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Features/Visual Art

Paying life-sized homage to flying machines

21 October 2021

We may not be able to leave the country yet but local artist Amy Perejuan-Capone is finding other ways to take flight. Ahead of the opening of her latest exhibition, ‘Sky Cave’, she told Nina Levy about the projects that are seeing her fly into family history.

How do you communicate when you’re living and working in a new country and you don’t speak the language?

For West Australian artist Amy Perejuan-Capone, on residency in Greenland in 2017, her renditions of the unfamiliar objects she found in that place became a way to overcome the language barrier.

“When you’re travelling, you’re an outsider, but inevitably there’ll be machines or objects that you recognise from home and then there’s new objects or machines that are peculiar to that place,” she says.

“As a traveller with a big whack of social anxiety who also wasn’t proficient in languages of the area, I started observing the inanimate as a way of feeling more connected to the space.

You communicate with someone by doing a drawing of their house, and they recognise the house and that sort of breaks the ice.

“And that was my doorway to connecting with humans … You communicate with someone by doing a drawing of their house, and they recognise the house and that sort of breaks the ice.”

Perejuan-Capone’s interest in place-specific objects has informed her work from the get-go. Her first exhibition, 2015’s “Horse on Toast”, at Paper Mountain, included pastel-hued cabinetry, inspired by a residency in Iceland, as well as drawings and watercolours – “of cement trucks, bobcats and things like that” – that portray the slow reawakening of industry in Iceland after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit the country hard; whimsical colours offset by utilitarian subject matter.

“Polony”, a collaborative exhibition with Perejuan-Capone’s best friend Penelope Min Ferguson at Paper Mountain in 2016, saw her move into ceramic objects. “I started making things like aeroplanes and buses, and aeroplane seats… miniature versions of things, the whole vehicle or machine in its entirety.”

Whimsical colours offset by utilitarian subject matter: Amy Perejuan-Capone, ‘Cave of Forms, Reykjavik’ 2015. Watercolour, enamel, graphite, glow pigment on paper 

In the intervening years – filled with many exhibitions and projects – Perejuan-Capone’s practice has evolved from small scale to actual size. “I can’t make, say, a ceramic bus, but I’ve started making ceramic componentry. I’ve progressed from close observation of these machines and objects, illustration-wise, to that level of observation being translated through clay.” And while she might not have made a ceramic bus, she has made some large-scale objects incorporating ceramic componentry, including a replica of her dad’s ultralight aircraft, exhibited in 2019 as part of her solo exhibition “Don’t Stare at the Sun/For too Long”.

Perejuan-Capone’s fascination with machines comes, in part, from a deep appreciation of the skill involved in creating such objects. Again, connecting with others is central to the process because she seeks mentors to teach her the skills she’s seeking to honour in her work.

And in her bid to create life-sized homages to machines, it’s her father she has approached to teach her those skills.

A model of a light plane, in a gallery space
Installation view of Amy Perejuan-Capone’s 2019 exhibition ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun/for Too Long’, featuring the replica of her father’s ultralight aircraft. Photo: Amy Perejuan-Capone

“My upcoming exhibition at PICA, ’Sky Cave’, has evolved out of that first project I did with my dad, recreating a full-scale replica of his aircraft. I became really interested in aviation because I’ve grown up around it; my dad flying homemade aircraft, or simple aircraft, like hang gliders.

“Beyond my upbringing, aviation has become my life because of all the travel that I’ve been lucky enough to do … Almost at a DNA level, flight is important to me.”

Perejuan-Capone’s father helped to pioneer the sport of hang-gliding in Western Australia.

“I got intrigued by it, because it is such a brave and stupid thing to do,” she laughs. “The early kites were literally bamboo rods and builders’ film plastic … and sitting on a wooden bench swing thing and jumping off dunes on the beach … And then that sport’s evolved to being more like cross-country and jumping off cliffs or getting towed up by other aircraft.”

It’s that Icarus and Daedalus thing, where you’ve got this foolhardy endeavour, which I came to see as such an expression of the soul and the human spirit.

