Chains of inference and connotation

Jena Woodburn: Hart & Popperwell, The Cloak Room

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

Anton Hart, George Popperwell, The Cloak Room, installation detail

The Cloak Room exhibition is curiously un-cloakroomlike: large, open, filled with fantastic structures—and not a coat in sight. An exhibition verging on the opaque, one gets a sense of meaning restless beneath the impenetrably smooth surfaces of metal and cardboard.

Even the extensive EAF space, for which the work was designed, seems almost too small for, or is made too small by, the fabrications wedged within. Clean and beautifully constructed corrugated-cardboard structures speak of architecture or design as they span the space like cityscapes in miniature. Dividing these stacked arrangements are strips of industrial rubber flooring, a normally prosaic material made oddly inviting as it forms pathways that trail off the raised platforms of cardboard and onto the floor. These pathways tempt, constructed as they are from a material designed to be walked on: a sign outside says “Please do not walk on the artwork” but the footprints of earlier visitors are clear.

Expanses of cardboard are used both in conjunction with this flooring material and with the metal and wood sections of the installation. Light-weight, disposable and malleable it seems to reference models, maquettes and mock-ups, the stuff of design, while the timber and metal are the raw building materials themselves. Together they suggest the transition from plan to product, from a concept to its manifestation.

Around the edges of the exhibition space other intrusions crop and swell. At a-little-above-head-height, 6 three-dimensional L-shaped cardboard fabrications, shot through with skewers, protrude from the walls. These speared, spiky forms cast sharp shadows, yet are surprisingly without menace. Stolid in the corner is a further indeterminate object, like a huge overtoppled table with its legs sheared off and lunging in haphazard directions. Monolithic, these legs at first evoke the columns of classical architecture, though this impression is rapidly counteracted: made of zinc-coated steel and supported with metal pinned-joints the effect is more functional, mechanical. It is an exhibition of such multiple realisations: later visits prove the topography of the cardboard structures to be in more subdued relief than initially judged, less a dominating cityscape than platform or stage.

Expectations are confounded again by the animated sequence that shows a computer-generated, generic multi-story building falling down in a cloud of dust and rubble: a mundane enough image, but here disorientingly projected on its side. Immediately this building collapses into the ground it begins to reform, a mesmerising process re-enacted continuously. Each time, the structure is not so much re-built, but rather the dismantling process is reversed, in a constant and continuous process of action and reaction. So the message becomes less about the relentless ravages of time—civilisations, like buildings, will fall—or of inexorable progress—man struggling from the ruins to create again—but instead the process implies pre-determination and a surprisingly satisfying inevitability.

This first collaboration of George Popperwell and Anton Hart has produced a dense exhibition where following conventional chains of inference and connotation will perhaps never yield distinct conclusions. The accompanying essay by University of NSW architecture teacher Michael Tawa recognises this with its pertinent etymological exploration of various concepts associated with the idea of ‘the cloakroom’: as prelude, threshold, vestibule of play that “conceals, decoys, baits and lures.” It is in reading this essay, in following its complex relationship of words, that the viewer is prepared for what will be essential processes of exploration and excavation.

While the essay provides a non-literal explanation, a suggested approach to viewing, there are concrete connections included amongst what seems to be a thoroughly abstract piece of writing. When Tawa states that the “metaphors wander” and names his analogies—jungle snare, factory floor—one is tempted to tick off the elements (the spiked traps, the box-stacked Pirelli-covered industrial floor) that one recognises. But while it is important to realise that this installation can be appreciated purely for its aesthetic merits, being skilfully designed and faultlessly constructed, much of its value seems to lie in the chains of meanings it creates. The inclusion of the various fantastic objects inspires all kinds of literal and metaphorical analogies and the resulting sense of Derridean destabilisation is possibly what gives the work, initially frustratingly static, its sub-surface sense of restlessness.

The Cloak Room, Anton Hart & George Popperwell, Experimental Art Foundation, August 10-September 8

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 28

© Jena Woodburn; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001