Reviews/Visual Art

Multiple twists on reality in trio of exhibitions

11 November 2020

Three new exhibitions at PICA take the viewer on a journey that is aural as well as visual, discovers Craig McKeough.

‘Refracted Reality’, curated by Anna Louise Richardson;
Forest of Voices, Olga Cironis;
Smash It, Brook Andrew ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts ·

You could argue that all art is a kind of refracted reality. The artist shows us their reality, but it is unavoidably refracted, altered in some way, by the viewer’s perspective. Each individual will see it in a slightly different way, depending on the in-built biases and life experience they bring to the work.

Curator Anna Louise Richardson explains the refracted reality of this exhibition title as using the window as a motif and metaphor, and as such the artworks act as a medium through which ideas pass and bend and “ultimately, are cast into dramatic relief”.

Fair enough, but these works by 10 disparate contributors are so thematically and aesthetically diverse they seem to defy attempts at cohesion.

Perhaps cohesion isn’t really the point because each artist brings something fresh and entirely personal. The tone is often sharply political, and the viewer has the privilege of seeing multiple twists on reality.

Helen Britton, ‘Australian Welcome’, 2020, image courtesy the artist

Among the most striking works are Victorian Hoda Afshar’s large black and white photographs, Remain, which depict refugees incarcerated on Manus Island. These haunting portraits of men in various stages of despair are the first things you see as you enter the ground floor gallery and their impact lingers.

Elsewhere the refractions give us glimpses of the unsettling mundanity of suburban life in the expertly rendered collaborative paintings of Bruce and Nicole Slatter.

Berlin-based Helen Britton effectively blends childhood memorabilia and stark imagery of the present-day climate and bushfire disaster in her jewellery pieces and prints; one of the wearable works incorporating coal and steel and others displaying tiny carved objects (creatures?) in silver caskets to underline the causes and impacts of the environmental crisis.

Valerie Sparks similarly asks questions about human impact on the natural world in her stunning series of photographic portraits of native and exotic flowers set against threatening stormy skies.

James Walker also turns his gaze skyward, revealing his fascination with aviation for his technically precise and quite beautiful paintings of aeroplanes in flight and distress.

And local artist Max Pam shows us multiple realities, reflecting the personal and political in a multi-panel piece The Sea of Love, with vignettes that range from strident social commentary to voyeuristic peep shows.

If these competing, clamouring visions of individual realities get too noisy, there is a form of quiet relief upstairs in Olga Cironis’ solo sound installation Forest of Voices.

To call it a quiet space is perhaps misleading because the gallery is full of sound courtesy of an expanse of small speakers dangling like jungle vines; together delivering a chatter of voices, whispered conversations, running water, whirrs, clicks and distant squeaks. It is all pitched so low, the individual sounds are barely perceptible.

Olga Cironis, ‘Forest of Voices’ (installation view at PICA), 2020. Photo: Leslie Rigot

We are invited to sit in one of 23 chairs placed around the room, to wait and be open to the experience. Gradually, the sounds define themselves a little and it is possible to make out snatches of phrases and individual voices. The sounds tantalise, and as we become immersed in the soundscape, we start to hear more. But there is a whole expanse of forest out there, just out of reach.

Forest of Voices rewards an investment of time and patience, and the process of questioning. How much of the sound around us every day do we really hear? Are we tuned to listen properly? How can we better connect to things that are around us all the time?

Cironis, an experienced multi-discipline artist, spent months gathering these sound bites from conversations with a wide spectrum of West Australians, many of whom responded to a call out for contributions. Exposing gallery visitors to this quiet cacophony is to invite us to tune in to the personal thoughts and feelings of others, to imagine new connections and to place ourselves in someone else’s seat for a short while.

Running in conjunction with these exhibitions in the PICA Screen Space is the short video presentation SMASH IT by Brook Andrew. Andrew, a Wiradjuri interdisciplinary artist, draws on a variety of sources – his own work as well as archival imagery from television, the internet and institutions such as the Smithsonian in the US – and “smashes” them together to produce a subversion of the well-worn colonial narrative.

The result is visually jarring – as it is no doubt intended to be – but it achieves its aim of making the viewer sit up and take notice as Andrew sets about uncovering new or ignored voices as he rewrites the power equation between coloniser and colonised.

The three exhibitions continue until 10 January, 2021

Pictured top is James Walker’s ‘Precipice’, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist

Brook Andrew, ‘SMASH IT’ (still), 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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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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