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Perth International Arts Festival

Catching the slipstream

Andrew Nicholls

Andrew Nicholls is an artist, writer & curator from Perth and is currently Exhibitions and Promotion co-ordinator for the Artists Foundation of Western Australia.

Lyndall Jones, Aqua Profunda
Lyndall Jones, Aqua Profunda

The 2002 Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) was the third in Director Sean Doran’s quartet of themed festivals based upon the elements (Water in 2000, Earth in 2001, Air in 2002 and Fire completing the cycle in 2003)—a somewhat banal thematic structure, but one broad enough to allow for lateral interpretation. This year’s theme of Air inspired the title Slipstream for Visual Arts Manager Sophie O’Brien’s second consecutive PIAF visual arts festival.

O’Brien faced a considerable challenge curating a program relevant to a city whose visual arts scene is currently suffering something of a lull, due in part to a severe lack of art criticism combined with a dearth of exhibition spaces after a year fraught with gallery closures. In keeping with the general state of all-pervading apathy, Slipstream was the least-hyped visual arts festival in several years, but perhaps the most ambitious in terms of content, with a focus on research-based projects and ephemera. O’Brien seemed to have interpreted the theme primarily in terms of space—the marginalised and changing social spaces we inhabit and the space between things.

Slipstream featured a marked focus on large-scale audio-visual installation, headlined by War and Peace, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Comprising 2 installations by Lyndal Jones— Aqua Profunda, produced for the 2001 Venice Biennale, and 1996’s Spitfire 1,2,3—the exhibition was so good it’s difficult to believe the works were not created to be shown together. This was my first encounter with Jones’ work, and I was blown away by the sheer scale of the undertaking, combined with the relative novelty of an audio-visual installation requiring more of its audience than passively watching a screen. Spitfire 1,2,3 demands its viewer engage physically with the space in order to switch between 2 alternate soundtracks (one ambient music, the other spoken word) heard through headphones. Featuring dizzying aerial footage of the British countryside taken from the cabin of a Spitfire fighter jet, the work is remarkable in drawing the viewer’s attention to their own body in space. Aqua Profunda’s footage of constantly shifting reflections on water and the vertiginous bobbing of ferries, contrasted with intimate imagery of a woman speaking abstractedly of love and desire, effectively renders any single reading of the work impossible. Rather, Jones creates a space for shifting meanings, an abstract meditation on states of desire.

Research-based projects inevitably run the risk of falling short in a gallery context, as was the case with Multiplicity (Paris-Perth) at the Moores Building, part of European collective Multiplicity’s ongoing documentation of the changing use of urban environments. Despite only having 4 days in WA in which to work, the group successfully tapped into some of the specific racial tensions of Perth’s surrounding suburbs. In particular, a series of surveillance photographs following an anonymous Asian man from a non-descript suburban house, across town to his workplace in an industrial area, cleverly played upon the contradictions of racial otherness in a city that is closer to South East Asia than the rest of Australia. Ultimately, however, the cavernous Moores Building seems to have proven simply too vast a space for the group to fill in 4 days.

At PICA, Elvis Has Just Left the Building explored contemporary urban legends. I was disappointed by the show, given the subversive potential of the theme in a climate of post-September 11 global paranoia. Despite an intriguing mix of international exhibitors and highlights such as Ann-Sofi Siden’s mock horror-movie preview, The Clocktower (presenting her iconic protagonist, the Queen of Mud in an inner-city setting), the exhibition as a whole was not especially engaging.

Slipstream proved notable in showcasing emerging West Australian talent, with the majority of local contributors still in the early stages of their careers. Parallel Worlds, showing consecutively in an inner-city high-rise office space and International Art Space Kelleberrin in the WA wheatbelt, primarily featured recent graduates. Whilst the 2-venue curatorial premise was intriguing, I felt the show was unresolved in contextualising its venues—the capitalist associations of the metropolitan venue worked well, but there was something a little obvious in setting this up in opposition to a country town. Despite this, exhibitors produced some of the best works of their collective careers. In particular, Susan Flavell’s mattress landscapes and Pearl Rasmussen’s collaboration with illustrator Danny Armstrong were some of the most ambitious works yet produced by these artists.

The high point of my festival was unquestionably The Divine Comedy at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which juxtaposed the work of 3 highly disparate artists: Francisco Goya, Buster Keaton and William Kentridge. Curated by AGWA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Trevor Smith, the exhibition successfully linked 3 artists who really have very little in common, bar the project of social critique through surrealism. AGWA and Smith wowed the masses last year with their Robert McPherson Retrospective, but wisely chose to go low-key for 2002. The Divine Comedy was an intimate exhibition, reliant upon subtle juxtaposition (the raucous musical accompaniment to a Kentridge animation providing a weird soundtrack to Keaton’s silent films projected in another part of the gallery, for example). The exhibition was a major curatorial accomplishment.

As an integrated visual arts festival, Slipstream proved a somewhat flawed, yet remarkably ambitious undertaking in the context of a festival (and city) that has traditionally held a performing arts focus. A slipstream is “an air current”, O’Brien tells us in the festival guide, “one that moves in a forward direction behind and with a moving object, creating an airflow strong enough to pull you in its wake.” While a more cynical writer might suggest that being pulled along blindly in a cultural vacuum is an apt metaphor for the current state of the visual arts in Perth, there is much to be said for the sheer ambition of Slipstream, and with O’Brien moving on to new projects this year, I hope that the legacy of her vision will be evident in the Fire festival next year.

Slipstream: 14 exhibitions across 12 venues: War and Peace, Lyndal Jones, curator John Barrett-Lennard, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Feb 8-March 31; Multiplicity (Paris-Perth), The Moores Building, Feb 2-24; Elvis Has Just Left The Building, curator Boris Kremer, PICA, Jan 25-Feb 24; Parallel Worlds , curator Kate McMillan, Carillion City Arcade, Jan 20-Feb 24 & International Art Space Kellerberrin, Jan 20-Feb 17; The Divine Comedy, curator Trevor Smith, Art Gallery of WA, Feb 7-May 26; 2002 Perth International Arts Festival, Jan 26-Feb 26.

Andrew Nicholls is an artist, writer & curator from Perth and is currently Exhibitions and Promotion co-ordinator for the Artists Foundation of Western Australia.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 12

© Andrew Nicholls; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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