ANCA Gallery, 28 February – 18 March 2018
Hannah Bath, Karen Golland, Elly Kent, Heidi Lefebvre, Rose Montebello, Ali Jane Smith
Curated by Patsy Payne
When I enter the gallery, there is a faint noise coming from the far corner. It’s behind a wall. The title of the exhibition has given me a clue, so it’s a recognisable sound: whirr, clunk. Whirr, clunk. It’s a slide projector, cycling through an array of images. Each slide starts out of focus, abstracted, then shifts backward into clarity. Every now and again, the next slide is blank: bright white against the wall, with a golden-brown aura at the edges. There is a faint tappetting, but whirr, clunk is the dominant sound. It feels authentic and nostalgic – I’m old enough to remember family slide nights of holiday snaps, or endless carousels of khaki jungle as my father reminisced about his Vietnam service – but there’s something missing. After a moment, prompted by those brown burnt-looking edges, I realise that there isn’t that small heat-wave floating around the machine, a fug of burnt dust that accompanies the motes that waft through the projector beam. I look closer. It’s a digital projector, and the ‘slideshow’ is pre-recorded, albeit very convincingly.
I knew that, already. I’d read a draft of Patsy Payne’s catalogue essay, and went to see the artists while they installed the exhibition. I’d walked around, picking my way between stacks of work being hung, and talked to them, and the curator, listening to the stories behind the work: the large, overarching concept, and the various tangents that they’d taken. Later in the week, I attended the opening. The work was arranged well around the room, and the slide projector was cycling through the slides in the back corner. There was a room sheet, listing the works on display, but there was nothing to say why there were slides in the room apart from the title of the show. Whose slides? Of what? Why? This is the exhibition pitch, mounted on the website but not in the room:
Any sense of History, linking past and future, has been marginalised, if not eliminated. And so, people are suffering a sense of Historic loneliness. (John Berger, Confabulations, 2014)
In today’s context of alternative facts, a world of information intended to distract us from what is ‘true, essential and urgent,’ the catalyst for [this] exhibition is a collection of visual signs – vintage travel slides – that refer to meaning just beyond our experience. As the six artists respond to these images separated from their original history, they confabulate new meanings, modifying and adjusting the images through creative and intellectual responses.
There is to be an exhibition catalogue that includes an essay by curator Patsy Payne (ex Head of Printmedia & Drawing, ANU School of Art) but it was unfortunately delayed, and will be launched on the final day of the exhibition. In the meantime, visitors to the gallery are as separated from the the history of the show, left to confabulate their own meanings. I decided to try to respond to the works as if seeing them fresh, and then compare these responses to my research notes.
Plovers sandpipers stints curlews and snipes
fly the route of the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement
(JAMBA) encounter jet planes flying back and forth
tours of shearing sheds and temples
watching the tea ceremony reaching out to touch a koala
The Moss Garden is a group of seven poems hand-written on the gallery wall in pencil. I read them and then walk into the centre of the room and turn around slowly, trying to get a feel for the connections. There are small paintings mounted onto mirrors,
frame or window see what you want in this elsewhere
a cluster of strange brightly-coloured mounds on the floor, flashing inner lights,
as jellies just turned out of their molds
drawings of temples and other landmarks cut out of yellow card and mounted like dioramas on white plinths,
life and land cracked like a chest
collaged photographs, scored with sharp, evenly-spaced lines,
each furrow runs alongside sod already turned
then three large drawings of people and a long row of very small delicate paintings of Mt Fuji,
pick up threads push edges together.
Turning the corner to the projector, I watch the slides and I see that some of the images are echoing around the room. They are travel slides of various Asian tourist destinations, taken from cruise liners, plane windows and on the ground. From the clothes and accessories, and the chemical qualities of the colours, these images are mid-20th century. There are tourists, locals, familiar tourist destinations and many small mysteries. The poetry is full of these mysteries, but also peeling back any romantic facades:
chimney doornail war land theft massacre kidnapping
rape beating imprisonment forced labour surveillance exile
Payne’s essay told me that viewing one of the slides of a Japanese Moss Garden sent Smith into a lateral reverie about ‘European ideals of nature and environments that formed backdrops for myths and stories. She found herself thinking about what it is like to be a woman in the physical conditions of … nineteenth century … Australia, estranged and longing for the greenness of European landscapes.’1
mental pictures figures posed in the fringes of the bush
walking pushing a handcart on horseback waiting in the sulky
carrying milk cans grog tired children umbrellas
hauling cutting slashing digging squatting
a strange tenuous life what’s all around them invisible
By the mid-twentieth century, Australians were keen to escape and travel. Perhaps it was a chance for those who had been to war to show their families some of the otherness of the world. Many chose to visit Asia on P&O cruises, which formed a burgeoning tourist industry. As post-war prosperity rose, Asia was an affordable, exotic destination, and the tourist dollars were also attractive to the countries being visited.
