Review: ‘The Botanical: Beauty and Peril’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
This incredibly diverse exhibition guides the viewer on a journey through more than 200 works that progressively instill a sense of wonder at the richness of the natural world.
This wonderment is used as a vehicle to gently remind us of the threat and peril of the exhibition’s title – a doubling of hope and danger, two sides of a single coin.
Traversing historical and contemporary attitudes towards our natural world, “The Botanical: Beauty and Peril” seeks to address the progressively increasing sense of despair, loss and anxiety related to environmental destruction. It positions our current ecological circumstances within a historical context to help understand how we came to be facing a climate emergency.
The exhibition is drawn from the State gallery and from that of its chair, Janet Holmes à Court, and is co-curated by AGWA’s Melissa Harpley and the Janet Holmes à Court Collection’s Laetitia Wilson and Megan Schlipalius.
It takes a narrative form, allowing the viewer to walk through sections dedicated to different periods of human investment, impact and relationship with the botanical world. Beginning with European botanical illustrations by artists including Margaret Forrest and Florence Hildegarde Bassett alongside Aboriginal representations of Country by Emily Kam Kngwarreye, this rich, immersive show drives home the importance of representing the natural world as a way to understand, experience, and find one’s place within it.
Walking clockwise through the exhibition, the narrative shifts from human representation of the landscape to our effect upon it. We see works reflecting the impact of logging, the politics of Aboriginal land rights and ongoing European settlement expressed in such works as brightly illustrated posters advertising Western Australia as a desirable place to travel and live.
A particular highlight are the 18 hanging batik fabrics by Utopia women artists in the 1980s, an injection of joyful colour and pattern displaying important plants and vegetables used for food and medicine. Here, the joy of making aligns with the love of country and an understanding of the connection between human survival and a bountiful land.
Although the exhibition follows a theme of the destructive effects of human intervention on the landscape, the works themselves are not presented chronologically. Alongside botanical illustrations from the 19th century, Eva Fernandez’s Flora Obscura series (2013) seeks to replicate the look of these early studies of WA flora. This makes for thoughtful juxtapositions of contemporary and historical works that speak to one another across the decades.
“The Botanical” does not shy away from stark reminders of our uncertain future, its strength lying it its focus on the double-sided nature of nature itself, as something beautiful yet also dangerous. Through subtle revelations of the dark side of the natural world, including extinction and bushfires, the exhibition hints towards danger and destruction, but stops short of paralysing viewers with fear, leading to inaction.
In its balance of light and dark, beauty and danger, as well as the associated series of public programs aiming to stimulate conversation and education around climate change, the exhibition is successful in its gentle push towards consideration of and care for our natural world, with just enough of a hint of a threat to encourage you into action.
Review: ‘Pulse Perspectives’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Lydia Edwards ·
There is a tendency, when it comes to exhibitions of under-18s’ work, to curate with an inclusiveness that sometimes suggests a lack of discernment. Works are either viewed with awe – “how could that have been done by a school student?” – or dissatisfaction at the skill level or maturity of subject matter. When such exhibitions are staged in established galleries, a viewer can be especially unsure how to judge the work they are seeing. AGWA’s “Perspectives”, an annual exhibition of work by Year 12 Visual Arts students from across Western Australia, consistently seems to have avoided this uncertainty, and not only because the artists shown are clearly the next generation of West Australian talent. The show has always been curated with a non-patronising, highly professional touch, in line with other, more conventional exhibitions at the gallery. Captions and didactic panels do not focus on the age or status of the artist, but on their personal vision and description of the work, which is often an insightful and useful addition.
