Review: The Tissue Culture and Art Project review, “Biomess” ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
Currently on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia is “Biomess”, an exhibition that examines the possibilities that arise when combining the biological sciences with artistic practice. Collaborative duo Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr make up The Tissue Culture and Art Project, and have been researching bioart, at the intersections of art and science, since 1996. The pair also run SymbioticA Lab, based at the University of Western Australia, which hosts a continuous array of international and local artists, scientists and researchers.
Biomess brings to the fore the occasionally sticky ethical and theoretical implications to the developments in biological science that allow for the creation of new forms of life. The exhibition displays living and dead organisms from the Western Australian Museum’s collection, as well as a deconstructed bioreactor capable of making hybridoma cells, or the fusion of cells from multiple organisms. The artists seek to challenge viewers’ understandings of the fundamental categories of life, death and procreation; and to point out that common understandings of these categories are incredibly limited.
The exhibition consists of a series of slick black and glass cases, lit from below to illuminate the various creatures and objects inside. Animals as diverse as Byrne’s geckos, the mollusc nudibranch, bearded dragons, a taxidermy emu and a live axolotl are on display, variously displayed in water tanks, laid out and stuffed, or piled into buckets and tubs. Significant is that the didactic information is displayed some distance from the cases, leaving the viewer to wander and wonder, and ultimately arrive at their own conclusions about how each creature came to be displayed thus so. The information provided does contribute heavily to engaging with the exhibition’s premise but keeping this information separate from the display cases provides a certain level of distance. The didactic panels, once found, provide a multitude of information regarding the specific curiosities of each animal – Byrne’s geckos, for example, can clone themselves without need of a mate, nudibranchs are hermaphroditic, and axolotls are able to regenerate their body parts. It’s incredibly satisfying – and fascinating – to read about the diversity and quirkiness of life – which is, in all senses of the word, extremely queer.
Mirroring the cases on the other side of the gallery is the large deconstructed bioreactor, containing a jar of hybridoma cells, fused from two separate sources – an entirely human-constructed form of life that defies current forms of classification. This bioreactor gestures towards the possibilities of future scientific research, juxtaposed against the animals displayed in the cases, which are already and have always defied and challenged our understanding of the processes of life, death, gender and procreation, though we didn’t always know it. In this way, the exhibition, taken as a whole, questions the way we classify living matter, as well as the impact of human intervention on “natural” processes – is it natural for a beetle to want to mate with a man-made beer bottle to the point of near extinction of its species? Biomess suggests that the natural is, and always has been, open to interpretation; manipulated and muddled, as humans and non-humans alike respond to their environments, evolve and adapt.
However, circling the cases once again, I felt that in this lab (and gallery), this flourishing of life felt more clinical, the curious and the challenging stripped, stuffed and laid out. Of course, it’s meant to be clinical in a corporate sense, the cases deliberately designed to imitate the clean lines and fetishistic displays of luxury branding, except with a taxidermy parrot lying inside, rather than a Chanel handbag. I was aware that this was a comment on the corporate interests that have the power to sway scientific research and commodify life, but at the same time, by reproducing these formats with little intervention, its critique is somehow softened.
This feeling resonates when considering the presence of live animals in a gallery space. Of course, live animals are used in scientific research all the time, in many awful ways, and the signs prominently displayed at the entrance to the exhibition reassure visitors that the live animals shown here are monitored daily by specialist handlers, yet it’s worth asking whether that’s enough. Monitoring is different to thriving, and I felt decidedly uncomfortable as I watched the axolotl hiding behind the single rock in its otherwise bare tank. But at the same time, my lack of specialist knowledge leaves me unsure as to what kind of environment the axolotl would prefer – a feeling, I expect, that is shared by other visitors from non-scientific backgrounds. It’s clear from this exhibition that we have much to learn about the so-called natural world, and the ways in which scientific practices, corporate interests, and everyday existence are entangled.
8 Sep – 7 Oct @ 110 Avon Terrace, York ·
Presented by Community Arts Network WA ·
Experience a different view of York.
A pop-up exhibition featuring hand built clay sculptures, animation and mixed media collages that share the history of Noongar farm workers and experiences of the reserve, river, land and town through the artistic hands of many generations.
