THE BIG SMOKE
3 - 19 July 2008
Curated by Julian White
Noah Grosz, Kathryn McCool, Jacques Soddell, Tara Gilbee, Andrew Goodman + Greg Pritchard
A monument can be defined as a structure erected to commemorate a famous person or event or a site or structure that is of historical or cultural importance or interest. Although it is not implicit in it’s meaning the common sense idea of a monument is less invested in its referent then it is in the monument itself. The Big Smoke brings together 6 artists that have defined through their practice the monument as a reminder rather then a signifier. Particularly ‘monuments’ within regional Victoria that highlight its partially symbiotic, partially antithetical relationship with Melbourne’s urban society.
The thematic concept for The Big Smoke exhibition is ‘monuments’ within regional Victoria that highlight its partially symbiotic, partially antithetical relationship with Melbourne’s urban society. How do these artists engage with the idea of monuments and the relationship between the regions and Melbourne? Do they, in fact? Is Melbourne a cultural centre and the regions lesser ‘margins’? Are regional artists, therefore, marginalised? Perhaps the simpler questions to consider are whether and in what ways the work of these artists is affected by the fact that they live in regional Victoria rather than Melbourne. Five of the artists in the exhibition live in Bendigo or Castlemaine, no more than two hours drive from Melbourne, and both are towns with healthy arts communities. Would the answers to some of the questions above be quite different if a group of artists from the Wimmera or from far eastern Gippsland were involved?
While it is by no means clear that all of the works relate to the idea of the monument or even the relationship between the city and the regions at all, the work of two Bendigo artists, Jacques Soddell and Noah Grosz, does so quite explicitly. Soddell works primarily as a sound artist and composer and for this exhibition has created a monument to water, an expression of its vital importance to both urban and regional communities. In particular the work deals with the controversy created by the Victorian Government’s plans to construct a number of huge pipelines to transport water from rural areas to the Melbourne metropolitan area.
Soddell’s work lies within the tradition of John Cage’s concept of music as environmental sound and is particularly influenced by the work and writing of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. It poses questions such as that asked by Schafer in his book, The Tuning of the World: ‘is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control, or are we its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?’1
Sound recordings were made at a number of bodies of water around central Victoria, and subsequently manipulated, distorted and edited to create the textural aural element of Soddell’s monument to the controversial pipeline. But is the work a criticism or a celebration of the engineering feat that may go some way toward solving the immense problem of providing water to the metropolitan population?
Noah Grosz’s strange polystyrene and balsa wood monuments to mining and geology are similarly ambiguous. The black and white of the sculptures symbolise the contrast between the natural and the man-made, the structured and the organic. These works have their genesis in a fascination with the ‘monumental and castle-like appearance’ of the rock formations of cental Victoria. Since moving to the region about ten years ago Grosz has spent time exploring the granite forms of Mount Alexander (Leangannok) and meditating upon the lives of the Kooris who may have sought shelter amidst the rocky crags in times past. Grosz has at times seen this imagined existence as an ideal in contrast to his own inherited concept of a dream home, which is embedded in the European drive to control and harness nature. The three works exhibited do not pose a linear progression from nature, through the mining of resources to rigid constructed forms, but rather suggest a tussle between the two, with the outcome unknown. Grosz uses the term ‘genetic engineering’ to refer to the process by which the rocks are ‘grown, processed and concentrated into a solution that can be poured into molds for walls of more structures’. In Growing Rocks ‘the rocks have mutated and adjusted to their conditions and started to grow out of control right through the propagation building’ – clearly a reference to the highly emotive debate about genetic engineering in food production.
With their warm tonality and odd distortions Kathryn McCool’s photographs seem to sit somewhere between photography and painting. They depict a hyper-controlled world, the result of a multi-stage process. McCool photographs, collages, and constructs dioramas that are then re-photographed; the final image printed onto canvas. There is a silence and a stillness about the images in the series Catalogue, a disjuncture between subject and setting. The series is a response to ‘the stuff that comes in your letterbox…a taking control of the surplus of goods in society, an attempt to make it quiet’. A banal object – a basketball – sits huge and isolated in a vast flat empty landscape. Could this be considered a monument to the city or to regional Victoria? For McCool, these works are, in part, a response to ‘the disquiet of the suburbs’, and so they might be considered monuments to the suburban mass, the ‘no man’s land’ between the city and the regions. In another work, a Dachshund, similarly cast large, is endowed with a kind of gravitas that is at odds with the usual perception of this toy breed. McCool has said that the photographs are an attempt to portray the moment of pause just before or after the event.
