Curator: Robyn Daw Artists: Cath Barcan, Christl Berg, Barbie Kjar, Greg Leong University Gallery, Launceston Tasmania 8- 31 August 1997
Tripping the Light was subtitled the Big Party Show, a flamboyant amalgam of costumes, computer generated cuisine, incriminating party documentary photographs, and romantic lithographic portraits.
The concept of the exhibition was devised by Robyn Daw and involved four artists, each engaging with one of the vital components of a stupendous celebratory occasion: Christl Berg created the menu, Greg Leong, the fancy frocks, Barbie Kjar brought the guests and Cath Barcan provided the hard evidence of fun being had.
The exhibition was timed to mark mid-winter and to bring much needed warmth to the dreariness of the long, dark nights. The opening of this unexhibition-like exhibition was an energetic, festive and noisy event. The apparently simple idea of a party broke the usual reverence experienced in the "white cube." In fact I have never been to an opening where the audience was so actively engaged in actually looking at the work. But then again, was I - like many of the other guests - going to be revealed in some less than flattering pose? There was an air of voyeuristic delight for those who felt safe that they were not going to be caught out and therefore could revel in witnessing those who were.
After the hubbub had died down however, I was left with the nagging question
- is it possible to have innocent fun any more, and more specifically is it possible to have unmediated fun within contemporary visual arts practice? Despite the desire to claim the affirmative, one is left with the uneasy feeling that the frothy exterior is only a veneer masking a complexity of relationships that reel and seethe below the surface. So the usual questions of who's running the show, who are the winners and who are the losers beg to be answered. Who is in the control of the party experience in general and the party represented in this exhibition in particular?
To prepare for the party the host/ess plans; mobilises resources; arranges the setting; sets the parameters and expectations; chooses the participants; then gets very nervous and vows not to come out of the kitchen despite the fabulous creations like Poisson a la rosa or Engulfed kidney on ripe fig that Berg concocted.
Parties are supposed to be fun and relaxing, and on occasion and for some people, they might be. But like Christmas they are also arenas in which one's primal fears, personal foibles and insecurities surface for both host/ess and guest. For the latter after the relief of surviving the first hurdle of actually being invited, comes the question 'What am I going to wear?' This seemingly trivial thought is fraught with dilemmas: What do I want to get out of this party? What image do I need to project? Who is that persona that I call "myself" in the phrase - "I'll just go as myself?" Whoever that might be, is it going to be laid bare for all to see? What does "coming out of oneself" actually mean? At this moment anyone's delicate self esteem can be left in tatters.
How much can parties make welcome the stranger in our midst and the stranger in all of us? The line between insider and outsider can be painfully sharp. In this case whimsical theatrical costumes were made for three of the four artists and another for the curator. Each spoke of the personal connection between the costume creator, Leong and the costume wearer. Leong's fascination with opera informed his choices: he presented himself as Puccini's Turandot, Berg as Berg's Lulu, Barcan as Bizet's Carmen and Daw, as Wagner's Brunhilde. Yet the absence of a costume for the remaining artist became gnawingly apparent. Is this evidence of awkwardness that surrounds the stranger? Is it an oversight, an accident or perhaps even a deliberate slight? Kjar's own images seemed to reinforce her separation. They were of the nervous wallflower; the quiet, vulnerable outsider; the entangled couple oblivious to everything beyond themselves. Her work did not display the extroverted merriment in which Barcan's happy revellers engaged. Instead her guests represented the desire for relationship and the dilemmas and pain that that can bring. Did this party therefore exemplify the power imbalance often embedded in social relationships, confirming the insider's position against the others?
So in our desire for transcendence through fun, the meanings slip, our intentions rise up and turn against us, our best laid plans unravel, our weaknesses are exposed, our values and desires are revealed for all to see. So often after one has staggered home from the party - desires and dreams unfulfilled - embarrassment and/or emptiness bring the resolve never to do it again - until next time that is. It might therefore be concluded that despite the jolly intentions parties are serious business.
Then again perhaps the key lay in the catalogue reference to the seeming oxymoron "serious fun," a condition in which "everyday worries are suspended." Has this exhibition been placed in opposition to something like "inconsequential solemnity? If so was there a desire to counter the weighty tone of much contemporary arts practice, or could the sub-text be read as a critique of the dominant perception of the Tasmanian art scene as being the representation of a Gothic and portentous landscape? After all, half the island is dominated by impenetrable rain forests, oppressive and dangerous mountain ranges and the bleak expanse of the grey ocean reaching southwards to Antarctica. Add to this a history of incarceration, murder and genocide, and the scene is set for the development of an art that radiates heady seriousness, internal angst and collective guilt. Could this show therefore be an attempt to reveal another side, that which faces north to the sun, where people get on with the business of living, raising families, making the most of what the little island has to offer and engaging with art practices that are energetic, romantic, playful, joyful, flamboyant, often despite their political and theoretical underpinnings? Perhaps the exhibition attempted to subvert this dominant paradigm by inverting its predominate characteristics. Thus the overt seriousness of Tasmanian Gothic is set against puns and wit, playing, pretending, frivolity, vulgarity and camaraderie.
Whatever the underlying motivation, the desire for transcendence remained unfulfilled despite the fact each art work was thorough and convincing within its particular frame of reference. The desire to "just do it" has become an impossibility. We have lost our innocence - not that we ever had it, but the thought was comforting. Now every minuscule detail of what we do is placed under close scrutiny, and what we do also includes what we don't do - unintentionally revealing more of our selves than we think.
Thus any event exists in a complexity of contexts which threaten to undermine even the most apparently innocent occasions.