Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cloud House

Michaela Gleave’s Cloud House in the Octopus 11 – The Matter of Air exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary creates a magic space, even with all the parts of its construction exposed. The walls of the gallery are painted Yves Klein blue. Two smoke machines pump smoke into a cubby-like house through little windows. The viewer must climb a ladder to get inside. The smoke fills the floor of the house to create an illusion of infinite depth.

The clear and logical transparency of how the work is made only enhances the fun. It evokes the smoke and mirrors illusions of a magic show and, thus, the desire of an imaginative audience to suspend the disbelief. It must be heartbreaking for magicians when their audience gets to an age when they only care about how the magic is done and feel annoyed at having been ‘tricked’ as youngsters. Gleave in no way tries to trick us. This is important because it means we can leave our 10 year old cynic down the bottom of the ladder to ponder the smoke machines. We can then feel free to just enjoy the enchantment of the Cloud House

The work combines a childhood place of play with the desire to escape the reality of logic and function. Like in Narnia, the Magic Faraway Tree or the Harry Potter series, the work reminds us of our desire for secret doorways to open up for us into a world where we can defy the rules of science, caution and expectations. These worlds, like dreams or imaginative child play, offer characters in fiction the opportunity to work through the tensions and anxieties that underpin life in the ‘real world’. The suggestion of infinite depth and magic contained in this cubby house feels akin to the depths of the imagination in a space where one can play without being self-conscious.

I didn’t realise I could get into the cubby even though I really wanted to. I stood and watched the smoky room from the ladder. Perhaps it was the blinding clean whiteness that inhibited me or a sense of depth created by the smoke that I read as something I would sink into. I now feel like I missed out on an chance to experience something  I have fantasised about when staring out plane windows or lying back on picnic rugs. Maybe it was my understanding of clouds as something that you would fall through if you tried to sit on them like they were white fluffy cushions that stopped my ability to reason that this space was open to me to step into. The enclosed cubby house should have logically reassured me. But notions of the owners of cubbies being notoriously territorial could also have been putting me off. The otherworldliness of such a cubby maybe also told me that this space was not for me. It was like where cherubs might go to barter celestial swap cards.

Gleave’s work reminds me of one of the first installations I ever went to - Asher Bilu's Escape 1992. In Luba Bilu's gallery in Greville Street, Prahran, in a large dark room, there were piles and piles of white shredded paper that were lit by neon lights. Every afternoon school students like me from all over the south east would dump their school bags at the door of the gallery to romp around in the shredded paper and enjoy the utter delight of entering a secret, magic place. Artworks like Cloud House will let your mind play in them like you were once able to do with a box or a tree as a child. Even if you don't step in.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I was under a constraint, against which I had not entirely given up struggling, so I made a demonstration against it by forgetting. Sigmund Freud

‘HEVY’, the title of an exhibition at Conical, is missing an ‘a’. Freud in Forgetting of Intention discusses the repetition of forgetting: forgetting to pay a doctor, forgetting to return a book, forgetting to buy blotting paper, forgetting to meet a lover and synonymous to this exhibition in a Freudian pun sort of way – forgetting to post the letter. The reasons, he puts forward, are that these acts of forgetting speak of one’s unavowed counter-will. The missing letter ‘a’ seems an aberration. However in being that, it acts as a salute to the counter-will that challenges the heavy weighted constraints of obligation and purpose. The works in this exhibition also evoke the existential absurdity of searching for a deeper meaning or interpretations of such eternal repetition.
The first works we see in the exhibition are by Sanja Pahoki and Simon Horsburgh. Pahoki’s is a photograph of a cream apartment building that has snow piled high all around it and a fold out black chair directly in front of the photograph. Horsburgh’s work is a set shark jaws made from egg cartons that hang on the top right  of the wall from the photograph. Pahoki’s work evokes the heaviness of domestic obligation and the desire to escape it. A little sail boat in the window of the bottom floor apartment reminds us of imaginative child-play. Like the suggested attendant who has escaped staring at the walls of white from this black chair, the child in the house can escape the banality of indoors by playing out adventures. Horburgh’s shark jaws made of egg cartons seem a combination of cold day craft and the trophies brought back from fishing trips. Together they seem to suggest that the triumphant return to the home is a necessary part of the daydream. The malevolence of open shark jaws reminds the viewer of the heavy risks one faces if they decided to throw it all in. 