“It’s that Icarus and Daedalus thing, where you’ve got this foolhardy endeavour, which I came to see as such an expression of the soul and the human spirit. It doesn’t need to be things like strapping yourself to a set of wings and jumping off a cliff. It could be that you’ve got depression and anxiety, but you’ve managed to go to the shops. It’s all a matter of scale and headspace.

And so “Sky Cave”, says Perejuan-Capone, is about the bridge between our mind, the “cave”, and our possibilities, the “sky”.

“The cave is like this sacred, private space. And then you’ve got the sky, which is this open infinite space. I’ve focused on hang-gliding as a bridge between those two spaces.”

A grainy photograph of a person hang gliding in a very blue sky. The hang glider's wings are striped in blocks of black, red, orange and yellow.
Amy Perejuan Capone’s father Greg (pictured at age 25) helped to pioneer the sport of hang-gliding in WA. Greg Perejuan and Christine Joy Perejuan, ‘Radioactivity’ (film still), c.1978. Digitised 8mm film

For Perejuan-Capone, whose parents separated when she was a child, this project is filling some of the gaps left by that process. “Growing up there wasn’t that day-to-day connection where I would be in the shed with Dad, learning things. It’s great acquiring all these skills from him now, about the process of flying, the physics and the science behind it.”

“I’ve been learning skills from my mum too because I’ve been creating these really intricate harnesses and there were some seamstressing skills that I needed. I felt like it did me good, for these skills to go from one generation to another in a way that we don’t really have a lot of structure in our community or economy to facilitate anymore. But it’s also been bolstering for my sense of identity.”

Family and identity also figure centrally in a second project that Perejuan-Capone is working on this year, supported by the Minderoo Foundation Artist Fund, an initiative that funds a cohort of artists annually, to explore and create new work in WA.

“The title of the project, ‘Defendo’, comes from the motto of the 25th Squadron of the Royal Australian Airforce, which is the squadron for the City of Perth,” says Perejuan-Capone. “My Gramps was a member of that squadron.”

A close up of Amy Perejuan Capone's 'The plane dreamer'. We can see a ceramic propellor and the machinery behind it.
Perejuan-Capone’s work has evolved from small-scale to actual-size: Detail from ‘The plane dreamer’ 2019. Ceramics found and inherited objects. Photo: Roger-DSouza

The family has recently discovered that Perejuan-Capone’s late grandfather – Gramps – had Ballardong/Noongar heritage. “He either didn’t even know it, or didn’t acknowledge it,” says Perejuan-Capone.

“My grandfather enlisted in the in the Air Force to fight in World War II with the squadron for the City of Perth, when he was just 18 years old.

“At that time there was the prohibited area in the City of Perth, where First Nations people were not allowed without permission.

He’s got this heritage – whether or not he knew it – and he’s in a squadron that is for defending a zone that, if he was any darker of complexion, or acknowledged it, or whatever, he would need permission to enter.

“It’s nuts. He’s got this heritage – whether or not he knew it – and he’s in a squadron that is for defending a zone that, if he was any darker of complexion, or acknowledged it, or whatever, he would need permission to enter.

“And, of course he wouldn’t have been the only person in that position because of the contradictions and the difficult ironies of being an Aboriginal person serving in the war.

“So this project is about researching that story, culminating in some video and sculpture again.”

Like “Sky Cave”, “Defendo” will see Perejuan-Capone learning new skills, this time that her grandfather used.

“Gramps worked for the Western Australian Government Railway in the Midland Workshops as a painter. He was a sign writer, and painted the locos and everything. He painted the buildings – not decorative kind of painting but industrial object painting which is its own very specific skill.

“So I’m going to be taking tutelage from a professional sign writer and then working with my dad again to build the particular model of aircraft that my grandfather would have worked on during the war. I’m wanting to slowly build one of those aircraft over the next few years out of smaller components, and all those small smaller components will somehow incorporate the stories that I pick up along the way as I do my research.”

“Sky Cave” opens at PICA, 22 October 2021 and runs until 9 January 2022.

For more information about “Defendo”, head to the Minderoo Foundation website.

You can read about more Amy Perejuan’s practice at www.amypcapone.com

Pictured top: Amy Perejuan-Capone, ‘Parenthesis (Four Movements at the Hard Border)’, digital video still, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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