Paul Watson, Director of Sylvania Waters, interviewed for the 7.30 report, ABC 1992
|David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, The world's more interesting with you in it 2009|
Image courtesy of the artists
Described as a long-term project by curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Reality Check deftly intertwines analysis and discourse around popular cultural forms of entertainment with the commissioning of works by 10 established and emerging Australian artists whose practices variously remix, retroactively adjust, repurpose or re-mediate our cultural ephemera. The exhibition is firmly situated within a specific locale; The Sutherland Shire where Sylvania Waters was filmed and the Hazelhurst Gallery resides. Reality Check not only focuses on the histories and legacies of this community—but how, in the rarified moment of Sylvania Waters, and through a single family, it shaped and challenged ideas of representation and the construction and international dissemination of national identity.
In Reality Check, the rapid proliferation of confessional-style entertainment and exploitative forms of television since the early nineties is of course a recurring theme. As a teenager and recent migrant to Perth at the time of Sylvania Waters’ original airing on ABC TV, I have to admit to never watching a single episode of the docu-drama that seemed to polarize the nation. In a 7.30 Report interview, accessible via YouTube, the Donaher family—in defence of themselves—grappled with the problematic and cynical machinations of so-called Reality TV; the subjective nature of which we now expect, enjoy and take for granted.
|John A Douglas, Ask Noeline....(not the ogre) 2009|
Photo by Silversalt. Courtesy the artist & Chalk Horse, Sydney
The exhibition space of Reality Check is filled with the sound of Elvis Presley’s Edge of Reality courtesy of Ms + Mr’s video Alternate Realities 1992/2009, which presents a spectral, uncanny parallel universe/narrative to Sylvania Waters by working with a video archive acquired through another Sydney-based family, the Archibalds of Glebe who were shortlisted, but not selected for the BBC show. In this work, several short scenes of the family interacting are treated as if the digital archive were permeable in real time: wormholes appear and people slip-through, while the poster image of Elvis (Time traveler? Alien abductee?) looms in the background. In Luis Martinez’ detailed pencil drawings, the Donaher mansion on Macintyre Crescent is contrasted against the humble Cabramatta home the artist was living in at the time, drawing attention to the wealth disparity of ‘average’ Australian families.
|Ms & Mr, Archibalds/Donahers 1992/2009|
Courtesy the artists & Kaliman Gallery, Sydney
While the monochromatic abstractions and pared-back symbolism of Mitch Cairn’s work require a deeper knowledge of the Sylvania Waters episodes to adequately decode, they bring in to focus from my perspective the tendency to misread and misinterpret edited and decontextualised information or images—which is a constant criticism of the reality TV format. For Sylvania Waters novices (like myself), the curator has also assembled episodes from the series, Noeline Donaher’s one and only cringe-worthy hit single No Regrets, as well as works by artists who responded to the show at the time of it’s first screening including ceramicist Peter Cooley and performance artist Simon Hunt.
Seventeen years after Australia’s first brush with reality TV, the Hazelhurst Gallery’s curator, Daniel Mudie Cunningham has presented the organisation and its community with a curatorial coup. As an artist whose practice operates at a sometimes dazzling intersection between popular culture, performance art and fandom, Cunningham’s curation of Reality Check is richly informed by not only his creative methodologies but by rigorous research, as evidenced in the exhibition and it’s ambitious and thoroughly absorbing publication.
|The Kingpins, Unstill Life 2009|
Photo by Jordon Graham
Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters, curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham, artists Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey, Elvis Richardson, Mitch Cairns, Holly Williams, The Kingpins, John A Douglas, Carla Cescon, Ms + Mr, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery 10 Oct–29 Nov
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg.
© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org