a quarter century sampler

anne finnegan: artspace 24/25

Joan Grounds, Artspace 24/25

Joan Grounds, Artspace 24/25

Joan Grounds, Artspace 24/25

ARTSPACE CELEBRATED ITS FIRST 25 YEARS WITH 24/25, A MARATHON WEEKEND-LONG PARTY OF INSTALLATION AND PERFORMANCES. OVER THE SATURDAY AND SUNDAY 24 ARTISTS WERE SHOWCASED IN A NON-STOP PROGRAM RUNNING CONCURRENTLY IN THE TWO MAIN GALLERIES. ARTISTS WERE GIVEN ONE HOUR EACH TO INSTALL, EXHIBIT/PERFORM AND TAKE DOWN. JOAN GROUNDS, WADE MARYNOWSKY, EUGENIA RASKOPOULOS, MARK TITMARSH, THE KINGPINS, KATTHY CAVALIERE, JULIAN DASPHER, JULIE RRAP, DENIS BEAUBOIS, LIZ DAY, MIKALA DWYER, MATTHYS GERBER, RICHARD DUNN, JIM ALLEN, BROOK ANDREW, DEEJ FABYC, GEORGE TILLIANAKIS, MARK BROWN, JILL SCOTT, NUHA SAAD, MIKE PARR, R E A AND DEREK KRECKLER PRESENTED A TRULY DIVERSE RANGE OF PRACTICES.

In the heady mix of full-hour performances, quieter installations and videos, the audience mingled or browsed the considerable Artspace collection of catalogue essays and press reviews which had been bound for the occasion. The mighty tome of essays from Nick Tsoutas’ long tenure as director was an impressive material remainder in itself, a reminder of the sheer number of artists and volume of work that has been produced or installed inside Artspace’s walls.

Representative of a quarter century of non-commercial art practice, the celebration more than aptly demonstrated Artspace’s committment to its mission to show conceptual/political work with little or no material remainder (nothing for sale). Twenty-five years on, Artspace, now directed by Blair French, is as vibrant as ever, a testament to the success of its mission and the collective worth of the work—ongoing and evolutionary in its exploration of issues, strategies, unlikely mediums and technologies. Initiatives such as Artspace have altered the perception of what constitutes art. Without it and other alternative venues, like Performance Space, would the Art Gallery of New South Wales have had its Level 2 program? Or MCA its strong local contingent? And would younger artist-run spaces like First Draft, itself now qualifying as a long-term establishment, have been viewed as necessary platforms for a tier of younger emergent artists?

Under Tsoutas’ direction, Artspace established a strong international agenda, with an important residency program, and a strong association with the Biennale of Sydney (housed upstairs in The Gunnery). Artspace nurtured and developed a style of practice which gave Australian artists the opportunity to rub shoulders with their international peers—and not just every two years at the Biennale. Tsoutas would seek out the weird and the wonderful, for example the handmade sci-fi of Finland’s Veli Grano, work you wouldn’t see elsewhere. His support for the gay community extended from Pope Alice to the music video generation of George Tillianakis and The Kingpins; and, equally important, through the catalogue essays he developed art writers and theoretical practice in an ongoing series of seminars and conferences.

Whatever your thoughts on the severe Marxist-revolutionary photocopy-styling of those Tsoutas-commissioned catalogues, the point was that he got them out quickly and economically with each and every show, and fostered serious artist-writer dialogues as assiduously as he collected reviews from the mainstream press. In those catalogue essays artists puts their work in dialogue with serious contemporary theory at an order of working through that was beyond mere review. The essays were a kind of conceptual testing ground for artists. Now, bound together, the essays are an invaluable research resource fittingly displayed in the foyer, central to the celebration.

Given the sheer volume of artists and projects, director Blair French is to be congratulated on succeeding in the difficult task of selecting a mix of established and younger artists to encompass both the gallery’s history and contemporary perspectives.

