Visual Arts Program: Festival of Perth

Exhibition review Visual Arts Program: Festival of Perth February 1998

David Blenkinsop's finale as Director of the Festival of Perth appears to have finally bestowed upon the visual arts a respectable bite of the Festival cherry. But the public's blessing is a reviewer's bane.There was such a diversity and number shows that I can make only a passing reference to some.

The major show supported by the Festival, Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions at the Art Gallery of WA has been reviewed elsewhere in this publication. This show and ART(iculations) - the series of talks held at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) - claimed the major share of Festival sponsorship.

I spent some time looking for an elusive common thread among the various exhibitions and found myself constantly framing them against the emotional experience of the Asian exhibition. Most of the other shows were emotionally 'cooler' and more intellectualised. Some appeared more interested in the process than the message. Was it the Western preoccupation of 'art for art's sake' that held sway in contrast to their Asian colleagues' engagement with global forces that buffet their societies?

An exception to this were the gut-wrenching images of photojournalist Philip Blenkinsop in Riding the Tiger's Back - a reference to the tiger economies of South East Asia. Blenkinsop's stark black and white images confronting Western viewers sensibilities left me with a sense of alienation. Asian faces contorted and bloodied by bizarre rituals, such as the Vegetarian festival-revellers piercing their flesh with serrated saws and razor blades, left me revolted. Other images, equally disturbing and distancing (vomiting drug addicts, rat eaters, flayed and butchered dogs ready for eating) while technically excellent, left me wondering at the purpose of choosing such subjects. Until recently, we were taught to view Asia as alien and fearful, the yellow hordes. Blenkinsop reinforces that stereotype separating us, the civilised, from them, the sub-humans. Sensitive images may be less dramatic but have much to say to which the mothers and lovers in us all can relate.

On a lighter note, at Artplace, Tania Ferrier's dancing figures featured on the Festival logo were a welcome relief. Whimsical and lively, one could almost hear the calypso they were hopping to. Some of the more sombre blue/grey figures had a little of the early Picasso period about them without the reflective mood. These little people seemed possessed with the spirit of the dance and each other.

Also at Artplace were installation artists, Olga Cironis and Louise Monte. The former's Tertium non data was an assembly of a long mat woven with human hair displayed under bare yellow globes, set off by neat rows of baby shoes stitched out of skin. A clear plastic sign displayed the names of all of the donors to the hair mat. My instant thought was of another time and another place where one saw piles of human hair displayed and objects made of skin. These places also kept orderly lists of their 'contributors'. The installation had a sense of menace and intrigue which was hard to put a finger on until I read anthropologist, John von Sturmer's words accompanying the display.
His references to fetish and alchemical powers remind me of the care my African partner took with these very personal remains of a body. Hair, skin and nail parings are regarded as very powerful stuff for witchcraft needing to be disposed of carefully. As Von Sturmer says, "it sets off processes which cannot be contained."

Louise Monte's piece Fruits of desire and labour was intriguing, even if it was only for the subtle shades of oranges and greens in the decomposing spores of rotting fruit and the incandescent glow of drooping, gelatinous interiors of canned foods. The artist's notes referred to fetishes (a currently favoured word) but I found the visual reference elusive.

Goddard de Fiddes gallery was transformed by visiting British artist, David Tremlett who draws with pastel directly onto walls specially prepared for the occasion. The colour, size and density of the drawings evoked an immediate memory for me of north-west landscape. Typically, Tremlett draws geometric shapes judiciously spaced in contemporary buildings. The curvaceous, sloping lines of this exhibition, drawn from landscapes in Eritrea, are a new direction for him. I'm not sure they worked as well, crowded into this particular space. Drawing for a wall #5, pastel on paper was reminiscent of his earlier work and showed his power as a designer using both the field and the form to maximum effect.

Minimalism was the focus of the works on show at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery curated by John Stringer from the Stokes Collection. Dan Flavin's fluorescent, mesmerising light works sat alongside Bridget Riley's sixties optical paintings. Some carry well over to a new audience of the nineties. A particular favourite of mine is Robert Irwin's glowing acrylic and lacquer disc. Others now appear dated, surrounded as we now are by an industrial landscape so heavily influenced by their concepts and designs. It was this work that helped us accept some of the Aboriginal art we now embrace with its non representational, pictographic forms. Placing Rover Thomas' work in the context of this exhibition was a thoughtful reminder of this.

Karl Wiebke, a German artist now resident in Perth, has an exhibition of his drawings and paintings at Galerie Dusseldorf. Wiebke's heavily-encrusted enamel paintings have taken years to come to fruition. The slow process gives the impression of a living, organic being that has taken form in much the same way as a coral reef grows or a stromatalite encrusts. The 3D nature of the delicate layering enabled it to be read differently from many viewpoints giving a liveliness to the work. I'm looking forward to seeing what influences the new Festival Director, Irishman Sean Doran introduces for his first Festival of Perth.

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