Thursday, 25 September 2014

Postcard from Perth 33

Breaking Down the Walls

PICA: Erin Coates, George Egerton-Warburton; AGWA: Richard Avedon

Earlier this year, PICA’s vast central atrium gallery space was transformed into the visually darkened, sonically dampened, immersive cinematic setting for William Kentridge’s multimedia installation The Refusal of Time. Two current exhibitions stage even more radical interventions in response to the gallery’s unique architecture. In doing so, they provoke critical thought about the relationship between inside and outside in art, architecture, commerce, recreation, administration, walls and space (physical and mental).

Meanwhile, across the way at the Art Gallery of WA, an exhibition of photographs by Richard Avedon in its own modest way raises similar questions about the distinction between art, fashion, portraiture and documentary photography, and between celebrity and anonymity in case of photographic subjects.


Downstairs at PICA, WA artist Erin Coates has been commissioned to create Kinesphere (a term derived from movement theorist Rudolf Laban, who used it to refer to the personal space accessible by one’s extended limbs). In this case, the show itself is a kind of integrated extension of the artist’s own creative, recreational and conceptual ‘limbs’, including drawing, video, installation, architecture and urban climbing.

The centrepiece is a 7-meter-high, jagged polystyrene tower rising up from the ground floor to the mezzanine level of the central atrium. The apparently random lines and planes of the tower are based on the artist’s own urban climbs (including proposed climbs of the PICA clock tower), translated by architectural computer software into a 3D design and then manufactured and assembled by a firm of local engineers. Inside the tower is a micro-cinema screening a tightly edited and skilfully intercut montage video-sequence of the artist and others engaged in various thrilling acts of bouldering (or ‘buildering’) and parkour around various city and suburban sites including public artworks, buildings, car parks and shopping centres, with a visceral rhythmic soundtrack by local musician Stuart James based on the percussive sounds of the actual climbs.

The surrounding walls of the central gallery feature delicate diagram-drawings by the artist of actual and potential climbing routes, including signs, symbols and whimsical phrases drawn from the jargon of climbing. Discreetly embedded in one wall (a gallery attendant helpfully pointed it out to me) and visible through a hole in the wall by crouching or lying on the floor is another tiny 3D film of the artist climbing the facades of various art institutions around Perth.

An adjoining wing of the gallery has been transformed into an interactive climbing room, with hand-and-footholds on the walls (some of which feature casts of fellow climbers’ hands), a dispenser of chalk-dust helpfully supplied for the (real) hands of those fit and game enough to tackle them (I wasn’t, thanks to an injured knee), and padded mats on the floor to cushion their falls if their grips failed them.

In a darkened side-room, another video-work screens on one wall. The Last Climber Alive Must Keep Herself Fit and Ready is a sequence of computer-generated aerial long-shots and zooms revealing the isolated figure of a female climber (slightly larger than to scale) moving, running, climbing and exercising against the backdrop of an enormous miniature scale-model of the snowbound cityscape of Beijing. In contrast with the visceral excitement of the videos of real climbs, or the playful wit of the wall-drawings and the climbing-room, I found The Last Climber strangely haunting and even melancholy. Perhaps it’s the terminal isolation of the figure (in contrast with the climbers in the other videos, who are visibly supported by collaborators waiting to catch them if they stumble or fall); or perhaps it’s the small but crucial discrepancy of scale between her body and the surrounding architecture, which implies that she's condemned to endlessly circumnavigate but never enter it. This feeling of unease was only enhanced when I left PICA and joined a crowd of onlookers gazing at the same video on the massive outdoor screen of the Perth Cultural Centre (with the faceless and seemingly unscaleable architecture of the State Library behind it).

Beyond the subversive joie-de-vivre of urban climbing as form of creative disruption, there’s an existential aspect to climbing which becomes apparent in art and dreams, and which perhaps explains the appeal of comic-book super-heroes like Batman and Spider Man. The Swiss existential psychiatrist Binswanger wrote about the predicament of becoming verstiegend when one climbs to a point where one can longer go up or down, as a metaphor for mental illness. Perhaps this risk is shared by contemporary artists and city-dwellers, when technological and social development threaten to separate us irrevocably from the grounding experience of contact with nature or each other. We become verstiegend, isolated, unreal, like the inhabitants of Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ in The Waste Land. We each become ‘the last climber’, keeping our bodies ‘fit and ready’ even when all meaning, purpose or sense of connection (actual as opposed to virtual) has been extinguished from our lives or our work. The rhetoric of Kinesphere may be Utopian but its substance has an apocalyptic undertow. Enjoy yourself, as the song goes: it’s later than you think.