With 2019’s “Pulse Perspectives”, which features 46 works by 2018 graduates, the gallery aims to “gauge” and emphasise the “pulse of young people who will influence, empower and shape the world we live in.” A few works in, and it’s clear that the pulse of young Australian students beats to the rhythm of climate change, the refugee crisis, gender disparity and discrimination, as well as cultural isolation. This is hardly surprising, and young activist Greta Thunberg’s chilling battle cry: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day” resonates in works such as ceramicist Genevieve Mathews’ Ocean in the Plastic and Lawson Boughey’s Plea from the earth, which beautifully mimics traditional Chinese paintings with a soft, dreamy peacefulness that – on first glance, at least – belies the sobering underlying message.
Other pieces, like Connor Fallon’s Boys Don’t Cry and Mila Mary’s Super normal gorgeously emulate the work of stalwarts Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin, artists from a different generation who expressed their sexual and social anxiety in remarkably similar ways.
But amongst all these worthy exclamations of global distress sit more introspective pieces, focused intently on the individual. Far from betraying millennial self-absorption, however, they speak to both age-old growing pains and the quietly growing confidence of a society having to deal with a mental health epidemic. Emily Lewis’s Death inspires me utilises a scratchboard technique to depict a dog-like beast chasing a petrified rabbit, an angst-ridden scene indicative of her recent emotional and life struggles. Beautifully rendered in a medium suggestive of the slow, ancient art of engraving, the work combines the frenetic life of a 21st century teenager leaving home with the kind of slowness and thoughtfulness this generation is often accused of lacking. Such mindfulness is also evident in the work of Alexandra O’Brien (detail pictured top and full work at end), a deaf artist who uses the brooding darkness of the Dutch Golden Age to express the “liminal space” in which she lives.
Whilst these works are technically skilful and emotionally absorbing, the exhibition left me with mixed feelings — and this was quite possibly its intention. The personal and collective angst felt by these young people is draining to witness, with very few works predicting a bright future. Nevertheless, if “Pulse Perspectives” is indicative of the current climate, its works need to be shown… and older generations should take note.
Pictured top: Detail from Alexandra O’Brien’s (Iona Presentation College), ‘I’m all ears’, 2018 oil on canvas, audio file and oil on headphones three parts: two at 50.5 x 40.5 cm each; Headphones with audio: duration 2:42 min. Full work below:
6 Apr – 22 Jul @ Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Presented by Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
WA’s talented young artists are again celebrated as Year 12 Perspectives becomes Pulse Perspectives to better reflect what this exhibition is about: gauging the pulse of young people who will influence, empower and shape the world we live in.
This year’s exhibition features 46 works by graduating Year 12, 2018 Visual Arts students from across Western Australia. The selected works span a variety of subject matter and media, ranging from painting and drawing to sculpture, digital moving image, photography and textiles. Prominent themes in this year’s display include exploring topics such as international, national and personal political issues; our impact on and neglect of the environment; connections to family; gender politics; cultural hybridity, as well as a deep and astute insight into our being in the world.
The selected works provide a window into young people’s private, social and artistic concerns. It is in turns an inspiring, rewarding and insightful look at the world through the minds of our most talented young artists. This year’s judging panel comprised of: Cassie Bussell, Teacher Development, Teaching and Learning Services Statewide Services Centre, Department of Education; Elizabeth Pedler, artist; and Dunja Rmandic, Associate Curator of 21st Century Arts, AGWA.
Act Belong Commit People’s Choice Award
When you visit the exhibition don’t forget to vote for your favourite work in the Act-Belong-Commit People’s Choice Award. Voting is open from 10am, Saturday 6 April until 5pm, Sunday 14 July and the winner will be announced on Wednesday 17 July 2019. The student artist whose work receives the most votes will receive an AGWA membership and $100 Gallery Shop voucher. The school, the artist attended will receive a workshop and tour of the next Culture Juice exhibition, Billions of people are wearing t-shirts right now.
