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politics & art: direct engagement

jacqueline millner: there goes the neighbourhood, performance space

Jacqueline Millner’s book of essays on Australian contemporary art entitled Conceptual Beauty will be published by Artspace later this year.

Ghost Train, Ned & Tom Sevil Ghost Train, Ned & Tom Sevil
photo Garth Knight

The title thus frames this Performance Space exhibition squarely within the politics of contested space and the central role of race (and youth) in this contestation; it also widens the frame of reference beyond the here and now of Sydney, Australia, to shared histories and their legacy for contemporary urban living globally. This breadth of scope marked every aspect of the exhibition, from the range of artists and media, to the scale, both spatial and temporal, of many of the works. Participants hailed from across the globe, including Brazil, Spain, Denmark, US, Australia and Hungary; the range and scale of works was expansive: photographs, video, painting, installation, mapping, networked activities and performances, many either filling the gallery in innovative ways or overflowing it altogether through their presence in publication, on the web, or as external events extending over time. This scope was thoughtfully designed to reiterate the themes: spatial justice and the place of the artist in articulating and complicating these debates and strategies.

The curators (both members of an artists’ collective engaged in social and spatial mapping) did well to balance the push and pull inherent in capturing the complex and dispersed nature of the theme in a cogent and coherent exhibition. The gallery space itself is difficult, notorious for its cavernous dimensions that favour works of monumental scale, yet this very problematic appeared to be integrated and interrogated in the exhibition; the open and loose installation in the foyer of the CarriageWorks building echoed the grassroots/shopfront register of the theme, while also foregrounding the improvisational and small footprint approach taken by many artists practicing in this field. The publication of an accompanying book—which contextualizes the exhibition much more broadly than a conventional catalogue with historical essays on specific contested areas (including Redfern), interviews and theoretical discussions on both individual works and the wider issues around the impact of gentrification—is also an effective means of both containing and disseminating the themes. This is indeed an excellent anthology of benefit to a wide, interdisciplinary readership.

One of the most engaging works here was created by Australians Tom and Ned Sevil, aka The Evil Brothers, self-described as “divided by 5,000 kms of dirt and living on opposite ends of the country yet...connected through their checked [sic] history of making art on the street and their love of working in abandoned and forgotten spaces.” This ‘down home’ sensibility permeates their installation, Ghost Train, a simulated cityscape constructed out of cardboard. The viewer is invited to take a spray can that doubles as a lamp, and pick their way over tiny railway sleepers into what appears to be a dynamic shadow play of miniature city scenarios, although it is the viewer’s own movement (and imagination) that effectively animates these cut-outs. Through the simplest of technologies, and by also cleverly invoking the haptic, the work immersed the viewer in alternative perspectives of the city—a graffiti artist ‘writing’ the city’s underbelly at night, an urban planner constructing machines for living, a child playing ‘house’, a homeless person improvising a shelter. The work powerfully reminds the viewer of their own agency in creating and imagining urban spaces.

The construction/destruction of homeliness through the strategic occupation of space is also at the heart of the work by Chicago-based collective Temporary Services, whose interventions often take the form of public surveys designed to give voice to communities not fully consulted in the urban planning process. In Sydney, Temporary Services conducted a Public Sculpture Opinion Poll on Bower (2007-2008), the sculpture by Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse installed on a prominent street corner in Redfern. Despite the creators’ participation in community workshops where local stories were gathered for integration into the work, the sculpture, described by one architect as “overscale and incongruous”, has polarized community opinion. Temporary Services, themselves without an agenda, in effect gave the complexity of the community’s response a compelling airing—with comments gathered on public clipboards and email installed in hard copy in the gallery or accessed on a dedicated website, the locals were heard in a far more public way, giving the viewer a fascinating insight into grassroots perceptions of the intersection between government, art and public space. One response read, “In my opinion this sculpture is inappropriate for the area. Those spikes and sharp edges suggest belligerence and seem to induce anxiety. Sharp edges, shooting projections, spikes are too aggressive for the area which has always been somewhat ‘on edge’” (May 15, 2009). The public debate facilitated by the artists’ intervention produced material worthy of serious consideration by policy-makers.

Shane Phillips & Noel Collett, 1992, from the series Conference Call, Brenda L Croft (in collaboration with Adrian Piper) Shane Phillips & Noel Collett, 1992, from the series Conference Call, Brenda L Croft (in collaboration with Adrian Piper)
courtesy the artist
A strong self-reflexive impulse pervades much of the work in this exhibition, whose curators are also keenly aware of their own position in the politics of gentrification (including the argument that artists, through re-valorizing degraded spaces, often pave the way for the property speculation that accompanies ‘urban renewal’). This self-reflexiveness is particularly potent in the Spanish art collective Democracia’s video installation Images from the Welfare State (Smash the Ghetto) (2007) that features footage of the official razing of what was renowned as Europe’s largest shantytown, on the outskirts of Madrid. Democracia heightened the spectacular appeal of this event by projecting the images on three mural-sized screens and inviting the Sydney audience to sit on bleachers set up in the gallery, in the same manner as the original spectators watched the actual demolition. The work evokes the long history of the state smashing housing deemed unlivable under the auspices of regeneration—from the notorious implosion of Pruitt-Igoe to the massive pre-Olympic ‘clean-up’ of cities in the late 20th century, to the bulldozing of Palestinian settlements. But, perhaps more potently still, the work renders the viewer complicit in such destruction by foregrounding the visual pleasure we derive from watching such spectacle, with its intense drama and its promise of the ‘clean slate.’ As witnesses to the erasure of someone’s neighbourhood, we become aware of how the apparatus of spectatorship, while promising us complete immersion, instead distances us from this reality.

What renders these works so effective is their ability to transpose a complex set of ideas through a direct form of aesthetic engagement: the Holy Grail for art that seeks to be political. This exhibition was very successful in honouring the dispersed nature of artistic interventions in urban space, underlining the pressing nature of the politics of gentrification and reminding viewers of their own participation in these politics.

There goes the neighbourhood. Exhibition curators Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza, artists Daniel Boyd, Brenda L Croft, Lisa Kelly, SquatSpace, You are Here, 16beaver, Temporary Services, Michael Rakowitz, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro, Evil Brothers, Miklos Erhardt and Little Warsaw, Jakob Jakobsen, Democracia, BijaRi, and a re-enactment of Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull: A furniture comedy for Hans Hofmann; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney May 23-June 17

Jacqueline Millner’s book of essays on Australian contemporary art entitled Conceptual Beauty will be published by Artspace later this year.

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 52

© Jacqueline Millner; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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