There is a looped video of a bird that runs up a horizontal track up a wall in Lani Seligman’s work. The bird seems to have forgotten its wings and is compelled by some sort of irrational counter-will to endlessly repeat the path up the wall. It is distressing – like a bird in a classroom that keeps banging its head into the window to try and escape. It can seem that despite all our free will, here depicted in an emblem of freedom – the bird, we continue to compulsively repeat. Repetition becomes absurd when we realise there is no sense of progression being made. Like Sisyphus with his boulder or the looped thud of the medicine ball that we hear from another work, the impact of the weight comes in two directions – the labour of rolling, waiting, running up a wall and the heavy realisation of the meaninglessness of the task. It is the actual missing weight of purpose that makes the superficial lightness seem so futile.

In another bird work, Kiron Robinson’s work, there is a television screen imbedded in the floor and we look down on a video of a little bird who is perhaps convalescing in a box. The box is filled with bread and bird poo and the poor bird seems terrified, huddled in a corner. In this flightless bird we read that it is the burden of security, routine and care from others that add weight.

In Seligman’s other work a black heavy medicine ball thuds into a concrete corner, like the call for exercise in a prison yard. Like the birds, the balls potential for flight becomes metaphoric for a certain paradox of the notion of freedom and lightness. This ball is not one to be volleyed or dunked in a game of sport with winners and losers, arbitrary boundaries and specific ways it can or cannot be handled. The weight of no rules is heavy.

Lou Hubbard creates a sunken heavy Crumpler bean bag creature from found objects. The face is made with novelty eyeballs and a punctured grimy soccer ball. It has baseball bat limbs that connote the sort of striking or infliction made to deflate these round, once more buoyant spheres. The sunken in bean bag, implies the weight of being sat on. The soccer ball shares a similar fate, though we imagine it being waterlogged under a car, waiting to be squashed. When we step back the little creature forms a Jolly Rodger, the pirate flag associated with fighting to the death. In Hubbard’s closet work, two blacked out light bulbs hung over a closet looking frame make eyes that evoke dark depths of deadness, but like the Jolly Roger, there is something quite caricatured and friendly in this uncanny collection of useless found objects. They defy the pity that their heavy, junky uselessness could evoke and smile at their new found meaning and purpose as Duchampian like poetry.   

The busted up tyre image by Simon Horsburgh on the wall opposite does not share the chutzpah of the cheeky Hubbard ready-mades. It depicts an object heavy with the weight of being pure junk. Useless and yet not destroyed, the tyre is heavy with the inability to function. It can’t be rolled away. An object that once enabled others to move, an object so essential it has been acclaimed as an intrinsic invention in the history of human progress, will now be picked up and carried, with resentment. This work evokes the heaviness of ‘being a burden’ and the sadness of existing in a state of eternal disrepair.

An analyst searches for the meaning of why one would forget to post a letter. They would look at the constraints associated with this obligation and why a counter-will has emerged to challenge the conscious intentions of this simple act. In this exhibition, the works play with our expectations of what the constraints actually are. It seems often that the absence of purpose, a futile search for meaning and heavy awareness of the comic absurdity of it all can be the greatest of burdens. 

Photos: Christo Crocker. Courtesy of Conical & the artists.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Nothing (but flowers)

Entering Benedict Ernst’s Nothing (but flowers) exhibition at West Space is like entering a grand hotel with light streaming through the windows, glossy parquetry floors and Ernst’s striking sculptures of flower arrangements. These works draw upon the elegant configurations of contemporary floristry but are constructed using the found objects one would more commonly associate with household junk. There are bouquet’s made of broken beer bottles, saucepan lids, hose pipes, wire, busted car tires, bottle tops and sushi soy fish lids. However, there is a sense that this is more than just an exercise in aesthetic reconfiguration—sculpting in junk. Ernst plays on a notion of the bouquet of flowers as an object that is universally recognised and understood. 

