappoint. The variety of paintings, in different styles and approaches was compelling to see, and one of the highlights of Cementa itself.
On one side of the shopfront window Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski installed a two channel video, titled Elemental Square. Elemental Square refers to the ancient Greek belief in four basic elements, Earth, Water, Air and Fire – sometimes there seems to be a fifth one, aether. The videos showed a land art sculpture, made in the shape of the Air element – which strangely looked similar to an Anarchist symbol. After assembling copious amounts of wood and other natural material from a local site called Swampy, they set the whole thing alight. A huge fire engulfed the piece – the ensuing flames were compelling to watch – and all caught on a drone camera, which flew above the flames.
These are just a few of the over 60 artists showing at Kandos. For now I’ll have to leave it there, until I have time to write Part 2!