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Woodwork, Simon Yates Woodwork, Simon Yates
photo Gail Priest
WHEN TALKING ABOUT LANEWAY ART, IT’S HARD NOT TO IMAGINE THE VIBRANT PALIMPSESTS THAT ADORN MOST AVAILABLE SURFACES IN MELBOURNE’S CITY CENTRE. BUT WHILE MELBOURNE HAS TUCKED-AWAY GALLERIES, BOUTIQUE SHOPS AND UBERCOOL BARS EVERY FEW PACES, SYDNEY’S LANEWAYS ARE THE TRULY FORGOTTEN SPACES—SHADY NO-GO ZONES WHERE TRUCKS UNLOAD, GARBAGE IS DUMPED AND CHEFS STEAL A QUICK CIGGIE BREAK. HOWEVER IT’S THIS UTTER LACK OF CHARM THAT IS USED MOST INTRIGUINGLY IN THE LATEST SYDNEY CITY LANEWAY EXHIBITION, ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?, CURATED BY BARBARA FLYNN.

Armed with the downloadable PDF walking guide I started at Underwood Lane, near Circular Quay. While the lane itself does not have much romance, the name proved to be a direct inspiration to both artists exhibited here. Simon Yates’ Woodwork consisted of large-scale photocopy paste-ups of old-style typewriters and telephones, drawing on the fact that early typewriters were manufactured by Underwood, as well as referencing the lane’s location—behind the old telephone exchange. I was unable to find the secret messages supposedly hidden in the keyboards and phone dials, but this didn’t matter. The wallscape immediately invoked a literary dreaming, calling up a pantheon of down-and-out writers clacking out stories in their inner-city dives overlooking lanes like this.

Milk and the town that went mad (detail), Mikala Dwyer Milk and the town that went mad (detail), Mikala Dwyer
photo Gail Priest
The literary theme continued with Mikala Dwyer’s Milk and the town that went mad. For her the name Underwood conjured the spectre of Dylan Thomas and his poetic masterpiece Under Milkwood. On the barren corner beneath air-conditioning pipes, Dwyer placed a makeshift bar with stools, topped with a variety of curious and ugly ashtrays creating a hidden haven for smokers. As they indulged their guilty pleasure they were treated to Richard Burton’s famous reading of Thomas’ text. For a moment I wished I smoked in order to get the full experience, but just listening to Burton’s lilting voice, so clearly of another time, tangibly slowed the pulse in the midst of city bustle, cracking open the poetic potential of the site.

Rush, Nike Savvas (foreground), Room for Rent, Rocket Mattler (background) Rush, Nike Savvas (foreground), Room for Rent, Rocket Mattler (background)
photo Gail Priest
High up on a wall in Tank Stream Way, Rocket Mattler’s battered “Room for Rent—apply opposite” sign directed me to a large format print of a typical old-style suburban home. It was both terrifyingly bland yet rich with detail, from the dog in the window to a barely visible graffiti tag on the front fence. To many, this picture of normality is what they are fleeing as they try to make it big in the city, while for others it offers a wistful sense of nostalgia, and for others still—the homeless, the overworked—perhaps it is a tantalising dream. Placed opposite Nike Savvas’ Rush, a ceiling of coloured plastic strips reminiscent of retro fly curtains—the most overt and celebratory artwork in the selection—the combination produced a queasy hyperreality.

Warrior, Jan van der Ploeg Warrior, Jan van der Ploeg
photo Gail Priest
In De Mestre Place, Jan van der Ploeg’s Warrior offered a large canvas of black and white geometric patterns in mesmeric repetition. Given the scale and architectural integration of other works by the artist, it would have been good to see him let loose beyond the rectangle. In Wynyard Lane, Jon Campbell’s HAR BOUR VIEW did just that, unabashedly revelling in post-modern irony, his large banner bearing the text of the title in sickly pastels.

Circle/s in the Round for (Miles and Miles +1), Newell Harry Circle/s in the Round for (Miles and Miles +1), Newell Harry
photo Jamie Williams Photography
Across at Temperance Lane Newell Harry’s Circle/s in the Round for (Miles and Miles +1) was an elegant wall sculpture of concentric neon circles that counselled us to “NEVEROD.” Inspired by Miles Davis’ 1967 Circle in the Round album, the work literally lit up the end of the dark alley in an eerie-cheery way. As with several of the works that have been exhibited since 2007, when the Laneways regeneration project commenced, negotiations are underway to make this a permanent public artwork.

Most of the works were in out of the way locations so it was particularly fascinating to explore the laneways themselves. I had a lot of difficulty locating Justene Williams’ Banker, Baker, Spanglemachinemaker in Curtin Place, but in the process found several other ‘possible’ installations. The act of reimagining the urban site, looking for the ‘art’ in it, was a fascinating by-product of the exhibition. (It turns out that Williams’ work was a video projection that started around 7pm, and even after returning for a second viewing at 8pm it was still not quite dark enough to get a real sense of the piece.)

Equally elusive was Simryn Gill’s Food on the Table, an ambitious proposal to create a feast in Abercrombie Lane, made from the discarded food found in bins. Gill was hoping to challenge ideas about wastage, consumerism and poverty, but was unable to fully activate the idea beyond research and consultation due to regulatory issues—which says something about the difficulties involved in mounting public art.

Rather than an instant re-invigoration of Sydney’s laneways, Are you looking at me? offers a gradual activation of forgotten spaces. The most successful works don’t attempt to decorate desolate sites, but instead propose reimaginings in and for them. In a city renowned for its love of spectacle, these small-scale aberrations are welcome, but in order to have a real effect on the cultural life of the city, we simply need more of them. The City of Sydney’s recently drafted Public Art Strategy suggests this might become a reality.


Are you looking at me?—Laneway Art 2010, curator Barbara Flynn, City of Sydney, Sept 23, 2010-Jan 31, 2011

City of Sydney is currently calling for proposals for Laneway Art 2011, deadline March 1; www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au; The City of Sydney’s Draft Public Arts Strategy can be found at www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/cityart/about/

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 54

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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