In his ability to arrange sharp nails, scrubbing brushes and tennis balls as beautifully as a bouquet, Ernst raises the question—why do we love flowers? In rites of passage they are symbolic of a life cycle. Like the brides, lovers, mothers and grievers they are given to; they embody the blooming and withering and blooming and withering of life. The language of flowers, picked up in the florist slogans “more than words” and “say it with flowers”, makes flowers unlike any other inanimate objects, except maybe art. They are used to symbolise the abstract emotions that people have trouble expressing. 

The title of the exhibition Nothing (but flowers) suggests a certain empty sentimentality that can be bought too easily with flowers. They can convey too much for too little. Though Ernst’s work is made of “nothing”, the items in a household we would generally ignore, the detail and ingenuity of his work make them so much more than the average bouquet. Like the ephemeral symbolism of living flowers, these bits of junk that have been transformed—have had life and death. While a bouquet of nails and screws may seem more confronting and hostile then velvety rose petals, Ernst works asks us to consider what sort of messages underlie the emotionally loaded bunch of flowers. In his catalogue essay Ernst repeatedly apologises for his project. Ernst has accentuated certain sharp, angular and prickly features of flowers to suggest a subtext of ambivalence. 

Ernst likens his work to ‘a “gift” your cat drags in from the night, still beating with feathers and blood to your bedroom pillow’. Receiving flowers, though never admitted, may often be like the gift from the cat. It is a way of unloading something on someone; it asks the receiver to recognise, accept and be grateful for an object that symbolises the emotional state of the giver. Much like in all interactions with other people sometimes this is something we are glad to have received—we want to know about, we enjoy it or hope for it. For the giver, the flowers can be used to mask awkward feelings. A clean way of discharging obligations, sometimes by remote, without getting caught up in too much emotional junk. They are a quick solution to unloading a burden, demanding forgiveness, displaying easy care and affection and relieving the anxiety of bearing witness to an uncomfortable pain or sorrow.  

Slavoj Žižek would like Ernst’s flowers. In The Perverts Guide to the Cinema Žižek describes flowers as “disgusting”, like a vagina dentata, that should ‘be forbidden to children’. Many of Ernst’s flowers, like the beer bottle tops with fake eyelash petals, evoke this sort of menacing interpretation of flowers that will lure you in like Venus Fly Traps only to devour you to fulfil their instinctual desires. As symbols of love and affection, flowers that devour seem synonymous with an idea of love as a hunger or yearning that needs to be fed.  It follows that in Žižek’s Enjoy your Symptom, Žižek writes that the lover seeks the beloved to fill a lack in himself. The beloved in order to resist objectification reciprocates with his own lack/desire. Žižek says ‘the two lacks can succeed and beget a new harmony’. The aggressive quality of some of the flowers in Ernst works evokes certain violence in the objectification of the beloved. The “be mine” demand, so liberally sugared in pop songs and Valentine cards, is often read simply as hyperbole for aching desire. In these works the demanding “be mine” sentiment comes at us in a jealous rage with jagged beer bottles and planks of wood. 

The “Nothing” of the title speaks of voids like they are growling stomachs and hollow gestures. These works show there can be duplicity in grand demonstrations of emotions. Maybe we like to unload our feelings of guilt or shame onto others while making it seem like we are doing something nice. Maybe we give a bouquet to force a person to think about us and not just fleetingly, but appreciatively and affectionately for the duration of the week that the flowers last. Sometimes, though, flowers are very nice. Ernst also seems to celebrate flowers through his affectionate studies. I once entertained a quick and silly idea where I would send flowers anonymously to people working in car parks all around the world—to make them happy. A friend advised me of the arrogance and narcissism of my Pollyanna plan. He suggested I would probably end up responsible for at least one car park attendant’s battering from a jealous spouse who refused to believe the flowers were from “nobody”. Ernst work celebrates the intricacies and complexities of the gifts we give. The too-easy statements conveyed with flowers can be used to mask and prettify ambivalent and confronting emotions.