A series of small paintings hang conventionally against the wall, but sit on small mirrors that jut out like shelves and reflect upwards, each small and oddly shaped. Consequently, details of each image double upwards as I move in and out. As I’m admiring the multiplicity of shadows cast upwards by the gallery lighting, I realise that they are wing mirrors, the kind used on mopeds and motorbikes all through Asia. Rear-vision, revisioning the paintings, giving alternative perspectives.
I walk along the line. The titles are all Indonesian, and the series is called Extravagant Contrivances. The images are painted on recycled cork drink coasters, a clever material tension directed at a country that is increasingly bound by Muslim strictures but funded by heavy-drinking tourists. Some of them seem to be renditions of the slides clunking around the corner: tourists at temples, markets, street scenes. Others are of classrooms, soldiers, and political meetings. A red curtain is a recurring motif. There are a few black and white ‘photos’, one of which shows Indonesian President Soeharto cuddling a koala in 1975. Slightly surreal, but it forges an instant connection between this Indonesian array and the place in which I’m standing, right now. The more I look at these little pieces, the more I think about the complex shared history of our two countries: after all, during Soeharto’s reign, Australia trained the Indonesian military officers that would go on to maintain his military dictatorship, and invade East Timor.
That’s exactly what Elly wanted me to do. Dr Elly Kent’s strong connection to Indonesia began as an 8 year old when her father was posted to the remote town of Kefamenanu in West Timor working for AusAID. She has continued a strong connection with Indonesia via her studies, artwork, translation work and participatory projects like @StudioAuntara.
Elly has used her understanding of the complexity of the recent history of Indonesia as a springboard to consider the implications of the global mobility available to the moderately affluent, and to wonder about the political machinations that underlie the peaceful travels so many Australians experience, and thus their degree of complicity. Her historical contrivances, painted onto discarded cork drink coasters and balanced on small rear-view mirrors offer inversions, questions and provocations. (Payne, essay for Slideshow)
Some of Kent’s paintings are indeed from the collection of slides clicking through at the back of the gallery; others are taken from Trove (the black and white photos) and there are also scenes from dioramas in the Indonesian Museum of History: in other words, the ‘official’ history that is passed on to the people, constructed to suit the government. The series is a mash-up of her personal recollection and experience, and someone else’s – whose, exactly, is uncertain – but it is a line of small provocations, pushing connections, and the last painting in the series is a full spread of red curtain, half-rippled, half flat: is it in the process of closing? Or starting to be pulled open?
Walking on, there’s a plinth with a pair of cardboard goggles sitting on it. There are instructions: use your smartphone, click on this link, put the phone into the front of these goggles, and put them on. I do this. Suddenly I’m in a deep surrounding dark space. As I move my head, there are globs of colours, flashing in more colours. It’s a virtual version of the mounds lying on the floor at my feet, but infinitely more psychedelic.
The ‘real’ mounds are manically sprouting from the floor, constructed from pom-poms of various fluorescent colours of wool and a nylon knitting ribbon I always think of as ‘floss’, the kind that was used to knit toilet roll covers sold at church fetes in the 1960s and 70s. Pink, orange, yellow, white, their throbbing inner lights give the sense that any moment they will start moving around the room like floral Roombas. Are they floral? Are they alien? Are they tourists, visiting us?
The title of the work is Mad Honey (Azalea Garden by our Lake). One of the slides in the revolving digital carousel depicts a famous garden in Japan, by the shores of Lake Ashi. Look it up on the internet, it’s a riot of colour during the blooming season. Golland explained to me that she’d zoomed in on Google Earth to find that it still existed, and then followed trails of thought to this work. Googling the plants used in the garden, she discovered that flower from this family – azaleas, rhododendrons – contain a toxin called grayanotoxin which can cause hallucinogenic effects in humans. The honey made by the bees inhabiting the garden is known as ‘mad honey’, and is sought after by locals and tourists alike, no doubt generating the same sort of interest that peyote does in the Americas from people wanting a different experience of reality, reflected in Golland’s work by what Payne calls ‘extreme artificiality’.
I see this azalea garden again across the room, in a series of collages. Many of the slides are here, pulled apart then grafted together, creating new scenery. It’s like having a number of windows open on your computer screen. Some are gently meshing, others are punctured and disjointed, but all are scored by evenly-spaced fine lines. On one image, there is a circular protrusion, and the scored lines evoke the tracking of a vinyl record: is there something embedded in these grooves?
