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News, Reviews, Visual arts

A haunting take on WA’s past

Review: Various artists, “Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes” ·
PS Art Space Fremantle, 7 September ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

On a cool Friday night in early spring, Fremantle seemed to thrum quietly in anticipation of the unknown. Only a few windows on High Street were warmly lit as I passed – New Edition Bookshop, Bar Orient, Roma Cucina – and other than the odd shout from a lively bar patron, the figures in these dioramas were muted, almost silhouette-like. Only when I approached the intersection of High and Pakenham did I detect a more pronounced buzz in the air, perhaps contributed to, but not solely the result of, revellers at the Navy Club.

The true buzz turned out to be at PS Art Space, a venue with an appropriate atmosphere for “Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes”. Curated by artist and former fashion designer Kelsey Ashe Giambazi, the exhibition brings together 10 contemporary artists in a reimagining of WA’s brutal Gothic past. The tones of the live piano playing were anything but dulcet, evoking an eeriness as guests circulated in the gallery space. A headless mannequin wearing a Victoriana gown, designed by Aurelio Costarella, hung by a rope from the ceiling. The delicate nature of its sandy-coloured corsetry and pleating was as surreal as it was stoic. Costumed artists walked below, hinting at a later performance piece.

landscape by Fran Rhodes
Fran Rhodes, ‘Fraught Territory’, 2018, Oil on board.

The works in this exhibition are sublime, eliciting both awe and terror. Rebecca Dagnall’s pigment print Uncovering the Past is a prime example. The hints of skeletons in the Australian landscape in the dead of night are so haunting and thrilling that you can’t help but stare into the deep dark, wondering what else is out there. Fran Sullivan Rhodes’s acrylic paintings of hybrid creatures, featuring flowers or landscape as eyes or faces, also contain an unsettling curiosity in their borders. This ability to transfix echoes across Kelsey Ashe Giambazi’s mixed media pieces and Ross Potter’s graphite drawing Cold Dark Night; on first glance the former are reminiscent of the beautiful, detailed illustrations on Australian currency notes; the latter, a well-executed drawing of a historic building. Examine both for more than a moment and the melancholy emerges, the layers materialise.

Fremantle is the perfect location for this exhibition, as demonstrated by Genrefonix’s Dark Swan video installation, which features the port town in several of its segments. Overexposed and desaturated, the footage of a lost boy in historical garb wandering around, seemingly invisible in corners and shadows, is particularly disturbing. A more direct torment is the jarring depiction of struggling patients in the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum (now the Fremantle Arts Centre), in literal and proverbial cages. In a gallery space of pillars and recesses, the video reverberated with urbanity and insanity.

artist painting singer
Caitlin Cassidy: living art. Photo: Belinda Hermawan.

An absolute highlight of the opening night was the Kristie Rowe’s Mary Shelley’s Heart, a three-song collaboration with opera singer Caitlin Cassidy. The white shell of a gown that had been hung up on the exposed brick wall was now inhabited by Cassidy, as if she were living art. Her sweeping mezzo-soprano voice was enthralling; a semi-circle of guests gravitated towards her. A costumed performance artist stepped forward to paint the canvas and dress, first with darker colours, then with brighter hues, and finally with a touch of gold, before handing Cassidy a plastic replica of a human heart that glowed artificially red. Fascinating, romantic and foreboding, this performance installation was a creative juxtaposition of old and new.

As someone who moved to Western Australia at age ten, there were gaps in my knowledge of local history, and it was interesting to learn that the early years of the colony, circa 1830-1850, were bleak and difficult, with the free settlers resorting to the importation of convict labour in the period that followed, in an attempt to jumpstart the settlement. I ended the night with a walk back toward the Roundhouse. The structure, like many others of the period, was built by convict hand, classic in its beauty but perhaps also embodying a human despair. To think of our history as containing a Frankenstein-esque quality, Gothic and Romantic, is to appreciate the complexities of our city’s beginnings.

“Dark Swan” is essential viewing but, be warned, it may haunt you after the fact.

“Dark Swan – Contemporary Tales of the Gothic Antipodes” is showing at PS Art Space until 5 October 2018.

Pictured top is Kelsey Ashe Giambazi’s “Moon over Indian Ocean”, 2018, mixed media. Photo: Kelsey Ashe Giambazi.