Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Out of mind’s reach

14 February 2020

Craig McKeough finds it hard to leave the stunning, imagined world of Perth Festival’s ‘Chalkroom’.

Review: Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, ‘Chalkroom’ ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·
Review Craig McKeough ·

Stepping into the virtual reality world of “Chalkroom” is a little like entering a video game, only this is not a brightly coloured, exciting world of adventure. There are no princesses to rescue or monsters to fight.

It is a dusty, moody, black-and-white space with walls stretching as high as you can see, covered almost entirely with scrawled chalk marks: blurry images, phrases, labels, reminders, fragments, random words that hint at lost stories or fading memories. The messages dangle just out of mind’s reach: “Angel of artifice”, “Say no to mono tasking”, “Not the kind of people who belong in a conga line”, “They say our empire is passing as empires do”.

You fly through the rooms, choosing your own path, where to enter and where to look. If there is a quest, it’s not obvious. It is more of an exploration for the sake of it.

My thoughts take off: I’m wandering aimlessly, but somehow urgently. I’m looking for something, but not sure what. Maybe it’s not so aimless; I don’t know.
Looking up, down, all round, the chalk-covered walls are everywhere. Then the words are coming off the walls and I’m flying through an alphabet dust storm.

And suddenly I’m out the bottom of this massive floating structure and seemingly flying in open space, heading into the sunrise. How did I get here? I have to get back. Things are suddenly more urgent.

Returning to the security of the room is all that matters – back to those catacombs of constant chatter. And when I make it, I want to stay. To keep looking … for what, I don’t know.

All the while in your head are hypnotic whispers – the soothing meditative voice of American artist and creator Laurie Anderson, offering a quiet commentary on where you are and what you are seeing. Then after 15 minutes, the room fades to black and it’s over. All too soon. This is addictive, the temptation to dive back in is strong.

Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang, ‘Chalkroom’, 2020. Installation view at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). Photo: Bo Wong.

“Chalkroom” is a stunning and imaginative work of art. It is the joint creation of Anderson, the groundbreaking polymath artist and musician who visualised it, and Hsin-Chien Huang, a Taiwanese new media artist who helped bring it to fruition.

Only three people at a time can put on the VR gear and it is walk-ins only at the gallery, so you will have to take your chances with getting a spot. Don’t leave it too late because it will be in demand.

“Chalkroom” is the second virtual reality installation in the Cultural Centre as part of the Perth Festival. The other is “Awavena”, at the Art Gallery of WA. There is little common ground between them apart from the physical apparatus that allows each to reveal its story.

“Awavena” invites the viewer to explore the mystical secrets of another culture, while “Chalkroom” transports the participant into an entirely imagined world, a dream-like state in which we are fruitlessly chasing someone else’s fantasies around.

Or are they our own dreams we’re trying to grasp? After a short trip into “Chalkroom”, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Perth Festival’s ‘Chalkroom’ is on at PICA until 19 April 2020.

Pictured top: Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang, ‘Chalkroom’, 2020. Installation view at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). Photo: Bo Wong.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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