Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Postcard from Perth 20

John Curtin Gallery: Paramodelic-Graffiti/The Tenth Sentiment

Perth is shifting into autumn, temperatures are mercifully starting to drop and the last vestiges of the Perth Festival Visual Arts program are finally winding down.

Last week I drove out to the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University to see two works by Japanese artists that are still showing as part of the Festival: Paramodelic-Graffiti by Yasuhiko Hayashi and Yusuke Nakano, collectively known as Paramodel, and The Tenth Sentiment by Ryota Kuwakubo.

Curtin has a great reputation as one the best-equipped university galleries in the country, collaborating with national and international artists and curators. However it’s located on the main campus out at Bentley, which is about 10k’s south-east of central Perth or 20k’s east of Fremantle, and pretty remote in terms of access by public transport. It took me about half an hour to drive there from Freo, heading down the Kwinana Freeway and across the Canning River. Once I left the freeway I turned off the radio and let the soothing robotic voice of Google Maps guide me past long stretches of recently developed cookie-cutter housing estates, sports ovals and golf courses, before finally turning into the immense main car park surrounded by the university’s signature red-brick campus buildings.

This journey turned out to be an apposite approach to Paramodel’s work in particular. According to the program, the word is a contraction of the words ‘model’ and ‘paradise’, and refers directly to the Japanese term puramoderu, which means ‘plastic model’. Paramodelic-Graffiti is a computer-designed installation of mass-produced blue plastic toy train tracks, orange toy trucks, diggers, cranes and earth-moving equipment, and miniature toy animals (domestic and wild, native and introduced, but all found in Australia), interspersed with ‘mountains’ of chiselled white plastic foam, ‘fields’ of black synthetic carpeting and ‘lakes’ of blue foam rubber or reflective gold and silver paper. The installation spreads across the floor, walls and ceiling of two connecting rooms in the gallery.

The program describes the work of Paramodel as ‘playful’, ‘exuberant’ and ‘fun’, but I have to admit I found the whole thing hideous and disturbing. In a strange way it reminded me of being inside the maw of a spaceship: a totally mass-produced Matrix-environment in which I’d been swallowed like Jonah by a blue-and-white whale – or perhaps Ninevah itself. The most interesting thing in the exhibition for me (and I know this is becoming a recurring theme in these Postcards) was a video screen at the end of the journey featuring time-lapse footage of the work being installed: a team of people crawling around on their hands and knees or climbing up and down ladders and gradually covering every inch of the floor, walls and ceilings with a kind of spreading blue-and-white plastic cancer (which viewed benignly almost resembled the blue-and-white patterns of traditional Japanese or Chinese porcelain). Some of the mass-produced toy animals were for sale at the counter. I was reminded of Cai Guo Qiang’s collection of life-sized ‘toy’ animals gathered around an artificial pond currently at GOMA in Brisbane – and once again of childhood visits to the zoo.

Emerging from the brightly lit world of Paramodelic-Graffiti I followed a designated path through the gallery into the dark womb-like room housing The Tent Sentiment. The only illumination comes from the headlight of a slowly moving miniature train as it twists and snakes along a track laid carefully across the floor.

Railways feature heavily in this year’s Perth Festival Visual Art program, taking into account I Think I Can as well as the two works under review. For me there’s a pre-post-industrial nostalgia and even innocence about trains; they’re my preferred mode of transport, whether commuting from Freo to Perth, getting around Melbourne or travelling overseas, especially in Europe. It’s a combination of logical factors like economy, efficiency and sustainability; aesthetic considerations like interior quietness, smoothness of movement and the way landscapes slide past windows; and more personal and emotional associations and memories that this is neither the time nor the place either to share or analyse.

In any case, the train in The Tenth Sentiment is a little beauty. It passes through a landscape of domestic found objects arranged on the floor in clusters, including fields of miniature toy people, stacked sugar cubes, inverted clothes pegs linked by lines of thread, wire-mesh waste-paper baskets, colanders with holes cut in, or lengths of cardboard tubing with their ends cut into irregular splinters. Lit by the headlight of the train, these throw gigantic moving and shape-shifting shadows across the walls, becoming crowds of people, high-rise buildings (or perhaps gravestones), electricity pylons, strange abstract grids and patterns – and most thrillingly (for me anyway) a climactic sequence with fingers or beams of darkness extending outwards corona-like across the walls  (which recaptured some of the delirious awe I felt when I first saw the last half-hour or so of 2001 at an unseemly age around 1970).

In fact The Tenth Sentiment is a kind of mobile shadow-panorama that recalls the famous magic lanterns and dioramas from the prehistory of cinema. Alternatively it could be seen as a minimalist work of shadow-animation or puppet-theatre. The difference in this case is of course that here it’s the light-source, ersatz-camera or projector that becomes the main (and only moving) character, so that our enchanted attention is continually thrown back from the images on the walls (or even the objects on the floor) to the medium itself as an ensemble or apparatus. As such it’s a beautiful example of Lyotard’s dispositif pulsionel or Deleuze and Guattari’s machine d├ęsirante – with all the psychological, unconscious and erotic connotations these terms imply. But perhaps the most obvious philosophical precursor looming behind The Tenth Sentiment is the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. As such, it’s a deceptively metaphysical work, in the sense that it questions the nature of reality, and proposes a dimension beyond the material world of nature or artifice – a dimension which might be called imaginary, virtual, metaphysical or even supernatural.

Regardless, the special charm and power of The Tenth Sentiment lies in the fact that it’s so ingeniously simple in terms of conception, materials and execution. The technology is hand-made and the workings are open to inspection. This produces a delightful double-consciousness, which is akin to the pleasures of reverie, seeing shapes in flames or clouds, being under mild hypnosis or having lucid dreams. Most importantly, you feel like you’re participating in, actively contributing to, and to some extend even choosing what you see.

For me, the journey of the train itself provided its own additional narrative – most dramatically at the end of the piece, when the train reversed itself at high speed past all the landmarks, throwing their shadows back on the walls once more in a convulsive and inverted last dance: a kind of accelerated final sequence before awakening – or dying. This sensation continued long after I left the gallery and drove home back through the existential wasteland of South Perth.

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