Upstairs things get even more subversive, and the mood arguably darkens. George Egerton-Warburton is also a WA-born artist, now based in LA, and he brings an outsider’s perspective to bear on his subject-matter and the gallery itself. As its title suggests, Administration is Just Oulipian Poetry is a more severe, conceptual and even didactic exhibition, drawing at least titular inspiration from the work of the French post-surrealist association of writers and mathematicians Oulipo (short for ‘Ouvrior de littérature potentielle’ or ‘workshop of potential literature’) who invented formal, mathematical and even alphabetical constraints in order to liberate new works (and whose members included Raymond Queneau, George Perec and Italo Calvino).

One enters the West End Gallery at one end of the mezzanine balcony to find huge irregular chunks of the gallery walls have been carved out and hang suspended from the ceiling in the form of a giant mobile, while aspects of the surrounding Perth cityscape are visible through the holes in the walls. In fact this architectural intervention is less violent than initially appears. PICA is a heritage-listed building (originally a school), and three of the walls in the West End Gallery are actually ‘false’ walls made of plaster-board for hanging and screening purposes, erected in front of the original walls which feature enormous windows, through which shifting vistas of the outside world can now be glimpsed as one enters and walks around the room. In a corner, a cordoned-off table with a stainless-steel electric hot-plate and saucepan gives off a faint and not unpleasant smell. Barely visible from behind the barrier, an unidentifiable brown liquid simmers inside the saucepan. To me it looked a bit like chocolate; a gallery attendant told me it was simply dirt and leaves.

On one wall, a small video-work shows an open laptop on a table outside with a beachscape in the background, and a hand-held microphone hovering in the foreground. On the laptop screen is what looks like a commercial advertisement. A (white, Anglo-Australian) man stands on a back-lawn surveying what looks like the head of an erupting volcano with molten gold lava pouring out. Another (dark-skinned) man enters, asks ‘What is it?’ and is told ‘It’s a metaphor.’ The dark-skinned man insouciantly dips his hand into the stream of molten gold, looks at his hand and grins for a moment, then screams.

I found myself revisiting the West End Gallery later in the week, mainly to re-view the holes in the walls and the glimpses of the city beyond. Through the south wall of the gallery, the glass and concrete towers and construction cranes of the CBD rise in the distance across the railway lines that separate Northbrige from the city’s cold commercial heart. As a theatre colleague visiting from interstate observed to me recently, Perth is the only capital city in the country that’s still effectively under construction, largely thanks to the unsustainable mining and property booms that have successively destroyed and rebuilt it. This sense of being under construction applies to the city’s cultural institutions as well: witness the luminous white fly-tower of the State Theatre Centre (beneath which I’ve been embalmed for the last three weeks in Black Swan’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor), visible through the long west wall of the gallery and looming behind the red-brick school-building of The Blue Room (which forms a heritage companion to PICA). Art, commerce, administration, history, society and individual citizens are separated by (false) walls, but seamlessly converge in a ceaseless flux of money, power and desire in the ‘deep state’ of post-industrial capitalism (as perhaps they always have) – and in the ‘deep state’ of each and every one of us, artists and consumers alike: writing grant applications, courting sponsors, seeking employment, working, surviving.

Back along the mezzanine balcony are two more video works by Egerton-Warburton – both shot in a single continuous take as part of an annual exercise in Oulipian discipline. The first is the staged documentary of a stolen video camera, shot on said camera in a single take while running through the streets of Rome. The second is a work of greater complexity: again recorded in a single take, a middle-aged actor roams around a tree-lined lake on a property in rural Victoria, reciting a stream-of-consciousness text (written by the artist) while being followed by the camera and a boom-operator who is visible throughout within the frame. Subtitles repeat the text without necessarily being in synch with the sound, and the colour grading changes subtly but noticeably at key junctures in the text, as if reflecting changes of personality or slippages of consciousness. I marvelled at the technical dexterity of the writing, performance, filming and processing, all of which effectively conveyed the uneasy feeling of being in the presence of a psychotic. Even knowing that the monologue was scripted, I wondered how much the surrealist technique of automatism was used to produce it; and likewise, to what degree the action was improvised or even automatic (in the sense of being involuntary or unconscious); certainly the performance had a dangerous edge.

Historically, psychosis has of course an intricate relationship with surrealism. Perhaps on one level both can be seen as responses (calculated or involuntary) to the larger automatism of society itself, especially in the machine age. It’s no coincidence that paranoid delusions tend to focus on conspiracy theories and imaginary mechanical apparatuses as a way of making excessive sense of the world and the subject’s own misfortunes. In the case of Administration is Just Oulipian Poetry, one has the feeling that the artist is walking a fine line between madness and freedom, revolt and submission, the necessity of administration and the possibility of art itself.

