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water: play, wonder, politics

bruce mowson: madeleine flynn, tim humphrey, gauge

Melbourne-based writer and artist Bruce Mowson is exhibiting a sculpture/installation,The Listening vs Striles of Ming, with Elliot Howard at La Trobe University’s Visual Art Centre, Bendigo, February 13-March 25.

Cameron Robbins, Cloudscape, opening night performance by Graeme Leak, Tim Humphrey, Cameron Robbins Gauge Cameron Robbins, Cloudscape, opening night performance by Graeme Leak, Tim Humphrey, Cameron Robbins Gauge
photo Pia Johnson

I spent several minutes standing still as my eyes adjusted to the dark, relishing the blackness and letting the burnished glow of the works, distant across the far side of the long hall, slowly come into focus. I noticed a quiet ticking—drips, I’d discover, from The Dripolator. Such was my entry to this show, standing in the dark, thinking about time.

Gauge, presented in the Wunderkammer tradition, was an extensive program of works, events and performances, a few of which I can mention here.

Graeme Leak’s sound/light sculpture The Dripolator was a striking feature of the show. The self-performing instrument is topped by a light that melts a chunk of ice which drips into a miked-up resonant reservoir. The sound is diffused through the space via surround sound, with the voices of audience members musing about the work subtly captured and mixed into the underlying soundscape, sometimes to the amusement of attentive listeners.

Rosemary Joy created the most thematically didactic work, also the most effective in provoking thought about water economics. Two boxes stand side-by-side, one the size of a matchbox, the other a microwave oven. Understated labelling reveals that these are scaled representations of the water reserves for London and Melbourne. The text includes information about relative population size and the projected period that reserves might need to serve in case of drought: six weeks and up to five years respectively. In front of the boxes is a music stand with a score. On the opening night a lively performance in the contemporary classical idiom was given, using the boxes as percussion instruments.

The exhibition’s creators, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, created the show’s centrepiece, an installation titled Waterpiano, featuring a decrepit and lidless miniature grand piano. Drips from the ceiling high above catch the light as they fall onto the piano’s exposed strings. The catalogue explains that a weather station installed on the roof and connected to a rainwater tank, pump and computer, causes the piano to ‘perform the weather.’ The work was inspired by Dr Michael Roderick’s work on global water cycles and discussions with Computer Scientist Dr Adrian Pearce about systems and reasoning in artificial intelligence.

In a departure from the predominantly antique aesthetic, Cameron Robbins created Cloudscape: a 2,700L vinyl pool, a fan and an ultrasonic humidifier (appearing as a tall exhaust hood suspended above the pool). Wisps of smoke play around the space between the pool and hood creating a beguiling fog and making this work a clear favourite with younger audience members. A performance around the pool by Leak, Humphrey and Robbins (with Flynn playing shadowy puppet master on ‘vortex control’) culminates in a misty tornado as the rapidly circling musicians create a spinning column of air. The slow start, with the players seeming to call to the spirit in the water before building a whirling crescendo, evoked the sense of a mystical spell, quite in keeping with the Meat Market’s 19th century aesthetic.

Gauge, installation Gauge, installation
photo Pia Johnson
Stepping away from the works and out into the blackness of the cavernous hall, a particularly interesting dimension of the exhibition gained presence. Flynn and Humphrey, with deft input from sound designer Michael Hewes, had created a subtle soundscape, more an underlying ambience than a soundtrack. Ghostly echoes of sounds from the works and from the audience remained enigmatic. Those who recognised the sound-on-sound tape loop system sitting to one side might have appreciated it as the modest star of Gauge—allowing successive layers of sound to accrue and old sounds to slowly subside into a bottomless chasm of time. Standing on the periphery, one could watch the audience circulate and interact, plucking the strings of the piano, sloshing around in Joy’s mud-bath hand basin or discussing the operation of The Dripolator. The ambiguity and openness of the works to interaction was encouraging. As many of the exhibitors are also musicians, they understand better than many that interactive art finds an excellent model in the performativity of musical instruments.

The project has several premises, including the artist-scientist interaction and the exploration of the water cycle. The interaction with the scientists remained somewhat opaque, and perhaps there was room for further illumination about this intriguing topic. The theme of the water cycle was handled with a gentle touch, with the artists incorporating empirical material into poetic expressions. The delightfully realised theatre of wonder, the Wunderkammer, inspired audience curiosity, play and wonder about water and its systems, creating a space where materials, aesthetics and experiment were in close proximity.

A possible criticism is that the Wunderkammer aesthetic signifies the world of the pre-digital museum. The works are lovely—indeed, hand-labelled timber display cabinets are a welcome respite from touch-screens and voice-overs. But it is difficult to place them in the present, when the politics of this type of display have been so heavily worked over and reframed. Gauge feels naïve in its staging. Melbourne art-science outfit Scale Free Network also presented a Wunderkammer at Counihan Gallery in 2012 offering more hands-on experience for the audience, perhaps giving them greater agency.

However, standing in the dark, hearing ‘the drip of time,’ seeing the water slowly, ‘destroy’ the Waterpiano and the ice melt in The Dripolator, thoughts turn to the sublime in the face of the ephemerality of humans in contrast with water, which as the Gauge catalogue reminds us, is a constant quantity and which will doubtless outlast us.

Arts House: Gauge, creators, directors Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, with Graeme Leak, Rosemary Joy, Cameron Robbins, Dr Michael Roderick, Dr Adrian Pearce, lighting design Jen Hector, sound design Michael Hewes, Arts House, Meat Market, Nov 15-21, 2012

Melbourne-based writer and artist Bruce Mowson is exhibiting a sculpture/installation,The Listening vs Striles of Ming, with Elliot Howard at La Trobe University’s Visual Art Centre, Bendigo, February 13-March 25.

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 41

© Bruce Mowson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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