We all know the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the contemporary romantic film. She’s that off-beat, mysterious one, that free thinker who enables the male hero to shake off the shackles of his dull, suburban life… and though she may seem carefree, she’s a problematic figure, defined and delineated by her relationship to a male protagonist.
In “Magical Woman”, an art exhibition curated by Aisyah Aaqil Sumito and Sophie Nixon, she’s being utilised differently, however. A platform for six emerging female and non-binary artists to explore representations of romance in film and popular culture, “Magical Woman” invites artists to use the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as a starting point to produce a new body of work, while taking into consideration the intersections of racism, misogyny, queer exclusion and trans exclusion. Nina Levy spoke to Sumito and Nixon to find out more.
Nina Levy: I think most of us are familiar with the concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) but can you talk about who the MPDG is and what she represents?
Sophie Nixon: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a colourful and quirky character who exists to uplift, enrich and fulfil the
lives of white-male protagonists. Think of films like 500 days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you pay enough attention you may catch these women encouraging the male protagonist to try new things and step outside of his comfort zone.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls are characterised as having bubbly and eclectic exteriors, often partnered with underlying poor mental health; this is often romanticised as being part of their “quirk” to add seeming depth, mystery and intrigue to the character – a plot device in the central character’s narrative.
Aisyah Aaqil Sumito: Referring back to what Sophie said about encouraging centralised male characters to “live”… these characters are infantilised by their inability to communicate their feelings, how they act, and what they enjoy – while simultaneously being granted the emotional capacity to teach these men how to live their lives (almost like mothering). It’s a harmful and unrealistic representation of women that is very ingrained in our ways of seeing things. In more simple terms, it affects the way that we interact, and the warped standards that women and non-binary folk hold ourselves to – even if we don’t fit into the mould of a trope that applies to a very specific demographic.
NL: What made you decide to take the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the starting point for this exhibition? AAS: “Magical Woman” began as a means to vent about frustrations and representations of women in media. Initially we were only planning to respond to Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope itself – a small, spunky project that we would use to rock the boat. The longer we looked for a venue, the more time I had to actually think about this particular trope and how transgressive critiquing it would actually be, and how beneficial it would be for the artists. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a trope that only applies to white cisgender women. With that considered, I wanted to encourage the artists to go a bit deeper than the trope itself, critically engaging with intersections of racism, misogyny, trans exclusion, and queer exclusion, regardless of what kind of work they decided they would make. For me it’s really important that it is distinguished as a starting point, and that our exhibition is a small contribution to an ever-expanding conversation.
NL: You’re co-curating “Magical Woman” – how did you meet? And what made you decide to work together? AAS: Sophie and I met around February 2017, for an exhibition that I curated alongside Olivia Tartaglia at City Arts Space for Propel Youth Art’s 2017 KickstART Festival “KickstARTISTS: Symbiosis”. Beyond the work we do as artists and as curators, we are good friends. Working together to embody discussions we have on a regular basis, in the form of a curated exhibition, was really beneficial and a huge learning curve for both of us.
SN: Outside of “Magical Woman”, I’m working to complete my honours in Fine Art at Curtin University and hustling odd-jobs. As Aisyah mentioned, we met within the happenings of the “Symbiosis exhibition”. I was a participating artist in mentorship with Jess Day, and Aisyah was co-curator with Olivia Tartaglia in a skillshare/mentorship context. Shortly after that, I produced work for another show that Aisyah curated alongside Claire Bushby. I remember being so in awe (still am to be honest) of Aisyah, their dedication, professionalism and how they carried themselves as a curator. For both of us, this is our first time curating independently (outside the program of a mentorship/institution). Knowing Aisyah and I were in this together made the process of applying for shows and grants so much easier, I don’t know if I would have had the same amount of courage, ambition and motivation if they weren’t there.
NL: You’re both emerging curators as well as visual artists… what draws you to curating? What are the challenges/rewards of being a curator? AAS: My first curatorial project was “KickstARTISTS: Symbiosis”, since then I’ve curated “Borders and Transitions” (in mentorship with Claire Bushby) and “The Corsini Collection: Revisited” (in mentorship with Dunja Rmandić), all of which have been hugely rewarding learning experiences. Before I took on these projects, I was really interested in the role of the curator, and how that role fostered growth for emerging artists in a gallery context. It was something I started thinking about when I visited my first Paper Mountain exhibition “Stay/Keep” (2014), curated by Melissa McGrath.
