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This essay was published in the catalogue for the 2011 John Fries Memorial Prize for emerging visual artists.

THE VALUE IN IDEAS

The visual arts posses an incredible ability to traverse disciplines and deal with all facets of life: social, political, environmental, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, technological and the list goes on. Today, more than ever, we see visual artists being called upon to contribute their unique manner of thinking and creativity to a broad spectrum of practices. As I write this, many artists from all over the world are collaborating with scientists, architects, physicians and engineers tackling major issues ranging from the visual representation of the internal structure of the cell to global warming. In a world where for too long capital worth has reigned, the value of heterogeneous thought, problem solving skills and creativity is now being acknowledged and actively sought within a wider community.

The final fifteen artists selected for the 2011 John Fries Memorial Prize exhibition are testament to the diversity of territories investigated in both process and subject matter. These emerging artists use a range of mediums including painting, glass, porcelain, photography, sculpture, video and interactive, responsive and site-specific installations involving robotics, touch, movement and sound. Through their chosen medium, each finalist mediates issues of relevance today; exploring frontiers between object and process, self, landscape and culture, interactivity and audience, technology and viscera, nostalgia and time. The commonality that binds all these artists is their drive to visually present to the public the value in ideas.

Sannè Mestrom's sculptural installation Thinking Props physically represents this notion in her artwork specifically designed to facilitate thought. Made from everyday found objects, her table is tailored to one assuming the classic position of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, with elbow placed on table enclave and chin on cupped hand. It is a physical prop that encourages cerebral revelation. Her grid of door handles below the table call to one's familiarity with opening doors, suggesting that endless possibilities and zones of discovery are just a simple action away. Walter Brecely also incorporates recycled materials to create his small interactive sculpture, Gentle Points. An investigation of form, touch, movement and sound, Brecely draws on his jewellery making and silversmith skills to create a full sensory experience and entice one to physically engage with his work. His reinterpretation of something as commonplace as fork prongs promotes a new way of seeing and re-contextualising the familiar.

Land-escapes is the collaborative work of Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe. Underlying their practice is the philosophy of making-do, resourcefulness and mobility. Making the most of pre-existing objects, Zettel and Khoe incorporate organic materials such as palm bark, timber and beeswax to create two anachronistic masks. However, it is only when one dons the masks, are they taken via a stereographic image into a 3-D black and white landscape where the viewer is confronted by another person off in the terrain wearing the very same mask. Also in the image is decaying machinery, a reference to the once urban landscape, now overgrown. The re-used materials and museological references to environment, landscape and ancient culture talks to current issues of contestation and conversely, sustainability and reclamation of natural environments.
Similarly, the investigation of human desire to dominate the environment through destructive means is explored in Erica Molesworth's photograph, Pinpoint #4 (Dam). Her photographed maps of disturbed landscapes instill a feeling of disorientation. Following the technical prevalence of viewing the world from a vertical perspective, through modes such as Global Positioning Systems, Molesworth presents a strange disorientation. In doing so, she asks viewers to attempt, both physically and psychologically, to position themselves within this skewed world.
Building on the notion of terrain is Jennifer O’Brien’s artwork, The Neatness of Handling. O’Brien takes the cartography of visceral organs and venous systems and displaces them, thereby challenging the concept of the Western contained body. O’Brien’s breakout entanglement of paper sprawled onto ceilings and walls is reminiscent of veins and arteries. Her work looks at the correlation of the hands and arms with the authenticity of the artist, while also suggesting how the physical movements and interaction of humans are traced into the history of buildings.

Kurt Sorenson’s photograph Port Jackson #1, captures the Australian landscape at moments that reflect the eerie Colonial histories impressed into the fabric of the land. Drawing upon the shipwreck of the “Dunbar” in 1857 at Port Jackson, Sorensen reveals the power and presence of the landscape that prevailed over this doomed attempt to master it. Eva Hampel also depicts moments in landscape in her painting, High Country, Morning however she focuses on liminality within the landscape. Through light and stillness, Hampel creates a sensation of something beyond the immediately visible and represents a broader experience in the sensory.

Encapsulating the moment, Keiko Matsui’s porcelain artwork Still Life - TORN is an embodiment of the personal revealingly articulated through process. Still Life - TORN is an intimate and violent expression of Matsui’s experience of giving birth to her first child. The subtlety and fragility of the vessels are interrupted by abruptly torn edges portraying her own personal experience of the birthing process and concurrently the impressionable and raw nature of the porcelain with which she works. Her memory becomes manifest. Melville Island-based artist, Pauletta Kerinauia records aspects her culture in her painting, Kulama. Applying ochres with the traditional pwoja (comb), Kerinauia depicts the kulama (sacred cheeky yam) designs which represent the time of year the sacred cheeky yam is harvested in preparation for the initiation of young men into Tiwi kinship. The preparation of the yam and the ceremony continues for days but is now rarely practiced making Kerinauia’s painting an important documentation of her history.

Cyrus Tang’s site-responsive installation, Momentary Gleam delves into the problems of nostalgia and the tendency to add fantasy to memory. Using her ancestors’ hair to construct a spiraling rope hung from the ceiling, Tang grows crystals onto the hair, a symbol of the embellishment of the past. As the crystals grow, the material underneath disappears and a sense of loss occurs, drawing attention to our ephemeral past. In contrast, by not resorting to memory but rather documenting process as it happens, Susie Nelson’s work Untitled, visually traces the passing of time within space. As the ice melts on the top tier of her Perspex tower and passes through the sheets of rice paper, the movement and temporality of the ice leaves traces of what once was. Elements of the performative work disintegrate and are forever changed leaving only the residual as a record of a past event, revealing the passing of time within a contained environment. Kristel Britcher’s glasswork Distance Between/Sum of Parts also deals with notions of memory and space. Through the materiality of glass, Britcher examines the effect of space and environment on the individual which becomes exemplified in her three differently sized glass objects, that when placed together become a whole.

Nathan Taylor, Heath Franco and Wade Marynowsky’s artworks delve into issues of the self and culture and challenge them by instilling a sense of unease in their viewer. Nathan Taylor’s painting, Value of Suffering confronts the self-destructive nature of social habits that impact on oneself and the environment. Taylor considers the way in that, through media we are removed from the reality of a problem, making self-education and access to truth an indecipherable path. He shows this conflict by presenting the ugly subject matter in a beautifully painted work.

Heath Franco’s tongue-in-cheek video, WUNDER CLOSET brings to life his larger-than-life alter-egos. His work cleverly challenges the assumed roles of audience and performer, as his characters repeatedly congratulate the spectator from within the screen. Wade Marynowsky’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot 2 also utilises humour, as his towering costumed robot roams and spruiks Oscar Wilde quotes to unsuspecting viewers. Through robotics, light and sound, Marynowsky presents the polemic that lies in robots: many similarities can be drawn between us and them, however in their ability to only awkwardly mimic us, they can never achieve true humanity.

Whether it is through humour, confrontation, documentation or physical process, the finalists present an exchange of ideas and the value itself lies in this open offering. As an audience often involved in other disciplines, by exposing ourselves to and engaging in the arts, we not only provide support for these emerging artists but have the opportunity to take onboard what they are submitting and initiate its physical, psychological or intellectual application in a wider context. It is by doing so that we find the endless wealth that lies in ideas.

Venita Poblocki

2011 John Fries Memorial Prize for emerging visual artists