|Jonathan Jones, Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay), 2006|
Courtesy the artist & Gallery Barry Keldoulis
photo Jenny Carter
Designed for the Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay and his family, and completed in 1839, Elizabeth Bay House is an extraordinary place. Both architecturally and in its frozen early colonial furnishing, it presents a challenging context for contemporary art. The ‘finest house in the colony’ has already been reimagined by Tracey Moffatt in her Laudanum series of photographs (1998), but no images can quite prepare you for the experience of climbing the majestic spiral staircase. Being inside the house makes you feel like you are part of the drama.
As it happened, I found myself at Ten[d]ancy by surprise, while visiting Sydney for a conference devoted to the German critic Walter Benjamin. In addition to the exhibitions, I witnessed a one-off evening performance by sound artist Gail Priest. Like the army-green canvas protecting the carpets, Priest’s sound performance established an uneasy mood from the moment of entry to the building. Her multi-channel composition—an all pervasive mélange of distorted, digitized sounds sampled from the artist’s own kitchen—provided an unusual contrast to the genteel environment. The syncretic accumulation of noise oozed out from the normally quiet spaces, as if exorcising the house’s sonic history.
In a sense, all of the interventions in Ten[d]ancy operated to unhinge the harmonious history that is conventionally offered by such buildings. This typically involved oblique and playful references to Australian history. For instance, Australian artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, working collectively with Swiss artists Martin Blum and Simone Fuchs, filled the dining room with adroitly placed, bright red crocheted woollen doilies. Despite a reference to terror in the title, the work suggested not blood but a magical craft utopia. Alluding to Australia’s fortunes on the sheep’s back, standing at the ropes to the room, the tableaux recalled Rosemary Laing’s forest carpets as much as Louise Weaver’s fabric-embalmed animals.
Shaun Gladwell, seemingly an odd selection for a show about history, revealed another side to an artist associated with moody videos of young skaters and other urban subcultures. Smoke Machines/Specimens involved the introduction of unexpected surreal still lives into a botanical display (Macleay was a ‘gentleman scientist’ with strong interests in botany and the house also contains extensive insect collections). By introducing a degree of weird science into the house for us to stumble upon, Gladwell’s work upset the tightly ordered colonial fantasy. Skulls, in particular, suggested a morbid fascination in the collector.
Jonathan Jones’ installation Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay House) engaged with the site at a phenomenological, cultural and quasi-spiritual level. While his arranged pattern of fluorescent lights on the floor immediately evoked the minimalist artist Dan Flavin, sited in this context the industrial tube forms took on more metaphorical qualities. As the catalogue essay fleshes out, Jones’ patterns are inspired by the lines of reflecting light produced by the floating onboard fires of Aboriginal people fishing on boats across the harbour at night in the early 19th century. While the cultural reference is obscure, the insistent abstract light forms encouraged a search for meaning, and like the visitor to any historic house, we duly read the text.
Picking up on the importance of didactic wall labels in any museum experience, Gary Carsley intervened with them directly. Inspired by the coincidence that Daguerre’s official announcement of the invention of photography coincided with the completion of the house, in Le Chamber of M Draguerre Carsley invented an elaborate fiction centred around the character ‘Draguerre.’ With a bold narrative of artists’ squats, Carsley’s work was all fantasy and burlesque. Linking drag to the act of masquerade, he also produced digital photographic landscape prints made up of veneer—another creative simulation. Carsley’s work was a clever and highly amusing parody and provided for some genuine confusion by mirroring the existing wall panel information.
No such humour was to be found in the cellar of the house in Hannah Furmage’s work Pig Town. This theatrical piece invited us to listen to the voices of present day prisoners through small speakers installed in the bricks of the cell-like walls, referencing the fact that the cellar bricks were made by convicts. Inmates had been invited to telephone an answering machine set up by the artist to give their views on police, and the result was a fragmented litany of poignant complaints. Subtle it wasn’t, but this excavation of repressed voices—a form of radical oral history—was well suited to the occasion.
In the immediate context of John Howard’s ideological assault on Australian history and the way it is taught in schools (and presented in our museums), this exhibition was extremely timely. As the curators suggest, an exhibition like Ten[d]ancy “ensures the mobilisation of Australia’s colonial history into a dialogue with contemporary notions of place and belonging.” Instead of Howard’s ‘structured narratives’ of white progress, we would do better to bring history alive through our cultural practices. In the process, artists such as those at Elizabeth Bay House operate as cultural ‘mediators’ and agitators rather than simple originators of autonomous aesthetic meaning. Although much of the work was quite decorative, their careful site-specific mimicry and responses prevented comfortable access to nostalgia. The interventions provided for dialectical images of history, as Benjamin might say. And at a purely sensory level, the exhibition successfully turned the whole house into an art medium, so that even an excessively puffy bed in one of the untouched spaces began to seem even more than usually odd.
Ten[d]ancy: Artistic Interventions for Elizabeth Bay House, curators Sally Breen, Tania Doropoulos, Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney, July 8 - Oct 22
RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 52
© Daniel Palmer; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org