I find working with artists, pushing their conceptual development, as well as their capacity to do and be better (despite inevitably recurring moments of doubt) incredibly rewarding. For the most part, balancing unpaid administrative labour within my curatorial practice, and setting my boundaries so that I don’t burn out from overwork, have been the most challenging aspects of curating. “Magical Woman” is the first show I have co-curated beyond a mentorship context, which is both nerve-wracking and exciting.
SN: During the last year (2016) of my Bachelor of Fine Art at Curtin, I was the student coordinator of the graduate showcase exhibition, which included organising several fundraising exhibitions. This experience gave me a taste for arts management and curating. After that I completed an internship at PSAS in Fremantle under the wing of their director Tom Mùller, which saw me curate an exhibition of their studio artists.
When it comes to the opening night I usually have this moment of stillness where I really take it in: reflecting on where it started and seeing a show in its resolution. It’s a very wholesome feeling. I think that’s what drives me to keep curating. One of the most challenging things about curating for me personally is managing my time between curatorial duties and honours research.
7-23 September @ Paper Mountain ·
Presented by Drug Aware and Propel Youth Arts ·
Opening Night: Co-curators Nixon and Sumito invite everyone to come along to the official opening of Magical Woman, and to meet each of the talented artists amongst an energetic celebration of queer and women art in Perth. Opening night event will be held Friday 7 September 6-8pm in Paper Mountain’s main gallery.
Exhibition open to public: Saturday 8 – 23 September, 10am – 4pm Tuesday to Friday, and 11am – 4pm on weekends
Curator & Artist Talk: A Curator & Artist Talk event will be held in Paper Mountain’s main gallery Wednesday 12 September 6pm. Facilitated by Megan Hyde (Adjunct Teaching Fellow, Cultural Precinct, UWA) and Carly Lynch (Artist), this event will offer an in-depth view into the motivations of the artists and curators, and a reflection on the outcomes of the exhibition.
Magical Woman is a public art exhibition set to be displayed in the main gallery of Paper Mountain Artist-Run Initiative. It has been developed to provide a platform for six emerging women and non-binary artists to explore representations of romance in film and popular culture. Taking into consideration the intersections of racism, misogyny, queer exclusion and trans exclusion — artists have used the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope as a starting point to produce a new body of work.
Emerging artists, Amy McGivern, Astro Francis, Sam Huxtable, Shannon Marlborough, Natsumi de Dianous and Pip Lewi have worked closely with Sumito and Nixon. Producing work across a variety of mediums including: animation, comic art, video, installation, textile soft-sculpture and ceramics.
8 Sep – 5 October @ PSAS, 22 Pakenham Street Fremantle ·
Presented by Dark Swan ·
‘Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes’, is a contemporary visual art exhibition that examines an aesthetic of Australian Gothic Romanticism in relation to the real and imagined history, landscape, architecture and characters of Western Australia through art, film, costume and performance.
Interest in the Romantic Gothic is piqued in 2018 due to the 200th Anniversary of the seminal gothic novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, written in 1818. Shelley grew up in England as a sibling of Henry Willey Revelly, the architect of the Round House in Fremantle and early Swan Colonist. The pair grew up in an environment of the most significant philosophers, poets and intellectual liberalism of the Romantic Period, indicating the extraordinary influences and ideas that may have been present in the minds of the earliest colonists of WA.
Curator, artist and former Fremantle fashion designer, Kelsey Ashe Giambazi, after recently completing her PhD thesis in Australian Art and History of Dress at Curtin University, has bought together 10 visionary and award-winning artists to interpret WA’s brutal pioneering era of survival against all odds – unearthing Gothic/Romanticist tales, bizarre characters and ghost stories from the Swan Colonies early years of establishment.
The four-week long program, held in the moody volume of heritage listed PS Art Space in Fremantle, will provide a strong conceptual and atmospheric experience where performance, music, costume, visual arts and films are paced throughout the duration of the exhibition. Local characters and “ghosts” such as Moondyne Joe are brought to life, as are imaginings of local convict-era architecture; the Fremantle Prison, Roundhouse and patients at the Lunatic Asylum (Fremantle Arts Centre).
