Bringing it home

Keri Glastonbury on the Fiona Hall-Fiona MacDonald collaboration

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, Strangely Familiar

If classic Antipodean Gothic can be read in terms of transparently colonial themes, it’s perhaps no surprise to sense a recent resurgence of the Gothic aesthetic, rife with contemporary anxieties, fears and terrors. Indeed, the curatorial premise of this show seems to be in linking the past with the present. Strangely familiar isn’t about art providing a mere spooky or uncanny thrill, however, and there’s a much more plaintive sense in which things could be said to seem ‘strangely familiar’, the return of conservative politics for one. In terms of domestic protest, this is a lot more than an exhibition of work by the Fionas Hall and MacDonald—it’s a uniquely collaborative installation.

Washed up on trestle tables, along the front window of the UTS gallery are 49 dead birds. They range in size from a hulking albatross (it’s amazing how many people referred to it as a Dodo) to tiny colourful kingfishers. They are all immaculately preserved—with arsenic and smelling of mothballs—yet so unceremoniously dead. Outside of the museum context, where stuffed things are so often ameliorated by fake habitats whenever they are put out on show for the viewing public, these prostrate birds form a disturbing shoreline shrine. It’s not hard to make the tangential leap to avian flu, due in any day now from Manchuria. A drape hangs behind the birds enclosing the entire front window, behind which the art proper starts. People entering the gallery hesitate to cross the threshold, the birds warning them off perhaps, with whatever confused notion of the inexplicably sacred (or sordid) we still hold.

Inside the gallery to the left is a woven photographic print of James Cook Island (in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters) by Fiona MacDonald. Seems harmless enough. An artificial island and suburban residential development, each house on its hollowed out crescent replete with swimming pool. Though to risk a very overused photographic cliché, this is a photo with a psychic punctum. The curator, Ricky Subritzky, who was doing some research into Cook in the popular imagination, saw something ‘strangely familiar.’ In an anamorphic moment the shape of the Aboriginal Wandjina spirit appeared, an effect of all the jetties sticking out from the curve and the aerial view. This is the spirit imprinted onto place who wreaks vengeance through extreme weather. A harbinger of global warming perhaps, for societies who pay scant ritual attention to their environment.

It’s clear, casting a glance around the room, that this is an exhibition about bringing it home. The interior is mapped out like a sparse household; with rugs, wallpaper, drape, lamp and shopping bags. For Subritzky, the space is built around ideas of comfort and terror and he began with a synergy he’d detected between these 2 artists’ works, in particular those which are critical of US-style global capitalism. For every benign domestic surface there is a disruptive patterning; raptors sillouhetted onto shopping bags, or flapping around a lampshade diorama, bird nests made out of US bank notes and camouflaged fighter planes in wallpaper. Fiona Hall’s rug, Mire (2005), juxtaposes botanical swamp specimens (their names embroidered in Arabic underneath) over heat images of the Afghanistan landscape. Fiona MacDonald’s silk drape, Crusade (B-1B) (2005), also uses militaristic imagery to kaleidoscopic effect, showing war, as seen by fighter pilots, as like a lurid video game, dehumanising the reality.

In a University Design and Architecture Faculty environment, where things can too easily be reduced to property development and the clean advertising image, it is a relief to see such substance emanating from style. It’s also wonderful to see the birds get an outing from their specimen drawers at the Macleay Museum, in a show which intelligently dovetails museological and visual art curation. The show forms part of the annual Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference, held at UTS at the end of November —and, fittingly, on the conference’s opening day, a young Goth girl student has volunteered to be the gallery attendant and baby-sit the birds.

Strangely Familiar, artists Fiona Hall, Fiona MacDonald, curator Ricky Subritzky, UTS Gallery, Nov 1-Dec 2

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 54

© Keri Glastonbury; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005