Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Brook Andrew’s exhibition Paradise stings of sharp irony from the outset. The work is based around a collection of rare postcards from the past century of indigenous people from a range of countries including Australia. We send postcards when we are on holiday; send them back home to report on the weather, the sights and the curiosities we have found. In these postcards, the indigenous people are objectified as sights seen. In these works, with coloured neon lights behind or around them, there is the sense that the people in these images have been sold - like for a circus or freak show—for a cheap price, for a cheap laugh. They are fetishised, ridiculed and humiliated through the colonial tourist’s gaze. 

The first work we see Union Jack is a black and white postcard of young people performing what seems a traditional ritual—adorned with ceremonial body paint. When we look closer we see the body paint is a Union Jack. A white man in a dark suit is watching the performance. The mark of his gaze is unmistakably represented by that imperial emblem. This white man feels present in all these works, watching, appreciating, overseeing; his mark somehow left on the bodies of all the subjects of Andrew’s work. Many of the artworks are framed in thick sapele wood frames. The oversized frames contrast with the small postcards. This proportional association asks the question: what else has been used up and taken from the lands of the subjects of these photographs?

In the same titled Paradise series, each postcard of an indigenous person is juxtaposed with a postcard of industry. A young girl with bared chest is side by side with a postcard of a big log on a truck, displayed vertically. A man whose bare back and profile is the focus—titled on the postcard “A Warrior”—is displayed with the truck horizontal. There is a sense of the man, like the forest, being cut-down. An older aboriginal woman smoking a pipe is beside a factory chimney. The colour images of industry, along with the rainbow coloured neon borders around each of the frames reminds us of ongoing colonial attitudes. The overt nature of the contrast between postcards makes the viewer also question the moral self-satisfaction that may come from critically judging the postcards of the past while still enjoying the land and resources of the present.

In an ABC interview covering the protests in the Kimberley last week, the Goolarabooloo Jabbir-Jabbir women wept as trucks and bulldozers rumbled into a sacred site at James Price Point. They compared the act to desecrating a European church or cemetery. Andrew’s work asks the same questions as these distraught women “what have we got anymore to have rights over?”. We imagine the humiliated subjects of these postcards “feel the pain of those big things rolling on our country”. This is particularly evident in the artwork, The Flow Chart, which links together various framed postcards by neon tubed triangles. At one point, there is a postcard of industry, another, a harmonious depiction of indigenous people on the water. One image is of an indigenous woman profoundly scarred on her face and another, right down at the lowest point, an adult indigenous man in a studio has been dressed up like a baby girl. We imagine a flow chart (a tool of industry and logic) would perhaps show a logic or order to events. However this flow chart maps a neon profit at the expense of all else; including the dignity and rights of other human beings who have been abused and exploited in the name of European profit and expanse. 

This exhibition creates an awareness of an objectification and discreditation of indigenous people that has made the lives of non-indigenous people easier. In the work Memorial 4, Andrew creates a black lacquered box that we peer into to see a jumble of neon words that seem to go on infinitely. In Wiradjuri it reads ‘I see you’. In these postcards we understand the colonial gaze as having seen, bought, sold and sent home the image of these indigenous people. However, the message from the box, which cannot be as easily seen or understood, is that these viewers can be viewed.

We have a sense of a meta-experience of seeing and being seen in this gallery. Any contemporary moral righteousness with which we may initially view the images of the past seems also to be “seen” and makes us aware of the duplicity of believing these attitudes towards indigenous people exist only in history. Andrew brings these postcards back into a public consciousness. By bringing them back to the surface, Andrew makes us confront the repetitious exploitation of indigenous people. 

All images are courtesy of Tolarno Galleries Melbourne

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

365 Split Crumbs


Dan Bell's diagonal cross section of angora aurora, 365 split crumbs at Utopian Slumps as part of the Impossible Objects I exhibition considers the nature of mementos. It is a web of necklaces, like diary entries, that reveals a little something of what has or will happen on each necklace day of the year. Each necklace has a pendent dropping down that is strange, sparkly or curious. There are plastic bok-choys and sparkling corn, silver tea pots, marbled plasticine, a little black alarm clock, rust, nuggets, vine leaves and vials of sparkly dust or liquid. Maybe they are the remains of a shaved glittering bouncy ball or a shredded rhinestone tiara. The sparkly nature of many of the objects and the diamond-like pattern they form remind us of what is considered of value in the jewellery industry. However, the crystals and buttons and plastic strawberry shortcake and bob bon novelty rings that hang from these plastic, gold and silver chains tell us also about a different kind of value that with which the individual imbues an object. The work feels like an elaborate charm bracelet that suggests a story behind each of these objects.  The crumb is a small piece of the cake, as the object is a piece of the memory. 

 The web like presentation of these individual pieces denotes the spider catching the flies. While it’s not sinister, it does evoke a sense of these objects becoming essential. So they can stick. So they can stay. So they won’t get lost or stolen we will wear them around our neck. The interconnectedness of the diamonds and triangles also tells us something about handing things on and where they end up. These objects will get passed down or across but will end up somewhere. They will all eventually disintegrate, like the sparkly stuff in the vials. These objects will probably outlive their owners and will come to mean something different with each hand that holds them.