In a new shift toward the world of art, WA fashion stalwart Aurelio Costarella will exhibit one of his Victoriana inspired gowns and demi-Couture designer Kristie Rowe will present a unique live/art/fashion sculptural performance with WA Mezzo Soprano vocalist Caitlin Cassidy in a unique approach to Dark Swan. Award winning photographers Eva Fernandez, Anna Nazzari and Rebecca Dagnall’s new work will be on display, as will new paintings from Fran Rhodes, Sheree Dornan and sell-out Fringe Festival performers Genrefonix. Renowned Fremantle artist Ross Potter will also unveil his newest large-scale graphite drawing.
“After finishing my PhD in Art, I found myself surrounded by artists, designers and performers who shared an interest in the Australian Gothic, and a fascination for the spiritual dimension of the Australian landscape and of the characters and architecture of long ago colonial days….the trials and tribulations of our forebears that have helped make life so wonderful for us today here in Fremantle….so I decided my first research task would be to bring them together for an exhibition, ” Kelsey said.
“The title Dark Swan is both a referent to the Swan River Colony and the elegant nature and subtle beauty of WA’s emblematic water-bird. The duality of the title re-inforces and hints at the exhibitions aims of exploring not only the darker realms of the gothic subconscious and the Victorian era in which WA’s contemporary identity emerged, but the stylised imaginary beauty promulgated by a contemporary International high fashion and art aesthetic and the dramatic emotive quality of Romanticism.”
A monstrous arts event is about to take place in Perth. Named “Unhallowed Arts”, it’s timed to celebrate the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and features exhibitions and events that explore that seminal text’s influence on contemporary life and culture.
While Frankenstein’s laboratory may be fiction, behind the monstrosity that is “Unhallowed Arts” is a real lab, SymbioticA. Curious, Nina Levy got in touch with Symbiotica’s director, Oron Catts, to find out more.
Nestled deep in the heart of the School of Human Sciences building at the University of Western Australia (UWA) is a laboratory with a difference. Make your way up to the second floor, past the fridges storing biological material, and you’ll find the home of SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory in a biological sciences department. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms then you’re about to have your mind opened. Rather than viewing science and the arts as mutually exclusive disciplines, SymbioticA is predicated on the idea that the two are inextricably linked.
“We are interested in the concept of life and how our relationship to that concept is changing and shifting,” explains SymbioticA’s director, Oron Catts. “So it makes sense for us to park ourselves in the biological science department, where the most radical shifts in dealing with the idea of life, and life in general, are happening. Our research scope ranges from the molecular to the ecological but with a keen interest in contemporary biotechnological ways of engaging with life. What makes us really special is that we have our own research lab, a level two biological lab, specifically for artistic research.” For the non-scientists amongst us, according to Wikipedia, “level 2” refers to the level of precautions that need to be taken in order to ensure that dangerous biological agents remain contained within the lab.
In addition to enabling artists and researchers to engage in wet biology practices, SymbioticA also hosts residents, workshops, exhibitions and conferences. Based at UWA since 2000, SymbioticA was founded by Catts and Dr Ionat Zurr, now the academic co-ordinator. As Catts explains, from the beginning SymbioticA has been concerned with the idea that the rapidly developing field of biotechnology, which allows biological and genetic materials to be manipulated, needs the input of artists as well as scientists.
“The main reason SymbioticA got started was this interest in the idea that biology is becoming more and more of an engineering pursuit and [that] life [is becoming] the raw material for human wants and needs,” he elaborates. “We felt it was really important for artists to also start to use the living biological materials … if other professions are allowed to do it, it’s particularly important for artists to explore this area because we need to make sense of what it means to treat life in such a way.
“We try to be non-prescriptive … We’re not trying to tell [our residents and students] how to think about these issues, we’re trying to make them aware of those issues and trying to find different strategies to open up those questions to the wider community and get them involved in the awareness that something very, very strange is happening to life and that we shouldn’t leave those decisions about we’re doing [solely] to scientists, business people and engineers.”