These images, titled ‘Time Experiments’ are like snatches of memory, impressions quilted together without the surety of stitches. The long thin strips could unfurl. They could be peeled or teased apart to see what stories lie underneath. Is this not the way of traveller’s tales: Making and remaking themselves anew, constantly?
What actually happened to these images in terms of time is more extreme than any of my gentle musings about narrative. I’ll let Payne explain:
Rose is particularly interested in the suggestion that the past, present and future are not linear but exist simultaneously, as postulated by Einstein in his theory of space-time. As she was constructing her collages, she was focussed on the notion that time can be warped, broken down or disassembled. The images in the collection captured events 60 years ago, but when illuminated they still give the viewer a sense of experiencing that time and place. (essay for Slideshow)
Montabello constructed these confabulations digitally, situating them as science fiction stories: moments in time fracturing, doubling up, remerging, folding back on themselves. They are travelling through dimensions, slicing up, reknitting. They aren’t lightly scored, as I thought, but actively dismantled: cut open into strips, exploded outwards on the table/floor/dimension around her. Then she painstakingly glued them back together again, row by row. As she reconstructed them as analogue works, she imagined futures for these pasts beyond our own, event horizons that threatened, possibly happening but then again maybe not happening. Digital imaginings, analogue glitchings.
On the wall opposite the front door, a line of small images by Hannah Bath wind around the corner and into the room. The drawings, in watercolour and pencil, are small and delicate, floating on a larger space, each casting a distinct shadow. They are iterative: every single one shows the same scene: Mt Fuji behind a red temple next to water.
Sometimes the shadow invokes a laptop, other times a frame, and sometimes the image looks like it’s sitting in the last long rays of the day as the sun sets. Is it a meditation? A reimagining of one slide at different times of day? They are exquisitely rendered.
There are also three large drawings, unrelated to the Fuji series, each quite different in terms of the space depicted, but their execution forms a clear visual narrative. There are two ways to move past it, making the images shrink, or grow. I start with left to right.
The left-hand image sets the scene: The Big Hell fills most of the paper, red hot and hellish. People are milling around the landscape as if ants in a sandscape, working, meeting, even mourning?. There are no plants, no relief from the smothering warm tones. Next, in The Rice Harvest, Bali, the red has retreated across the paper, leaving these local workers labouring in a perhaps rapidly diminishing space. Finally, we see a line of western tourists removed from any context, yet the title tells us they are at Borobodur, one of Indonesia’s most famous cultural sites, a huge stone temple complex covered in carved statues. There is a sense of aimlessness, that even a sense of purpose is dwindling.
Now I try right to left. Does it help? Disconnected tourists, a growth of land under working locals, a fully realised landscape with clouds of dust/steam and clusters of humans… the narrative turns to growth, but not in a healthy way. So no, nothing helps, there’s an air of despair any which way you look.
This is another digital adventure. Captivated by the slide that showed this scene of Mt Fuji and the shrine, Bath entered the hashtag #hokonishrine into Instagram. She found thousands of versions of essentially the same view, taken by people on their own holidays. Each one represents a personal experience, yet they are only differentiated by the weather, or slight shifts in angle. Payne elucidates:
The drawings are the same dimensions as the images displayed on Hannah’s phone screen and also relate to the scale of mounted slide film. ‘Mt Fuji Lake Hakone Tori Gate’ is the trigger. The same scene is depicted in careful detail in all the drawings but with different lighting and angles dependent on the photographs from various Instagram users who visited this location and uploaded a photo.
(essay for Slideshow)
The same project could be undertaken with any famous landmark: what is it about the urge to capture a particular moment that is shared by so many? In Bath’s reproductions of these endless reproductions, the material qualities of her rendering restores a sense of aura to a view that just keeps on giving.
The second series is as bleak as I surmised.
The larger drawings further explore the tensions between different types of shared experience. They feature patterns of people looking and being looked at. (Payne)
The ‘looking’ are the Westerners, ingesting sights like locusts, while the looked at go on with their lives, trying not to catch the camera’s eye.
These glum thoughts bring me back across the room to Heidi Lefebvre. I’ve deliberately come to this last because it has a palpable ‘end of days’ quality about it. Landmarks, cultural objects, traditional places: Lefebvre has drawn them in pencil on bureaucratic yellow manilla card, then isolated them from any familiar setting. Instead, they are arranged like ground zero ruins on white gallery plinths. One long narrow plinth has been toppled and lies like a land-bridge between two sections. The lighting is dramatic, casting long harsh shadows across the scene, evoking shadow puppet sets. I wonder who populates them: hordes of tourist puppets, staggering from one photo-op to another, or worn-out locals? Maybe there is no-one left in this bleached out reef of places? If I come too close, the lighting casts my shape across it all, monstrous and giant, like Godzilla.
