Perth Festival review: David Noonan, “A Dark and Quiet Place”; Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran & Renee So, “Idols” ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·
Fremantle Arts Centre has opened its 2019 programming with an impressively curated double-bill of exhibitions presented as part of the Perth Festival, both of which raise questions about visibility and power. David Noonan’s monochromatic film, collage and tapestry works transport us into a wholly immersive experience of stagecraft; while Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s and Renee So’s ceramic works “face off” in a gallery space of their own.
Noonan’s 28-minute film Untitled, A Dark and Quiet Place is the main feature of his exhibition. Noonan describes the piece as “art directing existing images, stripping them back”. Black and white photographs are overlayed, juxtaposed and collaged together in a shifting tableau that draws parallels between the way in which theatre productions are staged and the way in which we stage our own lives. Often the camera will pan out from what initially looks like a simple pattern of lines or shapes, to reveal the theatre stage, various props, audio-visual components, actors dissolving into the next frame or exiting stage left… all the elements of a performance. The viewing experience is immersive, even three dimensional; at times I felt I was in a fragment of an MC Escher sketch or inside a Magic Eye puzzle. While the images are not quite surrealist, they do conjure a sense of awe.
The film includes a variety of interchangeable actors who are never afforded staying power. This theme echoes into the untitled jacquard tapestry hanging in the adjacent room. The stage actors are performing, but are lying on their backs with their heads raised, as if they are aware of a potential audience but lack the agency to make the next move. In thematic contrast, the other three untitled works in this exhibition are prints that juxtapose actors in poses with collages of lines where patterns appear in the vertical. While these columns appear rigid, like the test pattern on a television set, the variation in the horizontal lines’ height and opacity demonstrates that not everything is fixed, that even within a set structure, there is room to move.
The playful sculptures in Nithiyendran and So’s “Idols” provide an equally evocative commentary on agency and representation, this time in the context of gender expectations and idol worship. So’s stoneware works Bellarmine XV and XVI and Woman III, IV and V present as artefacts from another world, the evocative, deep earthy brown colour a result of the oxidisation process during firing. But these enigmatic idols are tongue-in-cheek, from their peculiar heads and voluptuous figures, down to their alien-like three-legged bases. Questions are raised: Are they both male and female? From which body parts do their authoritative auras come?
One theory of the origin of Bellarmine, or Bartmann, jugs is that they were conceived to make fun of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and his anti-alcohol stance. This context makes So’s subversive decision – to sculpt a womanly figure with a face of grapes as a drinking vessel – particularly satisfying. The grape motif reappears in the neutral-coloured, knitted pieces Legs II and Circle – protest interwoven in body, a resistance to labels or instructions.
Nithiyendran’s background as a painter serves him well in his outlandishly colourful depictions of deities. Having taught himself ceramics via YouTube tutorials, his sense of adventure comes through in the deliberately unrefined sculpting and glazing of the giant heads. Throughout history, idols have been, typically, serene but Nithiyendran embraces chaos, firing smaller pieces in the kiln before assembling them in totems of unexpected scale and textural detail – exaggerated facial features, a king’s crown of tubular creatures, coral-like beards, bones as limbs, piercings and tribal-like jewellery – on stages of vibrant yellow. His signature is painted haphazardly in huge letters on the back of one head, while the letters of his first name are implanted across two eyes in another.
Rather than worshipping order and rules, should we not celebrate the freeform and unique? Perhaps, as the large collage Trio of selves at the proverbial gym appears to suggest, it is unhealthy to subscribe to the myth of the ideal male body, an Instagram goal that doesn’t seem even remotely achievable when juxtaposed behind three figures whose features more closely resemble those of a child’s drawing.
Thought-provoking and visually arresting, these three artists’ curated works are an excellent example of worthy investment in visual art by the Perth Festival. Fremantle Art Centre’s installation and use of gallery space is particularly well executed and their staff knowledgeable. I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour for this free event – you’ll be transported to stages unknown.
Pictured top: One of Nithiyendran’s outlandishly colourful depictions of deities.