Similarly, Greg Pritchard’s wall works may be interpreted as the traces of what has existed before. They suggest the huge images cast in fields or upon rocky surfaces, said to be signs left by interplanetary visitors. Or, in an urban context, they could be read as references to the stencil art of Melbourne’s laneways. However, his gaffa-tape images are intended as records of something more ephemeral still – shadows. Pritchard’s work as a shadow sculptor includes a large-scale performance on a silo for Space and Place (Regional Arts Australia Meeting Place Conference) in Natimuk in 2004. His interest in shadows is influenced by the ideas of German philosopher Schopenhauer, who believes that the world we perceive is merely a representation of an underlying ‘will’, a different reality; and also Plato’s Cave ‘where all we see are the shadows cast on the wall of the cave from a fire we cannot turn to see’. A similar idea also occurs in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
For in and out, above, about, below,
‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,
Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.
In the context of this exhibition Pritchard’s work may stand as an anti-monument; it is the impermanent trace of a transient moment, a cast shadow that exists only when there is sufficient light. Created using gaffa tape, it will cease to exist at the close of the exhibition. The work illustrates the nature of monuments as reminders, erected to commemorate an important person, event, a site or a structure – that which no longer exists.
The work exhibited by Tara Gilbee and Andrew Goodman relates to a collaborative project, Deluge, a multi-media installation that will be exhibited in Bendigo later this year. This will include sound, video and sculptural elements and will explore concepts of the transformative nature of and metaphors associated with water. In their recent work both artists have explored the experience of the human body – the relationship between the body and the work and the body and the natural world. Drawing upon the writings of Deleuze and Bataille that advocate the immersion of the body in physical sensation, this project will explore the concept of ‘affect’, the direct physical connection between the viewer’s body and the ‘event’ that works to blur boundaries between the two. The work references science fiction, anime and Japanese horror films which frequently exploit an Animist view of the world. Thus, Deluge exploits the idea of water as a potent and dangerous force – ‘a slippery, illusionary substance that can invade and transform space’. These ideas are also explored in Threshold. Here the viewer’s engagement with the work is intimate and voyeuristic rather than one of immersion, but nevertheless affecting.
With reference to the theme of this exhibition, and having only moved from Melbourne to Castlemaine a few years ago, Gilbee has observed that the shift from the city to the regions has not been a monumental one. The professional network she developed while studying and working in Melbourne remains largely intact and accessible, so that she feels little, if any, sense of rural isolation.
1. R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1980, p.5.
A monument can be defined as a structure erected to commemorate a famous person, event or site or structure that is of historical and cultural importance. Although it is not implicit in its meaning, the common sense idea of a monument is less invested in its referent than it is in the monument itself. ‘The Big Smoke’ brings together six artists who have defined through their practice the monument as a reminder rather then a signifier, particularly ‘monuments’ within regional Victoria that highlight a partially symbiotic, partially antithetical relationship with Melbourne’s urban society.
Jacques and Noah’s work represent the most literal interpretations of the ‘monuments’ concept, both having created Interpretations of real world monuments that cut at the heart of the regional/urban relationship in this country – water and mining respectively. The pipe and the mine are monuments to the technical abilities and natural resources that keep society, both regional and urban, up and running.
Kathryn, on the other hand, is more in the business of creating monuments, although she creates them to commemorate items and experiences that traditionally have been ignored by monuments makers. Her subjects are not great and grand but they are significant, which makes their commemoration a monument in accepted definitions. Some may criticize her works for being purely photographic. Traditionally, monuments have been statues or structures but film-based recording overtook statues as the dominant form of remembrance long ago. Having said that, Kathryn’s work is influenced by ‘stone’ monuments of old, especially the stoic character of the objects in her catalogue series. There is a definite ‘suburban’ feel to Kathryn’s imagery. What better monument to the urban and regional centers of Melbourne than the vast suburbs that lie in the no man’s land that defines their separation
Tara and Andrew operate in a similar vein to Kathryn but instead of creating large monuments, in the traditional style, to subtle things (as is Kathryn’s method) they challenge the idea of the stoic and proud monument by creating subtle monuments to subtle things – small traces of human emotions and the subtle languages of the body. They defy the notion of a monument’s grandeur. The intimacy of headphones and a personal DVD player are miles from the stone and concrete of ‘old’ monuments. They adhere to modern notions of reflection and remembrance as aspects of self.
Lastly, Greg is creating a solid trace of cast shadow and light, bringing solid form to the ultimate transient moment. I’ve included Greg’s work because it is deliberately not a monument; even the work itself is not permanent, created using gaffa tape it will be destroyed by the process of de-installation. It illustrates the nature of monuments as reminders and the true nature of memory, which is far less concrete then a traditional monument, would have us believe. At the end of the exhibition, all we will have is a digital image on the website, a monument to the solid work, which was a monument to the cast light that created its form, which was a monument to the real world referent. How many changes has it gone through in those steps? How far removed is the monument from what we are supposed to be reminded of?
- Julian White