This essay was published in the catalogue for the 2012 John Fries Memorial Prize for emerging visual artists.
The third John Fries Memorial Prize for emerging visual artists is a testament to the confidence, skill and authority of current emerging art production in Australia and New Zealand. Despite a backdrop of economic market crashes, environmental deterioration, civil unrest, protest, genocide and revolution around the world, the finalists’ works draw strength from, and take time to tease out and make evident, the issues relevant to contemporary society. In a “no holds barred” approach, the artists address these concerns in their art, often while not forgetting to have fun. The prize also sees a resurgence of the fantastical and an unapologetic indulgence in the limitlessness of the imagination. Each of the twenty artists is exploratory within their chosen medium and intrepid in the topics they navigate.
There is a fearlessness that prevails when an artist delves into making real their make-believe. No boundaries exist. Indifference as to what is real and what is unreal is deliberately employed to blur these distinctions. Likewise, the viewer is asked to suspend all disbelief and indulge these things to manifest in our reality. Mythology, fantasy and illusion creep into our world. These elements have often had a strong hold within the fabric of our societies, conferring to the importance of our everyday existence and belief systems. Exploring our world by creating another that resonates with us is a common trope. By reshaping iconography, symbols and cues from our everyday reality to communicate something else, artists can speak to the subconscious core of us all.
Marc Standing’s painting I Come to You in Dreams is a haunting image composed of an eerily hooded figure around which cell structures float in soft dreamlike colours. A bird perches atop the hood, out of which branches grow, and a rabbit sits impossibly on the subject’s arm. This collection of displaced organisms is unsettling. Individually the bird, rabbit, branches, and even cells should not be uncomfortable but their convergence upon a despondent, dark-eyed man in a pyjama-striped uniform (in some ways reminiscent of the KKK’s so-called “glory suit”), speaks to a terrifying history. Societal fears are dredged up within us but are quickly softened and made somewhat incongruous by dreamy tone of the painting.
Creating illusion through free-hand embroidery, Georgina Cue sews imaginary light into a Persian rug in her installation On Exactitude in Science. Reinventing ancient skills, Cue re-creates an environment reliant on the distortion of our perception. A window is set on the wall and what we expect to see is precisely manufactured to fit our expectation, despite the lack of real light being cast. Everything is in its right place but nothing is real. Cue’s title is taken from Jorge Louis Borges’ short story of the same name, in which cartography becomes so accurate that only a map to actual scale is satisfactory. This raises questions: if we are so distracted from what is real, or choose to accept the illusion, what happens to the original? And is the imitation sufficient?
Philjames’ work (...to the tune of The Simpsons), purposely depicts recognisable contemporary cultural icons in what the artists calls a “double appropriation”. Bart Simpson’s head sits like a relic in a pre-existing landscape painting and is observed by an explorer, who stands dwarfed and in awe of this “historical” object. This painting is then observed by a caricature bust of Chairman Mao recreated in The Simpsons-esque style. The work is immediately playful and humorous. Philjames takes cultural references and recreates them as we have not seen them before. In doing so, he raises notions of idolisation and how, through our consumer culture, merchandising has become a valuable tool in hero worship. Chairman Mao Zedong was both feared and revered. Does the merchandising of such figures help to make them more acceptable within everyday society and if so, then what exactly are we accepting?
Fiction and mythology often have an influential role in societies. Wanda Gillespie’s kinetic sculpture, Swi Gunting, mischievously addresses this notion and with it, our quick belief in the make-believe. She borrows elements of design and functionality from various cultures. The sculpture appears to be Indonesian or Balinese, or is the chariot structure more similar to a Roman chariot? The artist tells us the artefact is from an island in the Java Sea named Tana Swiwi. This island is fictitious but this doesn’t stop the artist from further creating and exploring this mythical lost world. It is a spirited celebration of the make-believe and imagination whilst also conveying a tongue-in-cheek exploration of post-colonialism.
Also breathing life into the make-believe is Carolyn V Watson’s spooky sculpture, One Thing Lead to Another (and one thing leads to another). Painstakingly reconstructed from animal remains, doilies, beeswax and other textiles, Watson has reanimated the decayed. She has used familiar old world materials and re-sculpted them into an unfamiliar fictitious creature. We are simultaneously intrigued by the intimate craftsmanship and disconcerted by its new distorted form. The creature turns and looks at its conjoined self, thus evoking the sympathies we may have had for Frankenstein, heralding the dangers of human desire and science.
Landscape, Society & Identity
A number of the artists traverse the influence of the external, such as landscape and society, and its affect on the individual. From various cultural backgrounds and perspectives the artists put forward compelling and candid commentary about their own concerns. They reveal how societal forces and the natural environment have impacted upon them. Conversely, some focus on how the individuals in turn shape their societal and environmental landscape in a continuous system of push and pull.
Adam Laerkesen’s work Escarpment is pieced together from the artist’s own experience of the hunting lodges of Denmark and also his childhood in the Australian bush. A dog-like creature (not dissimilar to the extinct Tasmanian tiger) sculpted out of bandage, teeters across burned stumps creating a haunting air of a destroyed past. Even though these ghosts no longer exist they still smoulder away in our sub-conscience reminding us of the fragility of the landscape.
Jacqueline Bradley makes an active attempt to connect with the Australian landscape in her work Kite Jacket. By sewing a jacket to an oversized kite, the artist makes imaginative clothing she hopes can act as a device to make her comfortable to access the outdoors and bridge a gap she feels exists between her and her natural surrounds; comically demonstrating that not everyone is innately in harmony with the “great outdoors”.
