6.00pm Artspace, Woolloomooloo
As we boarded the courtesy bus at Artspace, none of us were entirely sure what to expect. The bus was headed to Rozelle for the final opening of The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart, a domestic gallery established in 2009 by Mitch Cairns, Kelly Doley, and Agatha Gothe-Snape, and subsequently joined by Brian Fuata in 2010. After two years, four exhibitions, three performances and a swag of other projects, the Cosmic Committee had decided to close its doors. To mark this significant occasion they commissioned Sydney-based artist, and well-known provocateur, Hannah Furmage to create one last work for the house.1
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart was set up with the aim of creating a sustainable artist run initiative away from the traditional white-walled gallery, where, as Gothe-Snape explains, ‘things could happen whenever we wanted it to, and it could be whatever we wanted it to be.’2 In the spirit of domestic galleries like Front Room – run by Elizabeth Pulie and Jay Balbi in their Chippendale house from 2002-03 – The Cosmic Committee invited artists to develop work in and around the lived environment of Cairns, Fuata and Gothe-Snape’s home. It was intended to be a space that would foster conversations, collaboration, and community; and a space in which hospitality and generosity would be the focus. The Cosmic Committee was clear on these intentions from the outset of the project, producing a mission statement to coincide with the inaugural exhibition Colleagues and Peers (hokey-pokey) in May 2009:
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart is seasonal, but, like the seasons, there is no guarantee we will deliver what we promise on time.
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart hopes to build a community of artists who are able to talk to each other outside the glare of the gallery halogens and fluoros.
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart offers a context, framed by hospitality and generosity, to talk about art together.
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart is about art living in our lives and our lives lived out through art.
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart is interested in inviting artists to work in the domestic context of our lived in lives. The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart is interested in fostering the flow of experiences and histories through generations of artists.3
It was this same mission statement – with comments about the success and/or failure of each point – that was handed to me, along with a beer and an apple, as I boarded the bus that afternoon. It quickly became clear that the event had begun.
I made myself comfortable in my blue vinyl seat and watched the interactions between strangers and friends ebb and flow, and the camaraderie strengthen as we shared in the foibles of wrong turns, notable bumps in the road and spilt drinks.
6.15pm Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney
As the bus pulled up at the back of Tin Sheds Gallery, to collect more people bound for The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart, I read over the original mission statement and the additional comments and corrections. While the new guests were boarding the bus, I lingered on each point, thinking about the events I had attended over the years in the Rozelle house. I pondered the many openings filled with home-cooked meals, heated conversations, and late-night dancing on the living room floor; and I felt a pang of sadness that this was the end.
The conversations on the bus quickly shifted to Furmage and what to expect when we reached our destination. The Cosmic Committee had been careful not to divulge any information about the evening’s proceedings – the room sheet didn’t provide any information about the work, or the artist, and there was no sign of any Cosmic Committee members on the bus. Anticipation was fuelled entirely by Furmage’s controversial reputation. I had heard about her collaborations with drug dealers, boxers and prisoners; and I had seen her performance Scoring Dope For Sally at Artspace in 2004, a recreation of the murder scene of Sydney underworld figure Sally Anne Huckstep, in which Furmage lay fully submerged in a fish tank filled with live eels for seven hours. Like many of her projects, she was threatened with legal action, in this case by the family of Huckstep, who objected to the unauthorised use of her story. I knew that whatever Furmage had in store for us, it was going to be a memorable evening, in one way or another.
Since initiating the project in April 2009, The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart had presented a range of art-related events with the irregularity and unpredictability of the seasons as promised. The Cosmic Committee had curated four exhibitions in the Rozelle house including: Colleagues and Peers (hokey-pokey) (31 May -7 June 2009), which featured work by over 25 artists including: Sarah Goffman, Michelle Hanlin, Anna Kristensen, Elizabeth Pulie, Rachel Scott and the members of the Cosmic Committee; +Air & More by John Adair (25 September – 4 October 2009), which included a special light show by Robert Lake; Bennelong Way to the Top by Brisbane-based artist Archie Moore, and Chicken Mole by Sarah Goffman (18-25 April 2010); and the group exhibition Happiness (25 September–3 October 2010), which included work by: Tim Barber, Christopher Hanrahan, Vanilla Netto, Justene Williams, and a participatory performance in the backyard that I facilitated.
These exhibitions offered a space for artists, friends and strangers to come together in a domestic context away from the conventional art institution. This was clear from the first exhibition Colleagues and Peers (hokey-pokey), in which paintings, sculptures, videos and performances by a range of invited artists were integrated into the lived environment – mingling with the objects, furniture, and existing artworks of the house. In the subsequent exhibitions the Cosmic Committee invited artists to develop work that responded specifically to the context of the lived environment.
The work emerged out of collaboration between the artists and the Cosmic Committee – through meetings, conversations and friendship. As Gothe-Snape explains, ‘A big part of the process was having the artist stay with us in the house to make the work. The artists had to deal with us, we all had to deal with each other and have real conversations.’4
On the opening nights people converged in the kitchen, living room, and in the backyard. They conversed, smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and ate the home-cooked meal that had been prepared for all the guests. The hospitality and generosity of openings were a key part of the experience, and as Gothe-Snape explains, ‘We liked the idea of food being a big part of the opening and keeping people there with food.’5 And it worked a charm. Within this environment it became hard to distinguish the artworks from the domestic space; and sometimes it wasn’t entirely clear whether you were at an art opening or a dinner party. This conflation between art and life presented the potential for more meaningful engagements between guests, as opposed to the often daunting and isolating experience of gallery openings. In this environment people came together, shared a meal, had a drink and a good old-fashioned chat about both art and non-art related matters.