As the name suggests, SymbioticA is founded on the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between science and the arts – “the capital S stands for science and the capital A for arts,” says Catts – but he is anxious to emphasise that it’s not about outcomes or benefits for either field. He is wary of what he refers to as “the innovation paradigm.” He elaborates, “That’s the neoliberal idea that we always have to come up with gadgets and innovations to justify our existence. We try not to revert to that rhetoric because we believe that there’s way more important things to think about than just short-term profits… in most cases, they’re not even benefits.” Instead, he says, SymbioticA is engaged in a “critique of life science.”
That said, SymbioticA has been involved in some exciting scientific developments, continues Catts. “We have quite a few scientific applications that have come out of SymbioticA … because the nature of the questions we ask can generate new knowledge, just by engaging with queries that artists have around the materiality of living systems and what can be done to them. We are credited, for example, with being the first place that was growing meat in the lab, and growing leather. We did that very early in the game. We have an artist here, Guy Ben Ary, who is also one of the technicians and is doing a lot of work with neuroscience and stem cell research and he has worked very closely with scientists to develop new ways of doing things.
“But first and foremost, we focus on the idea that we are living in a time when life is going through major transformations and there is a need for a wide variety of approaches in dealing with [the questions that arise as a result]. We represent one approach, which is experiential … we train the artists in techniques, so that they’re not looking over the shoulder of scientists, they’re actually working in the lab, with the materials and they gain a very intimate understanding of the field which allows them to be much more informed about the possibilities. This is another issue we have at the moment – the meat is a prime example, it’s being hailed as something that might save the world, but we see it as a symptom of the ailments of the world, rather than solving the [world’s] problems.”
It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that in spite of keeping a relatively low profile at home, SymbioticA has an international reputation. That low profile at home is about to change, however. Throughout September and October SymbioticA will be revealing itself on a monstrous scale, with “Unhallowed Arts”, a collection of arts events at various venues in Perth and Fremantle. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to comparisons that have been made between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his creature, and the SymbioticA artists working in their lab. Initially unwanted, the group has decided to embrace the comparison. It’s timely, as 2018 is the bicentenary of the publication of Shelley’s gothic novel.
The initial idea for “Unhallowed Arts” was to hold a conference, says Catts, but with overwhelming interest, it quickly developed into a much larger scale event, with exhibitions at the Art Gallery of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Old Customs House (Fremantle), UWA’s Cullity Gallery and Paper Mountain, and a film program at the State Library, in addition to “Quite Frankly”, the conference being held at UWA.
One of these exhibitions is developed by Catts and Zurr as part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. Intriguingly entitled “Biomess”, it is curated by the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Curator of Contemporary Design and International Art, Robert Cook, and opens at AGWA, September 8. As the name suggests, the exhibition looks at what Catts describes as “the messiness of biology”.
“Biomess” started with Catts and Zurr approaching curators at the WA Museum. “We asked them if they have any specimens in their collection of organisms that defy a sense of self or body or reproduction,” says Catts. “We were starting to thinking about it around the time of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, when conservatives would use [arguments] like, it’s not natural to engage in particular sexual relationships. When you look at the way living biological systems deal with [sexual relationships], there is such a variety, so many organisms that change their gender in their lifetime, organisms that reproduce in different ways. One example, which unfortunately we don’t have in our show, is a bird that has two variants of the male, where one male looks like a female. The [female-looking male] gets the male-male to mount them. When they do so they transfer the sperm into the male-male and then that bird mounts the female. So the manly male is the vehicle for the feminised male to transfer its sperm into the female.”
While that example won’t be seen, there are plenty of fascinating specimens that will be part of the exhibition, says Catts. “An amazing example is that there’s a beetle where the male started to fall in love with a specific beer bottle, to such an extent that they lost interest in females and were only mounting the bottles. Biologists went to the brewery and asked them to change the design of the beer bottle because there was a risk that the beetle would go extinct from fetishizing the bottle.
“We have a marsupial that the males, when they reach sexual maturity, they stop everything and just procreate until they die of exhaustion.
“There are other organisms that are hermaphrodites, there’s fish that change their gender from female to male. There’s only one dominant male, so if that male disappears or dies, one of the females in the group becomes male.”