With a practice going back more than 30 years, Joan Grounds is a seminal figure in performance-installation in Australia. In her Sunday morning slot she was both performer and object in her own installation as she sat quietly, blindfolded by the skein of blue wool which wrapped her head, before trailing outside the gallery, along the footpath, and up a lampost where it secured a small, leafy branch. This tranquil, reflective work summed up a century of installation practice going all the way back to when Duchamp blocked access to a 19th century gallery by filling up the interstices between the paintings with a cat’s cradle of wool. The Duchamp mantra of “nothing to see” was echoed in Grounds’ blindfold: installation art is less about seeing per se and more to do with a conceptual understanding.

As such the historical dimension of this performance affirmed Artspace’s mission. Grounds’ exchange beween inside and outside, culture and nature, affirmed the history of happenings, the use of everyday materials (not the rarefied paint of high-born, sublimated ‘high art’), and the actions of artists whose site was very often the street (Gutai in white labcoats washing Tokyo’s pavements in the 1950s). In contemporary terms, Grounds’ performance ‘action’, though paradoxically calm, bound her to a tree and tall timbers, highlighting the sacrifice of nature to the city, and our blindness to its current state in the ongoing global warming and energy crisis.

Mark Titmarsh, Artspace 24/2

Mark Titmarsh, Artspace 24/2

Mark Titmarsh, Artspace 24/2

Mark Titmarsh’s expanded painting likewise positioned Artspace in art history, playfully usurping the 1950s action painting of Jackson-the dripper-Pollock. With a diverse practice as both artist and writer (he co-edited the postmodern journal On the Beach in the 1980s), Titmarsh has a long history with Artspace and was an early experimenter in internet subjectivity (Space Invaders, 1992). Returning now to live action and to paint—not traditional painting, but painting in its expanded form as the lamella-thin surface of things—Titmarsh performed as a chucker of colour, flinging paint and all manner of bright and shiny baubles and multi-hued flat cards around the gallery. Colour dispersed in flight. Notably he later chaired the Artspace forum on expanded painting.

The Kingpins, Artspace 24/25

The Kingpins, Artspace 24/25

The Kingpins, Artspace 24/25

Liz Day’s remarkably rapid installation of a square of riotous weeds in full bloom was contextualised by video documentation of her garden project inside a women’s prison. Her aberrant plants, like aberrant people, conjured the tensions between institutionalisation and freedom, bureaucracy and social formation of the self. Day, known for her slow practice of growing and exhibiting grasses and root systems within a conceptual frame of histories of power and colonisation (whitey’s patch of lawn eradicating Indigenous custodianship of the land), resorted to a shorthand of quite fantastical store-bought weeds to fit the one-hour timeframe.

For many established artists, the tight one hour of Artspace 24/25 was but time enough for a showbag sample of usual practice. Julie Rrap made time the focus when she set the heat to melt a line of ice stilettos (and in so doing recalled the iconic role of the shoe in her work on the female body and its fetishisation). Eugenia Raskopoulos’ dark and haunting video provoked the viewer to puzzle out what they were seeing (in synecdochal relation to her large scale 2007 Artspace installation where, inside a Mies van de Rohe styled glass box, she staged her smoke and red flares rebuke to Rumsfeld’s media lock-down on Gulf War Two).

Further samplings included Katthy Cavaliere’s discarded rag doll performance and Mikala Dwyer’s installation of an uncharacteristically non-floppy, rigid monotoned structure. Wade Marynowsky’s Dalek-inspired floor robots caught the mad flavour of his Artspace-installed masterwork, Autonomous Improv (which, in a nod to Bruce Nauman, combined video snippets of performance and sound artists with footage of the strangeness of clowns). The Kingpins donned their green tracksuits and inhabited their trademark boy rappers—live. Denis Beaubois showed a video of a soothsayer he had hired prior to the event to predict Artspace’s future and what would happen on the day.

Given the daunting, even impossible task of a full Artspace retrospective (simply too many good artists), Artspace 24/25 cannily consolidated its historical mission with a party offering a satisfying sampler of favourites.

Artspace 24/25, Sydney, Nov 1-2

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 43-44

© Ann Finnegan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2009