Conversely, in “Looka” – Cracked Mud, Kittey Malarvie paints the mud flats she and her relatives would play in as children that additionally served to provide vital nutrients for her people. While the children made mud cakes, the adults would often eat them for the rich salt within the earth. Malarvie paints this fun but pragmatic recollection as layers of joined circles on the canvas that act as a palimpsest to Aboriginal culture and a visual document testament to the information contained within the land.
Also painting from an aerial perspective, Catherine Hockey surveys the landscape in her minimalist work, Lifting Veneer. In contrast to Malarvie, Hockey concerns herself with man-made city environments and strips them back to simple geometric forms. This topographic exploration of form reveals a stark and familiar environment, laying bare our interconnectedness with our urban environment and the pre-determined paths that lead us through it.
Adrian Spurr’s focus is the landscape of North Western Victoria and South Western New South Wales. Working with reclaimed objects, he assembles the materials to reflect the granular composition of these surrounds while equally showing its strength and fragility. A stream of wooden cubes burst across the sculpture to tilt a chair and hold it mid-motion. Spurr uses the motif of the empty chair to stress the transience of humans within the landscape.
In what at first looks like an explosion of random objects filling a space, Jacob Leary’s installation Technical Causality is a careful meditation upon technological processes and how these technical developments create new realities in which we are immersed. Leary demonstrates the fine line between “catastrophe” and “progress” by showing us how fragmented parts come together to create a guiding whole.
Exploring the tension between society and the landscape, Kate Shaw’s hyper coloured painting, Milkwater, depicts an almost futuristic and toxic looking pastoral scene. She challenges the notion that people are supposed to have an inherent connection with their natural surrounds and shows how we also distance ourselves from it. The movement and flow of the resin and paints on the board mimic the fluidity found in nature but visually refer more so to an alchemy taking place.
Similarly considering the toxicity of humans upon our landscape is Nathan Taylor’s painting Loved to Death. The poignant title comments on a society whose culture is to over-consume and waste and to rarely offer a second thought. Drawing the viewer in with his hyper-realist depiction of iconic brands in piles of rubbish, he simultaneously repels us and encourages us to consider the real environmental and personal detriment caused by our routine ways.
George Shaw’s performance-for-video & photographic piece titled Tomorrow is Another Day, is a brave and honest look at the relationship between father and son. The skin of the father (the artist) is surrendered to become the canvas upon which the son’s thoughts about their relationship are transcribed with ink. The father is transformed into a scrawl of messages and doodles, many filled with angst, and we gradually begin to read the paternal figure as the son perceives him. In the accompanying photographic suite, Shaw then captures the fading of the ink on his body. This offers the viewer relief, as we see the thoughts fade from his body it reminds us of the temporariness of these feelings.
Utilising the medium of sound, Cath Robinson has also captured thoughts in her work Thought Noise/Wave Form Preludes (if played simultaneously). Recording artists talking of their inspirations, Robinson has then translated these reflections into music, to explore the essence of thought itself. The viewer is invited to turn the individual music boxes and create preludes, evoking the spirit of the artists’ thoughts.
Not holding back his thoughts is Paul Yore, in his tapestry, Everything is Fucked. Using the Gay Pride rainbow colours to sew the title in bold letters, surrounded by phallic motifs, smiley faces, a rainbow serpent and other symbols, the work treads political ground and harks back to the vigorous and traditional practice of using handmade banners in protests and marches. However, the scathing message is delivered in a humorous and playful manner which renders the work less aggressive but still communicative of timely issues.
Fiona Jack tackles social and political issues head-on in her work Portworkers (Striking Ports of Auckland Workers, 2012). Inspired by the 300 Auckland port workers who held strike in March 2012 against aspects of the collective employment agreement, Jack took to the streets to put a human face to the action. She created black and white portraits of 160 of the workers and posted them around the streets of Auckland. By doing so, she worked at a grass-roots level to re-humanise the bitter dispute. Now as she exhibits them in galleries as a reminder of the political power of art.
Owen Leong considers the effects of social, political and cultural forces upon the skin, which he determines as a membrane through which these forces are transmitted. He explores identity through visceral visual metaphors. In his video Infinite Love we see a provocative image of the artist with his mouth forced open as frozen milk drips “whiteness” into it. Accompanied by his installation of recreated body parts, Infiltrator, Leong’s work reveals the existent complexity of our identities, disrupting the gap between our generated perception and the reality.
Also using her own body, Cyrus Tang examines nostalgia, the ephemeral and remembrance in her video work Body Ruins. A clay cast of her own figure is suspended in water and we see “the artist” slowly deteriorate and reduce to particles. Tang posits herself as the subject but is also cast as the Other, and bears witness to her eroding materiality until only the memory remains. Her work reinforces the impermanence and superficiality of the physical body.
Cigdem Aydemir boldly explores the issues of body politics, feminism and “Islamaphobia” in her video, Extremist Activity (swing). Firmly positioning herself in the now and commenting on sensitive issues regarding the Burqa, religious expression and the body as occupied territory, Aydemir tackles irrational societal fears and media sensationalism face-to-face. Sometimes in absurd and even humorous situations, she uses the veil to amplify and embrace difference and reclaim her freedom of choice about her body and integrity within her Muslim identity.
Image: Kate Shaw, Milkwater (C)