Yellow Vest Syndrome

The Yellow Vest Syndrome: recent West Australian art Curator: Jasmin Stephens Fremantle Arts Centre 31 January – 29 March 2009

Tom Mùller Skull Springs (Levitating Galah) 2008, synthetic polymer on skeleton, 24 x 8 x 4 cm. Courtesy and © the artist and Galerie Düsseldorf. Photo: Bewley Shaylor.

Western Australia's identity has long been linked with the notion of itself as a literal bedrock of resources. But it’s an unstable identification, tremulously underpinned by the ever-present threat of bust. With a recent move from Sydney to Fremantle fuelling her curiosity curator Jasmin Stephens has cast a wide net to select works that offer a range of interpretations of what the state’s culture of progress ('the yellow vest’) might mean for artists.

Mirroring her personal transition, the exhibition emerges as the process an outsider makes when they inhabit a new place, featuring a gathering of local understandings, in order to make sense of that place.

Ideas of landscape, place, statehood and territories weave throughout the exhibition. Sarah Elson’s 'Anigozanthos (eudaimonia hybrid)' is a collection of 338 specimens pinned to a wall. At first approach their material is indistinct: the shadows of the forms causing spiky markings to emerge from their grid structure, a muted, alien herbarium. It is only upon close inspection that their matter becomes clear: they are tiny kangaroo paws, individually cast in recycled silver, copper, bronze and gold. The very nature of the delicate rendering - each floral fibre is exquisitely maintained – calls attention to process, evoking methodologies of botany and the precious metals industry. These two ways of capturing the natural world lie at distinct odds with each other, yet loom equally large in Western Australian identity, the state known for both its ecological diversity and mining power. This coexistence creates a conundrum that Elson effectively ‘hybridises’, while at the same time alluding to another relationship with material with the sub-title ‘eudaimonia’ referring to happiness, hinting at the artist’s experiential process.

Also exploring duality is a work by Tom Mùller. A partially mummified galah, carefully brought south to Perth from its resting place of Skull Springs in the Pilbara, has been embalmed in lolly-pink paint. The skinny bones, bent with death, are weighted with the heavy application of acrylic toxicity. Removed from its original organic location, it has been positioned on an egg-shaped plinth low to the floor, Mùller re-placing the bird again upon ‘ground’, but here as an object. The intimacy of mortality, a witnessing of the way in which the bird’s body has curled up as it has desiccated, is combined with garish pink-hued modernity, viewed here in the artificial light of the gallery. The result is a salient homage to the bird’s life and a meditation upon the collision between the natural and the manmade.

Perdita Phillips’ practice of walking in country is represented in her film 'herethere' above and below which documents her traversing a steep incline of red rocky earth in the Kimberley. Her figure, clothed in a white lab coat, purposefully walks up and back down, the rise. Screened on a small DVD player placed high on the wall, both the location and the activity (Phillips’ face is out of view until the end of the loop), are positioned as just out of reach for the viewer. The reduction of scale causes the vista to be dwarfed, the detail lost in swathes of colour that appear near-abstracted. In this way landscape, and her relationship with it, are inaccessible. We must rely on our imagination – neatly pointing to the way in which we construct landscape.

Phillips’ corresponding photographic series depicts geologist Alvin D’Almaida conducting a survey at Wheelbarrow Creek. Segments of his figure are variously shown, in a structural breakdown of activity: his toolbelt and clothing (drill cotton), hands clasping flower sepals, doodling field markings in a notebook. We don’t see his face, are simply given these clues to D’Almaida’s relationship with landscape, as observed by Phillips. Again, they don’t fall into any easy way of reading, further muddying our understanding by positioning landscape as mediated by interpretation.

Given the number of performance-based and sculptural works, it was interesting that I found the most visceral to be two-dimensional. Nyoongar Christopher Pease’s painting 'Season' uses a mixture of grass tree resin and ochre on hessian. Light brown ochre dots indicating the European and Nyoongar seasons are encroached upon by thickly applied glistening resin. The colour of the ochre is similar to the hessian of which a thin line is left at the border of the painting so the dots appear as negative space. The application of material is palpable and in this way the painterly body emerges, positioning place as resolutely personal.

A series of documentary photographs of a wheatbelt ‘B&S Ball’ by Caitlin Harrison takes a sociological approach to the state’s milieu. Taken at dusk or dawn, the light is post-apocalyptic, recalling the post-apocalyptic movie 'The Day After'. Survivors of the weekend bender mooch about to the flickering light of burning cars. Dirt-blackened faces suggest carnival or war paint. In one way it is truly carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense – a temporary zone that is a bastion for collective activity. People come from neighbouring towns to get written off. But this behaviour is possibly not all that different from what happens during the week in smaller backyards, and despite the masquerade an element of conformity lingers.

In one image, a man lolls on a couch in front of his mud-splattered Commodore, wearing a tie fashioned from a shredded tyre, straight out of 'Mad Max'. Girls sprawling on chaff grass in footy socks and mini skirts offer the peace sign. The images recall Boris Mikhailov’s documentations of society’s edge, but with a candour reminiscent of Nan Goldin: the documenting is done with warmth.

Cultural production is investigated more explicitly elsewhere – Mike Gray’s studies of McMansions, and Tim Burns’ colouring-in drawings of grey nomadic campervans hint at the aspirational qualities of the state, while Brendan Van Hek’s graphite tribute to Piero Manzoni gently nods to geographical boundaries.

Overall the curator’s compelling selection of work from her new home combine to create a layered picture – both conceptually and in terms of contemporary art practice. In its entirety the exhibition does not provide a tidy interpretation of its themes, but gives a diverse exploration of a place, that is neither black, white nor yellow.

Fremantle Arts Centre

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