Wade Marynowsky, Autonomous improvisation v1, 2007, video and pianola installation, [pictured contributing artists: Milica Stefanovic (left and right), Dallas Della Force (centre)] installation view, Primavera 09, MCA, Sydney. Photo: Jenni Carter.
Pinpointing an exhibition’s thematic thread can be both a pleasure and a burden, but one that can help us further appreciate a curator’s intentions and outcomes. With Primavera this task gets even trickier given that this annual group exhibition is usually unthemed; the only official commonality between the included artists is their status as ‘young’ and ‘Australian’. So too, this year’s guest curator Jeff Khan has collated a group of artists that practically and theoretically have very little else in common.1 Perhaps we could seize upon this as an advocation by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) to throw the spotlight back on the artists.
What best linked the disparity of the nine artists in Primavera 2009 was their unabashed sense of exploration. Whether the totality of their work here was more or less successful, each addressed their installation space/s with creativity and self-faith. The (mostly) earnest work was a refreshing change from the wave of distancing techniques and the obsession with irony that, particularly of late, seems to have had a stronghold on the work of emerging artists in this country. The result was a varied and dynamic showcase.
Christopher LG Hill’s Clique (2009) provided the entrance point for the show: a circle of empty chairs, each personified by leftover remnants belonging to a phantom inhabitant. It read like the opening stage directions of a play. Or as though some mysterious emergency had caused a massive exodus and the viewer was the only one left to make sense of the debris. Hill’s artistic metaphor suggested endless manifestations around the notions of authorship, collectivity and presence/absence within an artistic realm. But ripples of political commentary also attached themselves to the deserted chaos.
On the subject of chaos, Wade Marynowsky’s Autonomous Improvisation v.1 (2007) strung together a discordant melange of video sequences described by Khan as ‘nineteenth-century gothic-horror imagery and humour’.2 From a devil-worshipping electric guitarist to a Leigh Bowery-esque character with sequins and a hula-hoop to boot, Khan’s description is apt for the odd sort of sound art spectacle that results. For me personally, ‘three-channel audio and visual projection’ is becoming less of an aphrodisiac, but this work was strangely addictive. Perhaps in the same semi-shameful way that watching the outtakes of a talent-based reality show can be. Who are these friendly freaks and who or what are they performing for? There was also a spooky sense of automated control—Kubrick’s Space Odyssey gone goth. The mechanical pianola complete with computer-generated candelabra was Marynowsky’s cheeky cherry on top.
Christine Eid’s work operated in a more quotidian sphere. The artist spent years researching the stories of Lebanese migrants who came to Australia in the fifties and sixties and mostly out of necessity, became taxi drivers once they moved to Melbourne. At times overtly didactic, the most powerful work in Eid’s suite was her flock of taxi roof lights. Displayed like glowing headstones, each light glared the name of its owner—names that oscillate between English and Arabic, from John and Ray to Nadim and Youssef. The strength of the work lay in its exploration of the nebulous notion of where cultural identity begins and ends. Names are central to our individual sense of identity but are necessarily malleable for these men that live in both cultures, or between them, awaiting rebirth as something, or someone, else.
The personal and universal were again at play in the work of Roderick Sprigg, an artist with a very different background. Again a conglomerate of different media, Sprigg’s installation Mechanical Nuisance (2008–09) was an exploration of his Western Australian farming heritage and, in particular, the notion of masculinity within it. Constructed from protective equipment typically employed by farmers, Sprigg’s dining table stood as a steel monument to the slippage between the ideal and the real. It seemed to call into question the ideal of the brave lone male tilling the field, returning at night to a loving wife, doting children and a nutritious feed. Framed in a domestic setting, these protective guards were also suggestive of an emotional guardedness, raising questions about familial dynamics and the personal costs of this rural lifestyle. The notion of masculinity is perhaps one not dealt with frequently enough in art, especially considering the complex masculine paradigms innate to Australian culture. The spatial realisation of the installation did not do the piece any favours; it felt more like a passage between works than a destination in itself, and Sprigg could have gone much further with his chosen subject.
Ross Manning’s kinetic installations transform everyday objects such as electric fans and pieces of plywood into breathing artworks, shimmering and shivering as they whir and rotate. Around these smartly engineered feedback systems there are, of course, themes of human and technological interaction and a critique of the embarrassing excess left in the wake of our consumerist society. So too, there are important ecological—not to mention social—questions about our future and the ever-expanding role of machines within it. Manning’s Sad Majick (2009) was a highlight of Primavera. Alone in a darkened room, a tiny, central prism created fans of coloured light as it rotated around its axis. The work was simultaneously simple and complex, magical, beautiful and yes, as the title suggests, somehow sad.
Michaela Gleave’s offering was another stunning work, both in its visual aesthetic and in a ‘how did she do that?’ kind of way. Typical of her large architectural installations, Raining Room (Seeing Stars) (2009) was a private viewing of the natural phenomena of precipitation; within the walls of the MCA, within a constructed timber box, a steady rain fell. Gleave’s work blurs inside and outside environments, creating a microcosm of interdependence. She purposely exposes the inner mechanics of her intricate nature-mimicking pieces, and in doing so challenges ideas of ownership and creation.
Dealing with similar themes in a vastly different manner was The Oom (2009-present), a perplexing installation and ongoing project by Adelaide-based artist Andy Best and his collaborators. The range of work exhibited included photographs, an online portal and mobile living quarters, and offered a sneak-peak into an artist colony with members both real and imaginary. It conjured the history of 1960s exploratory communities like Esalen in the United States—a favourite of transcendental seekers and artists such as Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Jack Kerouac. Whether proposing or critiquing a radical hermetic collective existence, Best’s brave new world was indeed, as Khan notes, a ‘slippery entity’. 3 Collectively The Oom looked more akin to the pages of Vice Magazine than a hopeful alternative to an artless or spiritless existence. A little too slippery perhaps.
If this seems to be getting too esoteric, Spat + Loogie’s work Pie (2009) brings us back down to earth. Outside the MCA, members of the general public could book an allocated time to converse with an artist. At the conclusion of this appointment they could choose to either enjoy a cream pie with the artist or appropriate the old pie-in-the-face slapstick gag. Through the comedic appeal of this humiliating public spectacle, the duo endeavoured to engage non-art-goers in artistic debate. In the process, the viewer-come-performer-come-critic is armed with ideas, or with cream, and the act of pieing (or not) becomes political. My issue with the piece is the insufficient documentation of these live actions included in the body of the exhibition itself—a problematic aspect of much performance work. Sometimes photos just don’t cut it. And I find it interesting that engagement with the general public often entails seeking a sense of validation for art’s importance and revelatory capabilities. Why do the business or sports sectors never stop to ask us what we think of them.
Primavera 2009, curated by Jeff Khan, was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney from 9 September to 22 November, 2009. The exhibition featured Andy Best, Christine Eid, Michaela Gleave, Christopher LG Hill, Ross Manning, Wade Marynowsky, Roderick Sprigg and spat + loogie.
1. Jeff Khan is also the current Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival.
2. Exhibition wall text, Primavera 09: Exhibition by Young Australian Artists, Museum of Contemporary Art.
3. Jeff Khan, Primavera 09: Exhibition by Young Australian Artists (exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2009) 12.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 15, Lies, Summer 2009-2010, pp 80 – 83.
Talia Linz is a writer and curator based in Sydney. She is the 2013-14 Nick Waterlow OAM Curatorial Fellow at the Biennale of Sydney; former...