In gestalt psychology, the law of simplicity holds that objects in the environment are seen in a way that makes them appear as simple as possible. The web-like pattern is what we initially see. When however, we get up close we see the complexity and range of objects within this pattern. This tells us something of how these laws of simplicity (in terms of how we perceive the world visually) can act as a metaphor for how we see the world emotionally. The life and meaning of objects seems to have a simple order of function and disposal but in actual fact the reality of what happens to people’s objects is a much more subjective and complicated. The objects come to represent a part of the person. When a necklace is being worn it has the shape of the neck and decollete; when it is taken off and set down it becomes a clump. The way they are displayed shows the path of least resistance in terms of a gravitational v shape that is harmonious to the eye. The pendent that has lived around a neck can no longer be viewed in terms of its use, function or value.  It will come to symbolise an aspect of the wearer. 

The pendent in jewellery often acts as a symbol of something that can’t be represented physically or literally. They are used as lucky charms, subculture signs or tokens of endless love. They are a symbol of belonging to a gang or a faith. In each case the wearer tells the world that there is more to them than just the lone individual. They are part of something bigger. Like the chains that the pendants are attached to, the individual declares himself linked into a greater whole. Bell’s sparkling array of kitsch and crystals playfully celebrates the diverse and absurd lengths will we go to to find ourselves a part of something bigger.

Bell’s work reminds me of the gifts Boo Radley leaves Scout and Jem Finch in their tree in To Kill a Mockingbird. The older Scout reflects at the end of her story ‘Neighbours bring food with death, and flowers with sickness, and little things in between. Boo was our neighbour. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife, and our lives.’ That objects have sentimental attachment gives them a value beyond their use. We keep them as a direct and physical link to the time and the person they remind us of. Although it is sometimes clear that by their very presence that that time is over and that person is gone.

Bell makes us consider the objects we choose to keep in our lives. These seemingly meaningless objects that come in and out of life can become talismans of identities and stories. Bell gives these crumbs the potential to be sentimental. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Structure in the Falling

Naomi Schwartz’s works in her exhibition The Structure in the Falling, at the City Library, evoke the sense of comfort we derive from memories. These works of ink and collage seem like swatches of textures, shape, and fabrics that are often all that remain in memories of fleeting contentment. It’s a mother’s blouse or a quilt in the car, the lining of a handbag or the wallpaper at a holiday house that you followed with your fingers as you went to sleep. These abstract collages are layered like mind associations that hide and disclose fragments of stories.

There are several works titled Whose sleeves?. These works were inspired by the rich depiction of kimonos on late 16th century Japanese screens, Tagasode. In the screens kimonos are rendered in a natural state between clean and dirty draped over the structure itself; a trompe l'oeil of living. In Schwartz’s work the viewer is asked to imagine “Whose sleeves?”—to whom does each of these objects belong. While they seem so abstract and geometric, not wrapped around their owner, they still can communicate so much of their owner’s identity and personality. The clothes, like the screen, both hide and reveal. 

Schwartz’s work also takes on the abstract form of shapes and structures that are like garments cut from a pattern before it is sewn. They are like the hazy, curved and layered memories an adult might have of themselves as a child. The curved forms of fabric like patterns of stripes, checks, pink circles on orange and buds about to bloom, suggest a woman whose shoulder you remember well. They are like the memory of falling asleep on a cotton sun dress lap. It’s the vanilla smell of Shalimar perfume. They take you to the ridges of a beautiful bottle on the dresser or a swish of fabric before a dinner dance and a pile of dry-cleaning and after dinner mint wrappers in the morning. 

Ropes and knots are a dramatic motif in these artworks. They evoke notions of how memory is contained and released. It as though memories can become entwined and knotted. They are like thickly twisted braided fibres that can be made stronger with repetition; or as in Schwartz’s work – split and frayed. The unravelling or splitting of the tightly wound ropes of memory and consciousness, reveal, as in the Split Ropes piece, textured and colourful layers of beauty and intrigue. Between the split ropes are leaves, caves, diamonds and dandelions. The split rope acts compositionally almost like the curtains opening on a proscenium arch to a backdrop of a Russian ballet.  As an audience we wonder what will emerge from the cave. 

Schwartz’s work reveals a tension between what is tightly woven, neat and contained and what is loose, unravelled and falling. It is this contrast, like the unravelling of tightly plaited hair for romantic escapes down towers that creates a sense of drama and narrative in the series. In works such as In Under the Shadow, Bundle and Sleep there is a pillowy soft comfort in the artwork that is like a bed or nest. They are warm, safe spaces that protect and hide. These seem like the places one would stop and enjoy.  The sharp angular forms throughout the work contrast with these billowy fabric forms to suggest the momentary nature of contentment.

The title piece of the show, The Structure in the Falling  is a work of dark bulging ink shaped crosses. The paradoxical notion of a structure in falling denotes a reason in chaos, or a necessity in letting go of some notion of control, order or direction. The thick short crosses, like birds, planes or flailing falling figures have a rounded cushioning form. It seems that one may only find these places of comfort depicted in the collages, when willing to embrace the ambivalence of the metaphor of falling. 

Throughout this work, there seems a sense of joy in the act of unravelling and remembering. There is warmth that makes reminiscence seem comforting rather than confronting. The sense of cushioned landings encourages courage. We are reminded of places in our memory we were caught, held and protected. 

The Structure in the Falling at Melbourne City Library