The title is perfect: We go on holidays while the world goes to hell (in loving memory). It points a finger at ‘we’, escaping lives that are actually, if we have the means to escape, pretty good. The world going to hell here is not western civilization, but eastern, trampled to death by camera. The slides whirr-clunking around the corner are the loving memory, although whose loving memory, we’re still not sure.
This installation feels like a dystopian shadow puppet setting and Payne’s essay backs me up on this. She speaks of Heidi as the puppetmaster in a Wayang kulit shadow play. Lefebvre herself talked to me of the destructive impact of tourism on traditional cultures, the commodification of culture in terms of providing entertainment. People step in, immerse themselves and then leave. She’s found a good way to present that sense of emptiness, the airlessness of the off-season. Payne finds another angle, that of the loneliness of being separated from your own culture when travelling:
As she was drawing – immersed in the turmoil of everyday life, [Lefebvre] was comparing these slides to her own experiences of travel; where senses are heightened and the experiences are profound while the traveller can feel deeply alone. (essay for Slideshow)
Again, two ways of looking at the same scene, neither of them with a happy ending.
The mystery for the ANCA gallery visitor who wanders in to see this show, is that there are a number of works that seem connected by travel, by tourism, and by a slideshow at the back of the room. But there is no overarching story, no narrative shared with us. Of course, once the catalogue is printed, the mystery is solved. Future iterations of this exhibition – and they are hoping to travel it, to extend the content by inviting responses from Kent’s Indonesian community – will be clearer, richer, stronger. But this first appearance has been slightly frustrating.
Actually, the big reveal is not a clean narrative path. The inspiration for this show is a small box of 35mm slides found in a deceased estate by Kent’s parents. It documented travels in Hong Kong, Manila, Japan and Indonesia between the 1950s and the 1970s. No one knows the stories behind them, or the people depicted.
When they came up with the idea for a responsive exhibition, the artists and curator got together for a real slide-show, with a real projector:
Now, here we are, a group of artists and a writer in a darkened room, sitting in armchairs and lined up on the sofa, with the sound of the machine and a sense of anticipation. What has brought us together? There are professional and personal connections that are the basis of the group’s formation, and there is also a shared curiosity about the box of abandoned slides. … We are prepared to be transported, into the past and into journeys which remind us of so many places in the world which we remember or imagine remembering. As the first image illuminates the living room wall the glow brings the forms of our companions and the shapes of the everyday objects of domestic space more into view. So, we are simultaneously taken away into a realm of adventure and clearly placed in the present of our suburban context. There is an unexpected surge of adrenalin as the first slide is focused. The journey has not been ours, yet we experience this projection in light as if it has been our own. The image is transparent yet convincing. The space of the view is flat on the wall but the projection creates an illusion – like a window into another world.
The detail is entrancing and each of us is immersed as the slides flash relentlessly in front of our eyes. It’s a sensory overload – a procession of intangible images made of light, the background hum of the slide projector, the click of the carousel as one slide is ejected and another absorbed by the machine to be thrown up on the wall in a wonderful cascade of light. Occasionally there is the cry ‘…no, go back…..too soon….. can we see that last one again…..’ We are drawn back to the present from the past. There is so much to absorb in each slide and there are 79 more in the carousel. There is a narrative potential in each of the pictures. Figures reappear in different views on different journeys – providing an opportunity for us to develop individual stories and fabricate histories. (Payne, essay for Slideshow)
There is indeed narrative potential in every picture. The range of fabricated histories and imagined stories is wide in this iteration. There is a case to be made that most art should be able to stand alone without contextual explanation, but I think my feeling in this case, knowing how much thought the artists had put into their responses, was that this show – like a 35mm slide – is intriguing and interesting when taken at face value, but when the context and colour are illuminated, large and full of light, there is just so much more to think and feel.
ANCA Critic-in-Residence 2018
You can read a digital copy of the catalogue, with the full catalogue essay, at https://issuu.com/ellydotkent/docs/slideshow_catalogue
1 If you’d like to hear Ali Jane Smith read these small poems, she has recorded a small series of videos and placed them on her Instagram feed @alijanesmith5359. This is the one I quoted in full: https://www.instagram.com/p/BgbAQ7WBWkZ/