The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart Lucky Door Prize (2010). Photo: Cosmic Committee
6.30pm The Cosmic Battle For Your Heart, Rozelle
When the bus pulled up at our final stop, the sense of expectation had reached its peak. We piled out onto the street and made our way up to the house at 138 Evans Street, where a group of people were awkwardly milling. As we joined the crowd we were confronted with a wall of nothing; not metaphorically speaking, there was quite literally nothing to see. The front of the house had been boarded up with large sheets of plywood and the side gate was barricaded with barbed wire. There was no text explaining what had happened or what we should do; no sign of Furmage, or the Cosmic Committee; and certainly no drinks or home-cooked meal to speak of.
To any non-contemporary arts audience, the house looked like it had been abandoned and was being primed for demolition. A wave of confusion washed over the crowd; maybe the house had been abandoned. No, not likely. The confusion and disappointment continued as people came and went. Cars ever so slowly cruised by and neighbours wandered past, regarding us with the appropriate amount of suspicion a crowd of people lingering out the front of a boarded up house deserve. One person turned to me and said, ‘So this is it, right? I mean, there’s nothing else, right?’ To which I replied, ‘I think so’. And then they turned away and quickly left. Another punter expressed their frustration as they had missed a wedding to be at the final opening, whilst two English tourists, who had boarded the bus at Artspace excited to see something ‘a bit different’, nervously asked for directions back to the city. I happily obliged.
I stood on the pavement among the crowd of disgruntled patrons, not entirely sure what to do or where to go. All I knew was that I really needed a drink. The longer I stood there, the clearer it became that this simple gesture, and the absence of any explanation, was the entirety of the work. This really was the end. And I couldn’t help but feel angry, disappointed and a little ripped off. The space that had always welcomed us was now rejecting us, and what was worse, in the final hour. Furmage’s gesture was aggressive, violent and unrelenting, a slap in the face.
This is, of course, not the first time an artist has denied audience members entry into the ‘gallery’ space. Since the late 1960s there has been countless examples of artists who have closed the gallery preventing the audience from having a good old-fashioned ‘art’ experience. As artist and writer Brian O’Doherty suggested in his essay, first published in Artforum in 1986, from the late 1960s onwards: ‘The excluded visitor, forced to contemplate not art but the gallery, became a motif.’6 This is evident in the works of artists such as: French-born, Daniel Buren, who in 1968 sealed off the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan and glued vertical white and green stripes of fabric over the door; or American based, Christo and Jeanne- Claude, who in 1969 closed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago by literally wrapping it inside and out; or American-based Robert Barry who in 1970 locked the doors to the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles and posted a small notice on the door that read: ‘during the exhibition the gallery will be closed’.
For these artists, and many more to follow, it was the art gallery and specifically the ‘white cube’ that provided the content for the artwork. Through gestures of absence and exclusion these artists challenged the role of the gallery and the way in which art could be presented and consumed, and indeed how it is that we define art. Closing the gallery meant looking out at the world; without the frame of the art institution, the audience had to develop their own content. As O’Doherty suggests, ‘In the closed gallery, the invisible space (dark? deserted?) uninhabited by the spectator or the eye, is penetrated only by the mind.’7 In other words: through denying audiences access into the gallery, the spectator’s idea of art can be projected and seen.
I took one last look at the boarded up house and wondered what it meant for Furmage to seal up this space. Why did she want to exclude a small artistic community, who had made the bus ride out to Rozelle on a Saturday afternoon? This was not the traditional white cube gallery that artists were critiquing in the late 1960s – this was a domestic gallery, which had been defined by generosity and hospitality, a space that deliberately conflated the boundaries between art and life; and art and the everyday. Putting aside my frustration and disappointment I came to realise that The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart had, in its own way, become an ‘arts institution’. This was a space that had defined a clear set of parameters about the way in which art could and should be presented and consumed; and a space that through virtue of its very existence made choices that would inevitably exclude.
As I stood there in the darkness it occurred to me that I had, as an excluded visitor, been forced to contemplate the invisible space behind the sheets of chipboard. Being denied access to the physical space of the gallery I was now only able to penetrate The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart with my mind. I could see that through this uncompromising gesture of exclusion, which was the antithesis of everything the space had stood for, I was able to project on the dark and deserted frontage of the building what this space had meant to me; and contemplate my particular view of art.
And in this way Furmage’s action was the perfect ending.
1. This one-night-only event was part of an off-site component of Eastern Seaboard, an exhibition at Artspace (2 March–10 April 2011), curated by Reuben Keehan and Melanie Oliver, which brought together the work of three Australian artist collectives including: The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart, Foodcourt du Jour, du Jour (Melbourne), and No Frills* (Brisbane).
2. Interview with Agatha Gothe-Snape and the author, 5 May 2011.
3. The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart Mission Statement, May 2009.
4. Interview with Agatha Gothe-Snape and the author, 5 May 2011.
6. Brian O’Doherty, The Gallery as a Gesture, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: University of California Press,1999) 94.
7. Ibid. 96.
Diana Smith is an Australian artist, writer and researcher. She is a founding member of performance and video art collective Brown Council, whose work has...