Stepping back to compare these two exhibitions as a whole, I'd venture to say that neither was wholly integrated but that the strengths and weakness of each were reversed, and perhaps therefore in a sense complementary. In the case of Erin Coates’ Kinesphere, I found the video works more compelling than the sculptural, architectural and installation works that housed them, and which seemed in comparison imposed and even a trifle gimmicky. This is often the case when actual and virtual realities compete in galleries and even onstage, perhaps for sociological or even ontological reasons. After all, we live in a video age, while the absence at the heart of the virtual drains the actual of its presence. Conversely, however, in Egerton-Warburton’s show upstairs, the impact of the video works seemed ultimately contrived and reduced in comparison with the architectural installation – perhaps in part because the latter opened things up rather than imposing them. Unlike the artificial tower inserted into the gallery downstairs, here the removal of chunks of false walls to reveal things (inside and more crucially outside the gallery) made for a much more determinate (and therefore more meaningful) act of negation.

PICA (and its administration) are to be commended for enabling these two ambitious and thought-provoking works, which physically and reflectively respond to and impact on the architecture and institution of the gallery itself.


Across the way at AGWA, the photos on display in Richard Avedon People have travelled from the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York via the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and the Monash Gallery in Melbourne. To be honest, I wasn’t initially drawn to this show, as I’m not greatly interested in the genres of fashion, celebrity or portrait photography. So when I wandered in idly one afternoon (you can tell I’ve been busy performing in the evenings and hanging around the Cultural Centre during the day), I was surprised and captivated. The prints were all authorized by Avedon himself during his lifetime, which gives them added aura; and they are indeed magnificent; but it’s their content and form that really give food for thought.

Avedon is famous for the plain white or grey backgrounds against which many of his portraits were shot. This has the effect of reducing his subjects to forensic or clinical specimens abstracted from any historical or biographical context (even when they’re famous) other than the act of being photographed. This act is thus foregrounded in all its artifice, along with its social and psychological implications. These implications thus become all the more nakedly visible, and make us feel almost uncomfortable – as if the ‘exposure’ of the subject somehow extended beyond the frame to implicate the viewer as well. 

This foregrounding of the act of photography includes the framing of the image itself, and extends to the way it’s printed. Characteristically this includes the black borders of the actual film, which is printed right to the edge of the paper. To all intents and purposes, the contours of image and print, film and paper, thus effectively coincide. We see what the photographer saw, nothing more, nothing less – through the camera, as it were. In one fell swoop, we’re there, in the studio, as if caught in the act, with our eyes to the aperture. Moreover, this making-visible of the borders of film at the edge of the print foregrounds the intervention of the medium itself in the construction of the image. Like Brecht’s theatrical ‘baring of the device’, this has ethical and political implications as well, which Avedon as a socially conscious artist no doubt deliberately introduced into the otherwise phantasmagorical realm of fashion and celebrity photography. No less than in the case of the installations at PICA, here too, art like science is always an act of intervention.

Even when subjects are placed in artificial settings or juxtapositions – the model Dovima (evening dress by Dior) posing with elephants (trunks in phallic salute), Mae West voraciously clawing Mr Universe under the lights of the circus ring, Marilyn passionately hugging Arthur Miller’s tousled head, a scowling Dylan walking down an avenue of trees in Central Park, or a thirteen-year-old Texan boy displaying an eviscerated snake – everything is carefully staged for our benefit, nothing is left to spontaneity or chance. There is no sense in which Avedon ‘lay in wait’ to capture ‘the decisive moment’, unlike Cartier-Bresson. Of course, the vocation of a portraitist lies elsewhere, in photography no less than in painting: in the arrangement, the longitudinal study, and the relationship between artist and subject. All this is contained in the image itself, and to some extent reproduced by the viewer in the time they spend in front of the print. In Avedon’s case, however, this suffocating sense of reduction takes on an extreme degree of compression. There’s a confronting minimalism to the work, almost a degree zero of portraiture.

The exceptions to this are the anonymous subjects caught in situ or en plein air. Two young (Italian?) men in raincoats crossing a street on the Lower West Side and staring insolently at the camera; a forlorn young (Jewish?) girl in Central Park with the figure of an older man in a hat (her uncle?) standing in the distance with his back to us; a mixed race couple at Santa Monica beach, innocently bathing with their children in the failing light; in-patients at a psychiatric hospital in Louisiana protectively holding each other’s hands. These photographs invite us to imagine a context, a history: in a sense they are narrative paintings, or at least anecdotal images, rather than portraits per se. At the crossroads between the two categories is the portrait of a former slave. His imagined history is inscribed in his face; his relationship with the photographer, and with the viewer, is painfully blocked, and lies radically outside the frame.

Richard Avedon People documents a period in post-war American history marked simultaneously by the civil rights movement, the emergence of the counter-culture and the invention of mass-media celebrity – all of which were to some extent facilitated by the hey-day of photography itself. This era now feels as dated and nostalgia-tinged as the medium itself, and its images have a patina of beauty and sadness that reflects this sense of time lost. We live in a different age now, and America is a different place, in a very different world.


Erin Coates’s Kinesphere and George Egerton-Warburton’s Administration is Oulipian Poetry are showing at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art until 2 November.

Richard Avedon People is showing at the Art Gallery of WA until 17 November.

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