Campbelltown Arts Centre 10 December 5 February 2006
Stars of Track and Field is an exhibition that promised to deliver the punters an all-star team of emerging artists to keep an eye on. Although most of the featured works already had recent runs in Sydney galleries, the show offered the opportunity for viewers to catch all the action in the one arena.
Zehra Ahmed has had the kind of kick-start into art that most players only dream of. Her brilliant installation Permission to Narrate (2005) may be her first exhibited work but it has already shown at the Performance Space, Artspace and Newcastle Regional Gallery and is destined for a number of high profile overseas shows. It features a looped projection of a young man in Muslim dress throwing down some breakdance moves as he beatboxes.
Cast against a wall of Islamic graffiti text, the simulated 3d space of the projection seems to collapse the flat surface of the painted wall. The result is that the man appears to be dancing within the wall itself. He may seem trapped, but he is also moving with such nonchalance and ease that it is impossible to read the dynamic as exclusively one of oppression or freedom. Like the best politically conscious art, it ambushes the viewer at a visceral level.
Another truly knockout work of recent times is the incredible kinetic installation The sound before you make it (2005) by collaborative outfit David Lawrey and Jaki Middleton. At the core of this piece is a large motorised circular platform that supports rows of miniature zombie models. Each figurine strikes a pose from the famous dance sequence in Michael Jackson's Thriller video, where a crew of corpses shake their decomposing booty with the king of pop.
As viewers entered the darkened space, the oversized turntable of zombies began to spin, accompanied by a strobe machine and a snatch of beats from the Thriller track. Amazingly, the frenzied flash of the strobe appears to animate the figurines into a jerky motion – giving the impression the zombies are dancing. The mechanised pulse of this work generates such a contagious energy that it's not uncommon for viewers to let rip a squeal of delight.
Installed in their own blackened spaces, both Permission to Narrate and The sound before you make it are displayed at their personal best. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of the other works in Stars of Track and Field. A new name and a multi-million dollar makeover might have raised the profile of Campbelltown Arts Centre, but it's done little for the fact that the gallery remains a mostly unforgiving space to exhibit in.
The main gallery is a large carpeted area that resembles a dowdy function room and two token partitions do little to disguise the sprawling expanse. The fact that it was not installed with any floor works further compounded this problem. For Nigel Milsom's work, the unthinkable happened. His powerful and commanding paintings were dwarfed by the imposing volume of wall space. As a result, the impact of his extraordinary work seemed somewhat muffled when compared with its original installation at Firstdraft Gallery.
What's installation liquid nails (2005) was the only piece that seemed enhanced by the conservative layout of the main gallery. This owed much to the fact that his ornate frames, oozing with brown goo, were already a playful mutation of the Old Masters painting tradition.
Elsewhere, the meticulously crafted acrylic on aluminium works of Chris Firmstone also lost out to the awkward space. Here, the slick hard-edged minimalism of his aesthetic was bizarrely mocked by the hard-edged patterns of the tiled floor. The garish figurative sculptures on the opposite wall probably didn't help much either.
By bringing together artists who have performed well throughout the year, Stars of Track and Field provided a fast-track insight into recent works in the emerging art scene. But for those already submerged in this scene, it simply served as a reminder of the pleasures of taking the time to discover such works for yourself in the field.