Review: Andrew Nicholls, “Hyperkulturemia” ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
The Grand Tour was an exclusive educational holiday, primarily undertaken by sons of the aristocratic class in Britain, to “finish off” their education, escape the repressions of British society and assert themselves as the cultural, political and social elite. Andrew Nicholls’ “Hyperkulturemia” at the Art Gallery of Western Australia takes this narrative, with all of its implied debauchery, experimentation and excess, and slyly pokes fun at its over-the-top, camp style, whilst imagining and enacting the kind of pleasures these men may have experienced whilst touring the classical sites of Europe. It’s tongue-in-cheek, camp and slyly humorous, but also reflects deeply on the narratives of masculinity and its connections to culture and power, both in the past and present.
A combination of drawing, ceramics and photography, the exhibition takes as its starting point the affliction of its name – “hyperkultumeria” translates to “too much culture in the blood”. This affliction was thought to be a cause of the possibly-fictional Stendhal syndrome, named after the 19th century French writer Stendhal who spoke of the ecstasy he felt when faced with the immense artistic beauty of Florence’s city and museums – so much so that he collapsed into a faint. As recently as 2018, a tourist suffered a heart attack in front of a Botticelli, an occurrence that is echoed in the photographs that guide the viewer into Nicholls’ exhibition. Both images show the artist overcome with beauty in the middle of sites of Italian cultural heritage. In these images, the groups of camera-laden tourists, the reflection of a colourful information sign, and the sunglasses comically resting on the floor a few feet from the artist’s prone body make it unclear whether he has collapsed due to the overwhelming beauty of the art or the hordes of tourists, queues and selfie-sticks that have become the modern affliction of cultural tourism.
Straddling the past and present, Nicholls expertly weaves historical and fictional narratives of the Grand Tour whilst refocusing themes of cultural capital and fraternity in his present reality of the WA art world. A further layer to the show is the series of collaborative ceramics, made with local artists whilst Nicholls was in residence in Jingdezhen, China. This collaboration resulted in several intricately decorated Etruscan-style ceramic vases, referencing dramas from Ancient Greek mythology, including the tragic drowning of Hadrian’s lover Antinuous, Zeus and Ganymede, and Theseus and the Minotaur. By placing these vases at the centre of the exhibition, both the ancient Romans’ cultural appropriation and the dominance of Western art in our current (and historical) memory are centred, reminding the viewer of the many other historical centres of art-making that have been overlooked, appropriated or discarded.
These ceramics continue as a “memento mori” motif throughout the photographs and drawings, in the form of bones and skulls, framing some of the works in a morbidly decorative manner that beautifully reflects the numerous crypts, catacombs and graveyards scattered throughout European cities – particularly the heavily Catholic ones.
Whilst I understood the contrast between the fragile beauty of the youthful male form shown in the works and the reminders of death and decay surrounding them, I felt that the detailed handiwork of the collaborative ceramic vases and intricate drawings was a little overshadowed by the vast richness of this juxtaposition of bone and photographic image.
Exquisitely detailed with multiple narratives, high drama and wicked humour, The Last Judgement, a homage to Michelangelo’s iconic work of the same name, takes the original work’s imagining of the second coming of Christ and, using some of Nicholls’ friends and colleagues as models, reimagines this conversation between the damned and the saved souls of Heaven and Earth as, presumably, taking place in the male homosocial relations of the Perth art world. It’s a beautiful and surprisingly funny work, as the familiar faces of my colleagues and friends emerge from the campy drama of fleshy torment – and pleasure.
Similarly Via Appia Antica (after Piranesi), a composite image of Nicholls’ favourite sites of Italy, rewards a close look. Nicholls worked on this piece throughout his travels, over the course of two years, adding to it whenever possible. It’s an elaborate study of the architecture, landscapes and people of Classical antiquity, many of which are instantly recognisable as the iconic buildings, streets and bridges of today’s Italy. The work is again framed by ceramic bones, which, whilst striking individually, distract slightly from the intricacies of the drawn work. In this way, the exhibition as a whole provides a little of the overwhelming feeling of intense visual stimulation that presumably provokes Stendhal syndrome, with its robustly rich themes of flesh, decay and beauty. The drawn mountain-top of Vesuvius emerging at the centre of Via Appia Antica is a more subtle yet more chilling reminder of the inevitability of death than the “in-your-faceness” of the bones encircling richly-hued photographs of the muscular male form.