While that sounds fascinating enough, there’s another twist. “We’ve commissioned the designers who build the luxury display cases for David Jones to build display cases for the specimens. The idea is that when you enter the gallery you’re not sure if you’re in art museum, a natural history museum or a luxury shop,” elaborates Catts. “That will be contrasted with an incubator that we’re designing here. We’ll have living organisms there: snails, slugs…” he pauses to throw the question to taxidermist Teori Shannon, “What else will we have?”
“Stick insects, these pink sea cucumbers, some starfish… we’ve got these snails that can grow bigger than a tennis ball. They’re really nice,” replies Shannon.
“And then we’ll have lab-grown life,” continues Catts. “We are working with what’s called the hybridomas. As early as the late 1960s scientists found a way to fuse cells from different organisms to grow together and become one new organism … it’s a lifeform which can only exist within the confines of a lab, but defies any form of classification. You have human/mouse hybridomas, you have mouse/horse hybridomas, some of them have three different organisms.”
Listening to Catts talk I feel like I’ve slipped into some kind of futuristic sci-fi fantasy film set… except that I know that I am sitting in the Biological Sciences building at UWA. At the point where arts and science intersect it seems that anything is possible.
Catch Biomess at the Art Gallery of WA, September 8 – December 3. Find out more about that exhibition and the rest of the “Unhallowed Arts” program at https://unhallowedarts.org/
Pictured top: Disembodied Cuisine Installation, by the Tissue Culture & Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr & Guy Ben-Ary), medium: mix, 2003. Photo: Axel Heise.
25 Aug – 6 Oct @ Wanneroo Gallery ·
Presented by City of Wanneroo ·
Come along and be swept away by a new exhibition celebrating the spirit of curiosity and the act of discovery. Stepping away from traditional ideas of treasure, Treasured turns our gaze towards the natural environment, heritage and art to explore ideas of value and significance.
Featuring Christophe Canato, Claire Davenhall, Lee Harrop, Bronwen Holding, Clare McFarlane, Lia McKnight, Britt Mikkelsen, Lewis Nannup, Ron Nyisztor, Leesa Padget, Greg Pryor, Judy Rogers, Amanda Shelsher, Wade Taylor and Declan White; alongside artwork from the City of Wanneroo Art Collection and Cultural Heritage Collections.
TREASURED is part of the Wanneroo Library and Cultural Centre’s Find Your Treasure series which incorporates Children’s Book Week across City of Wanneroo libraries, a Pirate’s Lair in the Wanneroo Library and Cultural Centre conference room and much more. Open Mon-Sat 10am-4pm. Closed Sundays and Public Holidays.
18 Oct – 1 Nov @ Spectrum Project Space ·
Presented by Janice Bathurst ·
In Fragility and Strength, Janice Bathurst explores techniques of hand making textile works, photography, sculpture and recycled Jarrah to research her hometown of Yarloop, in the Shire of Harvey. Situated in the southwest of Western Australia, Yarloop was almost destroyed in the devastating fire of 7th January 2016. The artists’ intention is to communicate her thoughts regarding this place and to acknowledge the influence of the itinerant nature of her ‘lifeworld’.
Bathurst’s inspiration for this project comes from the Jarrah tree and her family connection to the timber industry; her life in Yarloop, a town where, prior to the 2016 fire still housed the biggest timber mill and workshops in the southern hemisphere.
Official Opening by Dr. Nicola Kaye on Thursday, 18 October, 6pm.
Exhibition runs Friday, 19 October to Thursday, 1 November
Open Tuesday – Friday 10:00am – 5:00pm and Sat 12:00pm – 5:00pm
Review: Penny Coss, “From Someplace Else” & Susan Flavell, “Golden Flowers”·
Art Collective WA, Cathedral Square·
Review by Miranda Johnson·
Penny Coss’s “From Someplace Else” and Susan Flavell’s “Golden Flowers” exhibitions, both currently showing at Art Collective’s Cathedral Square space, are two quite different shows that, nonetheless, both speak to themes of materiality and environments.
Coss’s exhibition consists of a series of canvases, many unstretched, applied with acrylic paint. Some are pinned to the wall, hanging straight; others are looped or draped fabric, combined with wooden support structures. Coss, whose practice arises from an interest in responding to the natural environment and the memory of place, uses these fabrics to inspire a reflection upon landscapes, particularly those stained with troubled histories. This concept of staining resonates through the works, which are crumpled, traced and dipped in acrylic paint, resulting in an interestingly uneven and inconsistent tone across the canvas. They’re the kind of works that appear peaceful and simple from far away, but upon closer inspection are more complex, the shapes, colours and textures combining to create landscapes of their own with multifaceted materialities. Works such as Untitled Blue (2018) and Sediment Flat (2018) gently pull the viewer in close, allowing for an interaction and exploration of various textures, patterns and hues that is deeply engaging.
