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Pie, spat+loogie with Willoh S Weiland Pie, spat+loogie with Willoh S Weiland
image courtesy and copyright the artist
SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 1992 PRIMAVERA HAS BECOME ONE OF THE MOST HIGHLY ANTICIPATED SHOWS IN THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART’S YEARLY PROGRAM, OFFERING A SELECTION OF WORKS BY AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS UNDER 35—A PROMISE OF THINGS TO COME. YET WHAT HITS YOU ON ENTERING PRIMAVERA 2009, IS THE GALLERY’S SLIGHTLY DEPRESSING RESEMBLANCE TO AN ART STUDENT STUDIO—THERE IS A CIRCLE OF USED AND ABUSED CHAIRS, PHOTOS STUCK TO THE WALL, FOOD SCRAPS AND A NONDESCRIPT TIMBER CONSTRUCTION.

This held-together-by-masking-tape look is after all a signifier of our visual arts times but it hasn’t until now made much of an impact on the clean-cut Primavera experience. This year, guest curator Jeff Khan has conceived an exhibition that feels different from its predecessors.

Khan, who is known for his artistic direction of Melbourne’s emerging and experimental arts festival Next Wave, scattered around the city from underpasses to art spaces, has (not surprisingly) focused Primavera 2009 on interdisciplinary and expanded practices that engage social connectivity. But selecting artists for a major art institution exhibition who “propose a departure from fixed studio practices and exhibition-focussed styles of art making,” (Jeff Kahn, catalogue essay) can be as problematic as it can be progressive.

One of the highlights of Primavera, the performance project Pie (2009) by collaborative duo spat + loogie (Kat Barron and Lara Thoms) with Willoh S Weiland, serves as a key example. Dressed as waiters on the MCA lawn spat + loogie invite whoever is game to sit with various curators who have been recruited for the task, for one to one 10-minute discussions. The duo offer inspiration by providing a ‘menu’ of accessible and witty topics that invite probing questions into the nature of contemporary art, including “Is skateboarding art if you slow it down?” and “Are these tourists making video art.” Offering participants the opportunity to throw a cream pie in the curator’s face at the conversation’s conclusion, spat + loogie ensure that each pays the price for stuffy art-speak or meaningless waffle.

But blink and you’ll probably miss it. Taking place just five times over the course of Primavera and with only a few tokenistic cream pies and photos in the gallery, Pie raises the wider issue of how performative or ephemeral practices can sustain a satisfactory and much needed presence within the institutional sphere. The beauty of Pie is that it values its participants and engages art goers and random passersby alike, but it makes for a sadly disappointing experience for the majority of Primavera visitors who will simply miss out.

In contrast Christopher LG Hill and Andy Best both explore the social act of art making via collaborative projects that result in substantial gallery exhibits. Hill investigates ideas of value and exchange through collaborations with his art peers that often generate sculptural installations, such as Clique (2009) in Primavera. Clique consists of a democratically arranged ring of modified, almost anthropomorphic chairs interspersed with subtle sculptural assemblages. As if standing in for their makers they reflexively symbolise the collaborative process and open dialogue that created them. A reading bench covered by art publications completes the seating circle, implying that gallery visitors aren’t excluded from the clique but can engage in its ‘exchange’ of information, but with no way to respond this is a purely symbolic, one way system.
Oom Unit (2009), Andy Best Oom Unit (2009), Andy Best
image courtesy the artist
Best’s practice revolves around a semi-fictional art community called Oom—a small group of young trendy artists (his friends) who get sloshed and smoke spliffs, make naive paintings that appropriate cult symbolism, play in the woods and sleep in caravans. His installation in Primavera blurs the distinction between documentation and promotion and includes grainy mobile phone photographs, access to the Oom website and, as the centrepiece, the Oom Unit (2009), a small caravan made of logs, housing an unmade bed littered with peppermint tea, sesame snaps and Mentos—think “Tracy Emin quits the London scene to become a gypsy.” It appears that Best and his friends’ exploits and artistic output are products of Oom in two respects—they arise from collaboration and are also part of the Oom ‘brand.’ But as with all branding you have to wonder if there is substance behind the rhetoric, for instance, just how these hippy student clichés provide “genuine alternatives to current conventions”, as the wall text states. I’m left unsure.