“Hyperkulturemia” is a study in contradictions – overwhelming and unsubtle in its glorious celebration of the relationship between masculinity and cultural capital, yet critical of this relationship, aware that other, more delicate narratives can emerge between the cracks.
9 Feb – 27 May @ Art Gallery of WA ·
Presented in association with AGWA ·
The eagerly awaited culmination of the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s six-year Kimberley visual arts project takes over the Gallery with a trailblazing exhibition showcasing the vibrant contemporary creative talent of the Kimberley artists.
New works from six Kimberley art centres and three independent artists will be presented alongside a selection of legacy worksfrom art centre collections. Together with works from AGWA’s collection, the show will offer a rare experience of the land, artists and art of the Kimberley.
Don’t miss the opening cultural celebration weekend with artist talks, workshops, performances and more.
Visit artgallery.wa.gov.au for the details.
Curated by Carly Lane and Emilia Galatis
Presented in association with the Art Gallery of Western Australia
Review: Black Swan Prize for Portraiture ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) ·
Review by Lydia Edwards ·
Even amongst curators, art critics and historians, “portraiture” can be a hotly contested term. There are multiple definitions and interpretations, with the word commonly applied to broader subject matter than the human body and spirit. This exhibition, however, sticks closely to just that, and while the Black Swan Prize for Portraiture (presented by ARTrinsic in parnership with AGWA) has always attracted a wide spectrum of media and interpretation, this year’s finalists give us raw and often confronting humanity.
The works are tucked away in a series of rooms below AGWA’s main galleries. It’s not easy to find them, and once you do there is no clear direction through the rooms: you are encouraged to meander through at your own pace, ushered in by the poster boy for the exhibit: Joanne Morris’s tattooed Lister, whose purposeful yet diffident gaze looks beyond you to the other works. The portraits are not arranged thematically or alphabetically – as a viewer, I felt that my direct line of vision on entering each room was simply hit by the brightest, largest or busiest canvases.
As is often the case, however, the portrait that moved me the most, which made me stop dead in my tracks and inhale sharply, was perhaps the best hidden. In a corner, along from Hyunji Kim’s long, bold, disorienting portrait of WA artist Patrick Doherty sits Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant Medicated Man – portrait of G.D. (detail pictured top). In a style reminiscent of Freud and Saville’s “take me as you find me” fleshy, naked bodies, the subject – Graeme Doyle – is exposed in this small canvas; vulnerable, childlike, staring with glazed eyes into the middle distance, not willing or most likely not able to engage. He lies on his side, one hand awkwardly clutching the opposite wrist in a tense, uncomfortable pose.
The exhibition is laced with themes of anxiety and huge personal challenges, but other entries offer some kind of positive spin or resolution. Not Wegner’s, which shows us a “real” face of severe mental illness in the midst of a crisis. In doing so, he offers no respite, no end in sight. Like so many great portraits we are intruding on an intensely private moment and we are fully culpable; powerless, guilty, afraid, saddened. We are the spectator, he is the subject and there is no level playing field.
Many of the other canvases portray resilience and, in many cases, the victory of subjects depicted. Mark Tweedie and Chelsea Gustaffson’s self-portraits are sensitive yet defiant, with Tweedie’s steady gaze meeting that of the viewer. In his own words, he spends a lot of time “tangled in my own thoughts”, and his work is a way of “reconciling the brevity of life.” Gustaffson’s ingenious A Shiny Mess depicts an obvious “tangle”, with a glimmering mass of ribbon-like thread hovering above the artist’s pensive yet quietly determined features. Perhaps this medium of self-portraiture takes back some element of control that the likes of Wegner cannot achieve, with a sitter waiting to be captured by the artist. An exception to this could be Glen Preece’s Portrait of the Artist as an Alcoholic, a self-portrait that smacks of low self-esteem and a lack of surety about both his artistic and personal future. However, it is posthumous in the sense that the artist has now moved on from this part of his life; his period of creative paralysis evidently behind him – the viewer hopes – for good.
