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Mark Brown: Re-working site-specificity

Jasmin Stephens

Mark Brown, Demarcation Mark Brown, Demarcation
photo David Simpkin
Mark Brown’s recent exhibition Exeunt_Site Manoeuvres, shown at the Melbourne artist-run initiative Conical Inc, was an analytical and elegant installation of 3 intensely sculptural works that created an allusive viewing experience. In a manner that initially felt counter to Brown and Conical Inc’s shared commitment to work of a site-specific nature, Brown deployed strategies that resulted in an intriguing exhibition that seemed sparse and introspective. His strategies could be summarised as focusing the viewer on the space outside the gallery rather than inside, barring the viewer from one gallery completely, and siting a minaturised object in the most expansive space. This is not to say that there was a sense of loss or absence in the exhibition. Rather, Brown’s ingenuity produced objects that seemed to have an autonomy from the viewer. The show was not immersive or interactive in the way that many new media exhibitions are described. We approached the objects rather than the objects claiming our attention, and viewing was a durational rather than instantaneous experience.

The title Exeunt_Site Manoeuvres could not be more apt as exeunt is archaic Elizabethan theatre Latin for exiting the space of the stage. Brown’s choice of terminology—site manoeuvres rather than site-specificity—was also deliberate. The term site-specific, which is now so pervasive that it operates as a kind of shorthand signifying progressive leanings and aesthetic innovation, has become increasingly restrictive for Brown. With beginnings in the late 60s, site-specific art was a catalyst for a widespread desire to incorporate the physical conditions of a particular location into art production and reception as a form of social and institutional critique. Site-specificity has now been mobilised to incorporate practices that can be defined as community-specific or issue-specific and embraces nomadic, virtual and ephemeral forms such as billboards, street demonstrations or mobile phones. Earliest debates saw artists jostle for position as the most authentic by being the most thoroughly site-specific.

While Brown’s practice is not exclusively gallery-based, he is an artist who continues to work within and against the modernist paradigm of the exhibition. Brown characterises his practice as a critique of commonly held views about site-specificity. The aspects of site-specificity which particularly inform Brown’s sensibility are those associated with Minimalism and its emphasis on a phenomenological understanding of context. Brown’s early installations were a response to the textures and accretions of rundown industrial and military sites through the amplification of the molecular and the fragmentary. In relation to his early works, Brown invented the term detritical, derived from ‘detritus’, to denote his investigation of the affect of built spaces charged with an atmosphere of decay.

Writing about his recent show, the artist argued, “I have attempted to evolve my methodology of making site-specific works beyond a direct, formal architectural response to site archaeology and past and present contextual function in a bid to develop strategies to transcend what I perceive to be the potential end game of hermetic site works.” It is Browns passion for sound and other technologically mediated approaches to site which set his work apart. He is striving for an engagement with questions of locality and place that is highly speculative and founded on a stylish, personal language which is simultaneously neighbourly and other-worldly.

Throughout his exhibition history, Brown’s finely honed objects have all shared a design vocabulary which can be traced to mid 20th century military instrumentation relating to navigation, measurement and surveillance. According to Brown his affinity with military interfaces of all kinds owes something to his father’s service in the New Zealand Territorial Air Force Reserve. He has also volunteered a previous obsession with computer games. This exhibition continued his research as Brown’s retro eye also took in the well-proportioned bones of the Conical building and the earlier technologies evoked by the domestic fireplace, the density of the glass and the weight of the iron mullions of its window.

At the window, Brown positioned Noise Gate, a viewfinder fabricated out of metal through which a video image of Fitzroy’s gritty streetscape could be viewed. An eerie, unearthly light was emitted by the adjacent factory rooftop exhaust vents. Moving between the periscope-style viewfinder and the window panes, the scene was reminiscent of paintings by Antipodeans Albert Tucker and Danila Vassilieff as well as early depictions in science fiction of the teleporter. The disjunction generated a ghostly effect which heightened our apprehension of unseen atmospheric forces. The visible and audible energy field extending between the 2 vents also signaled an expanded notion of navigation through time and space rather than one bound to a particular place.
Mark Brown, Waypoint Mark Brown, Waypoint
photo David Simpkin
A red flash glimpsed from the corner of the eye, alerted viewers to the presence of an anthropomorphic form revolving in a darkened, smoke-filled gallery, viewable only through a slot in the dividing wall. Pressed against the slot, it was possible to detect a laser pointer spinning on an electric motor mounted on a tripod. While the narrowness of the viewfinder concealed the viewer’s identity to the creature within, Demarcation’s menace lay in the fact that viewers felt compelled to maximise their exposure to the laser beam as it passed across their eyes by getting as close to the viewfinder as they could.

Low, rumbling vibrations across the gallery floor, led us to Way-point, another finely calibrated viewing experience, in the main body of the gallery. Looking down rather than out or through, we enjoyed the brief deception that the compass face projected onto a speaker on the floor was solid. Brown was projecting a video recording of the face of a compass held on a walk around the block on which the gallery is situated. At this moment our visual sense was foremost but as we gazed into the speaker the habitual ordering of our senses was challenged by the sound recordings made during the walk emanating from the speaker. The illusion of solidity was accentuated by the shape of the speaker mirroring the shape of the compass dial but this visual doubling was undercut by the contrast between the smallness of the seen object and the volume of the invisible soundtrack reverberating beneath our feet.

Despite Mark Brown’s dexterity with his materials, the exhibition was not about high production values. His pleasure in economical technology and the adaptive re-use of widely available materials further underpinned our feeling that his objects didn’t need anyone to look at them. We were drawn to them because of their craftsmanship and their manner of standing apart from viewer expectations. It was their self sufficiency which ultimately destabilised the personal and cultural locative devices at work in the space. By using conventions, templates and codes which are widely identified with warfare in his practice, Mark Brown raised our awareness of his orchestration of our vision while at the same time undercutting their certainties with manoeuvres which are often uncanny, poetic and unexpected. Strangely, we were inspired to reflect on the many meanings of location through an exhibition in which the objects potentially displaced the site.

Mark Brown, Exeunt_Site Manoeuvres, Conical Inc, Melbourne, 16 Sept 16-Oct 2, 2005;

Jasmin Stephens is Senior Manager, Education and Access, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 39

© Jasmin Stephens; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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