The artists’ installations aren’t as compelling as the territory they explore conceptually and performatively. The symbolic ‘aftermath’ of their social connections—Hill’s mismatched chairs and Oom’s cramped sleeping arrangements—are tellingly empty.
Autonomous Improvisation V.1 (2007), Wade Marynowsky Autonomous Improvisation V.1 (2007), Wade Marynowsky
image courtesy the artist
Wade Marynowsky and Michaela Gleave offer more satisfying experiences. Avoiding the challenges of non-autonomous art, Marynowsky’s aptly named Autonomous Improvisation V.1 (2007) recasts Sydney’s live performance community into a B-grade horror movie spectacle (RT79,p24). With digital candelabra, warped sound styling and ominous lighting, he improbably combines automated computer technology and 19th century gothic kitsch. Eerily tinkering keys on an automated pianola activate a network of computers that reanimate 37 recorded performances in real time. A red-nosed clown, a didjeridu player, a flamboyantly pink-wigged and otherwise naked hula hoop-er and some seriously absorbed Mac noisicians are just some of the characters who appear in stilted bursts and in randomised sequences across three screens. The result is schizophrenic. As non-linear, surreal narratives emerge, the individual improvisations lose their autonomy, creating an entertaining and provocative metaphor for ‘community.’
Raining Room (Seeing Stars) (2009), Michaela Gleave Raining Room (Seeing Stars) (2009), Michaela Gleave
image courtesy the artist
The outer appearance of Michaela Gleave’s Raining Room (Seeing Stars) (2009)—the aforementioned non-descript timber construction—belies the presence of a romantic and bewitching phenomenon that surprises the visitor once inside. There, continually falling, harvested rain drops glisten and flicker like diamonds in the dark. But Gleave engages our senses beyond just sight—the pitter-patter sound evokes a comforting, archetypal memory of hearing rain on the roof. You can touch or walk through the water, while outside the looming cubic construction is imposing and awkward in the gallery space. Made for more than housing a saccharine illusion, the exposed nuts and bolts of the external architecture and visible rain-making apparatus ask us to consider the entrenched infrastructure that distances urban dwellers from a connection with the natural world.

The remaining works in Primavera are comparatively unassuming but reward contemplation. The result of Christine Eid’s research into taxi-drivers in Lebanese-Australian communities combines the languages and methods of both social history and the visual arts. Wall-mounted rearview mirrors and taxi lights bearing drivers’ names verge on the literal, while the accompanying short film Transit (2006), is a sensitive and emotional account of Eid’s father’s experience as a taxi-driver.

Kinetic artist Ross Manning creates everyday automata from playful junk assemblages. Neo-Luddite Pyjama Party (2009) for example, is a mess of tangled wiring, barely balancing fans atop Jenga-like piles of scrap timber and precariously swinging projectors that, via a carefully interconnected system creates an alluring Aurora Australis-like visual effect from refracted and mediated light. Manning’s confusingly complex yet lo-fi constructions wryly invite us to question our reliance on the ‘invisible’ technologies that permeate modern life.

Rather more serious in tone is Western Australian artist Roderick Sprigg’s installation Mechanical Nuisance (2008), an investigation of masculinity within isolated farming communities. Using discarded safety mechanisms from agricultural equipment, Sprigg has constructed a dining table modelled on the one in his family home but that darkly resembles a sort of torture chamber. Together with video projections of himself at work and his grandfather playing the harmonica, Sprigg’s installation sombrely suggests that despite isolating and arduous work, these men feel happier out in the fields than in their own homes.

Jeff Khan’s signature on this show is clear in the strong thematic association between works, playful cross-contamination (between Hill and Gleave’s works) and the somewhat risky inclusion of performative and non-autonomous art forms. The show proposes an exciting new future for Primavera as a platform for dynamic practices—both artistic and curatorial. While overall the work in Primavera 2009 offers less of the wow factor than past shows (recall Soda_Jerk’s epic Astro Black in 2008, or Martin Smith’s achingly honest and delicately defaced photographs in 2007), this community-minded grass-roots Primavera is more of a grower.


Primavera 2009, curator Jeff Khan, artists Andy Best, Christine Eid, Michaela Gleave, Christopher LG Hill, Ross Manning, Wade Marynowsky, Roderick Sprigg, spat+loogie with Willoh S Weiland; MCA, Sydney, Sept 9-Nov 22

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 53

© Josephine Skinner; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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