Susan Flavell’s works, occupying the other side of the gallery, are similarly engaging in their exploration of material and form. However, where Coss focuses her exploration of this concept to canvas for the most part, Flavell expands her reach to a multitude of objects, mostly found objects, combining the unexpected detritus of suburban life to create pendants, hanging sculptures, medallions and, in the case of Golden Flowers (Fire Goddess) (2018), a tall free-standing sculpture of a goddess adorned with materials both organic and artificial.
Flavell’s works hang beautifully against the lengthy window, the various objects suspended in a long row, allowing the viewer to examine the intricacies of the materials used in each individual one. Many of the work’s titles also refer to spellcraft and witchery, such as Witches Ladder with Golf Ball (2018). Upon further research, I discovered that a “witch’s ladder” is indeed a practice from folklore that refers to an object made from knotted cord or hair that contains within itself a spell. This is indeed exactly what these objects resemble, with many materials sourced from a site similarly imbued with folklore and spiritual power, Beeliar Wetlands. However, the addition of unexpected modern-day talismans – such as the golf ball, a plastic dinosaur, a found peace sign and a tiny Monopoly hotel – add a playful touch. These talismans are, in themselves, imbued with a particular power in our society, and Flavell combines folklore’s traditions with our modern-day symbols of peace, capital gain and social power, which may not be quite the same but nonetheless reinforce the weight we place upon the material good-luck charms we all keep and carry, in one way or another.
In this way, Coss and Flavell’s works are concerned with similar pursuits – that of the meditative, ritualistic way we engage with the material aspects of our lives, and the significance we can place upon the small details within a larger whole. Both artists’ works display a thoughtful reflection upon the way we look, touch and feel in response to materials, in an engaging exhibition that rewards close viewing and attention to detail.
Review: Aasiya Evans’s ‘Orientalism & Imperialism: Veiled, Unveiled and Reviled’ ·
Spectrum Project Space ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·
Aasiya Evans’s solo exhibition at Spectrum Project Space utilises digital engagement and iconography in a piercing commentary on the representations of Arab Muslim stereotypes in the post 9/11 world.
On entering the first gallery space, it would be easy to think that the fourteen wall hangings were historical tapestries. Recognisable Oriental symbols and patterns catch the eye, rich in colour and complexity, reminiscent of a Persian carpet.
Closer inspection, however, reveals contemporary images: an array of helicopters, with Western flags superimposed; missiles and warheads, branded with Anglo-Saxon symbolism, pointing at a mosque; tanks occupying a sacred space; military-grade bullets framing a religious text; the Star of David in a maze. These vibrant images have been digitally printed onto woven polyester – as though new awareness is being woven into traditional forms, inviting us to question the Islamophobic status quo. Evans reminds of the constructs we have applied to our perception of the Middle East. In Unveiled, for instance, a Muslim woman looks out at us, as if asking us “Do you see me or do you only see my niqab?” This set of fourteen art works is as confronting as it is breathtaking.
In the second gallery space, Evans has constructed four sculptures out of hard clay. These seem to be an expression of the way in which Western media has dehumanised Islam, stripping it of beauty and religiosity and focusing instead on the “oppressed” Arab Muslim female. The sculptures are reminiscent of pillars, a representation of the foundations of the religion. In this context, religion is like a plant that, left alone, flourishes. When an outside force continually strikes at its environment, however, its existence is compromised, stripped; the cylinders on two of the structures have been exposed, cut into, with leaves receding at the base.
Adjacent to these structures is a projected audio-visual installation, a monochrome kaleidoscope of motifs and symbols, through which the East and West collide. The movement of these emblems – each laden with its own meaning – speaks to the way in which culture and traditions intersect in our world; layering, spinning, shearing, multiplying, disappearing, reappearing.
Evans has successfully and commendably created works which are multi-dimensional and thought-provoking in the way they approach our biases.