Other portraits also depict subjects who live with some kind of disability or uncertainty, the theme of anxiety an almost constant thread throughout. Other sitters are also at the mercy of the artist’s representation, though it should be noted that the result always resonates respect, affection and solidarity.
The Black Swan Prize offers a unique insight into how WA artists conceive “the portrait”, and often permits a very intimate glimpse into the psyche of both sitter and viewer. For me, this year’s theme conveyed tendrils of anxiety across Australian society, an important and much needed contribution to our growing discourse around mental health. The fact that Wegner’s piece is hidden away acts as a sign either that this side of extreme, debilitating mental illness is still feared, or as a reflection of how it is not always desirable – or indeed possible – to “battle” openly in society. This quiet, unassuming corner of the gallery is the perfect spot for reflection, critique and appreciation – and there is ample opportunity for all three in this annual display of WA talent.
Pictured top is a detail from Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant “Medicated Man – portrait of G.D.”.
Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and author. Her first book How to Read a Dress was published in 2017 and its follow up, How to Read a Suit, will be out in 2019. She lectures at ECU and WAAPA, and her favourite piece of playground equipment is the expression swing!
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.
Review: WA International Art Space, “spaced 3: north by southeast”·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Phoebe Mulcahy ·
As the flagship program for WA’s International Art Space, “spaced” is an ambitious initiative that works to expand the boundaries of local art making in a number of ways. Taking forward the organisation’s focus on “participatory, dialogical and context-responsive arts practice”, the “spaced” project facilitates extended residencies for artists in rural and remote locations. Initially begun in the Wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin, the most recent instalment of “spaced” has now moved beyond our state’s borders in a kind of cultural exchange between Australian artists and their Nordic counterparts in Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. This third and culminating exhibition, “spaced 3: north by southeast”, is now on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
It’s a sprawling and complex exhibition, as much a record of the programme’s three-year span as it is a display of what resulted from it; and easily merits more than one visit. Talking to other visitors in the space, I even heard of one person who had been coming back to see it on their lunch break for several days in a row. Visually alone, the scale and variety of “spaced 3” is impressive, and must be one the most technically ambitious exhibitions staged at AGWA in some time. Video works, of dimensions ranging from TV-sized to monumental floor-to-ceiling panels, make up the bulk of what’s on show, but there are also installations, silkscreens, light works, photographs and even paintings through the exhibition as a whole.
But it is more than just a visual spectacle. The “spaced” projects are explicitly concerned with the context and community that surround artistic response; and this collaborative approach can clearly be seen in works that artists like Deborah Kelly and Heidi Lunabba developed during their residencies. Respectively settled in Thy-Lejren, Denmark and Lancelin, WA, the two artists’ works have little in common from a material or even thematic standpoint, but are both inseparably tied to the communities in which they were created. Deborah Kelly’s silkscreen flags were produced through a series of workshops at a remote Danish museum, and each work is credited not just to Kelly, but to the participants who worked alongside her to create them, making this corner of “spaced 3” something of a “show within a show”. Heidi Lunabba, by contrast, has produced a series of intimate photographs that centre on the experience of otherness — whether owing to gender-fluidity, sexual abuse or even left-handedness – in suburban Lancelin. Different as they are, both hinge in this way on new social networks the artists were able to establish in their sojourns on the other side of the world.
Other works in this iteration of “spaced” give more attention to the unfamiliar physical environments the artists found themselves living amongst. From Dan McCabe’s quasi-mythological video work How to Be, Which Way to Live, to Sam Smith’s prodigious Lithic Choreographies, the natural world — its grandeur and beauty, as well as its economic value — is the focus of many of the responses. Oddly enough, though, themes such as these are to be found mainly in the Australian artists’ half of the show, whereas the Nordic contingent appear to have engaged more with the politics of human identity and belonging embedded in the given landscape. Whatever the reasons for this, it does seem to be one of the more pronounced differences between the approaches of the two groups of artists. As much as the exhibition offers, a radically new perspective on the West Australian landscape is probably not in the mix.
Taken as a whole, “spaced 3:north by southeast” is, undoubtedly, a compelling exhibition, with multiple layers of meaning to be explored amidst a technically diverse style of presentation that is quite stunning. While its breadth and open-ended approach might not appeal to all audiences, a project of this scale cannot really be expected to yield an overly unified statement once translated into an exhibition of several dozen separate works. Rather, it seems more appropriate to view it as a “travelogue” of sorts, recording the ways in which these artists, temporarily displaced from the cultural, linguistic and ecological environments of their origin, found new ways to orient themselves at opposite points of the compass.
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.
Review: ‘Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·
“Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series”, currently at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), is firmly embedded in our collective cultural consciousness, an exploration of the folk hero’s life as well as a unique insight into the landscapes of the Australian bush. This exhibition brings together the 26 paintings of the National Gallery of Australia’s Ned Kelly collection, displayed as part of AGWA’s “Rebels, Radicals and Pathfinders” series.
The paintings, displayed here in standard chronological order, take us through the familiar dramatic circumstances of Kelly’s life. As has been frequently pointed out, however, the images are not intended to realistically represent the facts of Kelly’s life; rather, they are a blend of semi-autobiographical and imagined fictions, placed together to create an extended consideration of culture, landscape and the influence of a single person on a larger version of history.
Nolan’s deliberately naïve depictions of Kelly take us through the story with a skilful hand. We move from the seemingly idyllic landscape painting that marks the beginning of the drama, through to the murder of a policeman at Stringybark Creek, the police chase, the marriage of spy Aaron Nevitt, the siege of Glenrowan Hotel and Kelly’s trial, which ended in a death sentence. The combination of Nolan’s inventive details and the quotations on the didactic panels (taken from historical news sources as well as the Royal Commission Report of 1881 conducted into the police force’s hunt for the Kelly gang) further help to combine history and fiction. Some of the paintings are so familiar they’re embedded in my brain, but I found that it was the minor details that fascinated me – Kate Kelly being pulled onto the constable’s lap, her face a deliberately controlled canvas of tension and watchfulness that I’m pretty sure most women would recognise, or the image of a police horse tumbling off a cliff, its upside-down state of suspension both darkly absurd and incredibly haunting.
The paintings are hung quite low, presumably to help to engage children, as is also suggested by an extra series of didactic panels, with questions for children. As a fairly short person, I actually found the low hang to be refreshing, as it enabled me to stand quite close to the paintings without having to crane my neck! As I moved around the room, I found that the gap in the wall that leads to the next room was slightly distracting, so embedded in Nolan’s Kelly narrative was I that it felt jarring to almost accidentally find myself in another room, right in the middle of the drama. I suspect, however, that this was a deliberate choice, as the glimpse into the next room shows Australian landscape portraits from AGWA’s historical collection.
This glimpse, then, links Nolan’s paintings with a wider tradition of painting that attempts to capture the vagaries of the Australian bush landscape. But Nolan’s paintings are so reliant on a particular myth and narrative, as well as an immediately recognisable style, that I felt like they deserved their own, slightly larger space. It takes time to absorb the series, and a larger, single room would have given visitors space to do so.
This opportunity to see the Kelly series is deeply engaging, nonetheless, as Nolan’s paintings combine vivid details of high drama, tension and dark humour with a fascination of the landscape of the Australian bush.
Pictured top: Sidney Nolan, ”Stringybark Creek”, 1947, from the Ned Kelly series 1946 – 1947, enamel paint on composition board, 90.70 x 121.50 cm, Gift of Sunday Reed, 1977 , National Gallery of Australia.