This is a guest post by artist, curator and barrister-at-law Koulla Roussos
It is not very often that one can prepare for an exhibition review by spending days studying and examining the minutiae of space in the very institution hosting it.
I had an opportunity recently to examine Fecund—Fertile Worlds, to reflect on the nature of exhibition making with the curator, assisting her in the de-installation, condition reporting, handling and packing of the artwork during a two-week internship at Godinyamin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre (GYRACC) in Katherine.
Fecund—Fertile Worlds is the first in Artback NT’s Spark NT Curator Program, initiated to foster art critical and curatorial practice within the NT and to provide NT artists with opportunities to showcase their work within curated touring exhibitions.
Artback NT is the Northern Territory’s visual and performing arts touring agency. It tours NT generated exhibitions to remote, regional and metropolitan galleries. Considering the dearth of curatorial opportunities for emerging curators in the NT, this is a welcome initiative.
Curator Clare Armitage, who graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Art History and Theory with Honours from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales and a Master of Art History and Curatorial Studies from Australian National University in 2016, has been exposed to the depth and breadth of the Northern Territory’s rich indigenous and non-indigenous arts practices.
She has been employed by GYRACC since 2014 (with intermittent stints at Nomad and Outstations Galleries, some of Darwin’s best commercial art galleries) and currently holds the position of curator with GYRACC. With that in mind, I was looking forward to reflecting on the impact her ‘familiarity’ with the artists and gallery space might have had on the exhibition’s development and presentation.
Fecund—Fertile Worlds features mixed-media works by well-known and respected Northern Territory artists including Chips Mackinolty, Winsome Jobling and Djirrira Wunungmurra along with a selection of works from emerging interstate artists such as Christie Torrington and Nikala Bourke.
Acrylics on canvas and oils on boards were displayed along with digital photographic prints, sculptural and 3D installations along with a digital video projection on the wall. The exhibition includes an exhibition wall panel setting out the curatorial premise.
It is also supported by an exhibition catalogue, with a detailed exhibition rationale prepared by Armitage. Each art work is accompanied by an exhibition wall label, indicating the name, title, year and materials. The explanatory material provides important entry point into the art works, allowing for audiences to appreciate the themes and threads between the diverse group of art works, which is a testament to the financial and professional support this exhibition has received from Artback in its endeavours to support critical and curatorial practice in the NT.
I was thrilled to see Linda Joy’s Katherine Gorge (the 2013 Katherine Prize recipient) on display.
Getting up close and intimate with a canvas which has been carefully sanded, noting the smooth illuminating whiteness of the gessoing process, and following the little inked curls that evoke the dense forms of a majestic landscape was an absolute treat. Her repetitious mark-makings, are mesmerising, playing with perspective while depicting a country formed by powerful forces shaped by water and fire.
The exhibition invites audiences into different worlds. Worlds that are funny and sad, threatened and flourishing, imagined and real. Noting the black ink in Joy’s work, representing a waterway that is a critical artery of an undulating river in the direct proximity of Talitha Kennedy’s 2015 two-part installation Effigy for Repressed Entropy, is one of many threads the curator has cleverly woven between works.
Kennedy’s practice involves shaping using black kangaroo leather, the surreal forms of the Northern Territory’s magnificent mangrove root system, in one part hanging from the ceiling, while another part connected to a power-point.
At this stage, I should say, that I had already seen Fecund—Fertile Worlds briefly in April 2018, when it was launched at the Northern Centre of Contemporary Art (NCCA). I was struck then by the difficulty of appreciating the art works in an exhibition space that was poorly cared for, one which has become so dilapidated that the display of art works appears incidental to its core business.
Unlike the NCCA’s almost derelict display of Kennedy’s towering black punk-like-gothic works which were hanging limp like from a weather stained ceiling and resting on dirty smudged exposed cement, the intricacy of Kennedy’s forms at GYRACC are marked resplendent by clever lighting, sharply contrasting the black kangaroo leather aerial sculpture with the almost bleach-like pristine whiteness of GYRACC’s main gallery exhibition walls.
The gallery’s polished floors add to the work’s capacity to blend in and create a metaphysical reach outside the immediacy of space, by sinking through and into a mirror like reflection on the floor.
The relationship between Kennedy’s otherworldly installation works made with the soft pliable kangaroo leather and Merran Sierakowski’s work I Virri, 2015, which uses crocheted computer data cable to sculpt magnified bacteria and viruses is another connecting thread to this exhibition highlighted by Claire Armitage’s use of GYRACC’s gallery space, which was lost by the NCCA display.
Whilst Sierakowski’s work was elegantly displayed inside NCCA’s window box, the isolation of this work from the body of the exhibition inside NCCA’s gallery space precluded it from engaging in dialogues with other works in the exhibition.
I Virri’s location inside GYRACC hung inside an exposed window bay, flood lit by natural light permits closer inspection of the materials and allows for appreciation of the work’s intricate material processes. Its direct proximity to the rest of the exhibition and Kennedy’s work, allows for a playful contrast between themes, artistic and artisanal, materials and shapes, as well as enabling an interplay between works mimicking natural and artificial forms, creating an additional tier of meaning to evoke an atmosphere tinged by artful irony.
Whilst Armitage declared that she did not select any of the work with exhibition spaces across the NT in mind, it is apparent however, that her connection with GYRACC and familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of its exhibitions’ spaces, has allowed this exhibition to be displayed to its full potential.
Sierakowki’s colour scheme connects with Gwenneth Blitner’s signature acrylic on canvas 2015 work, Ngukurr Cemetery and Bush Banana, which as the title evokes, engages with a bitter-sweet tinge the theme of death as being necessary to the cycle of life, sustenance and creation, joining disparate works by artists from disparate cultures and traditions to an exhibition which evokes the dynamic diversity of the Northern Territory experience to that point of connection between nature and science.
It is important to note the Centre’s art institutional position in a small regional town which is itself surrounded by sublime nature, resplendent in its unpredictable and ferocious beauty. As Katherine’s major cultural centre, at the time of reviewing the exhibition, it was hosting the Federal Senate Inquiry into PFES emissions polluting the waterways including the town’s drinking supply.
Furthermore, aware of the town’s recent history, I approach the art works with a consciousness reflecting the collective memory of a town traumatised by floods.
My mind was left to wander, considering the environmental risks associated with fracking, a sensitive issue in a town susceptible to biblical floods. I looked at each art work mindful of the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy, which consistently fails to factor in the environmental and economic devastation of regional and remote communities.
It was with this bitter tinge that I inspected Steve Gough’s delicate oil works on board—three almost miniature-like landscapes capturing the rosy peach coloured sky, with the fecund and blossoming wet season cycad and grevillea contrasted against the bare but flowering dry season one. His choice to work on a small scale provides for a counter-intuitive effect to Kennedy’s larger installation.
Whilst beautifully capturing the cycle of life and death, these un-conventional works are punctuated by humour, since the triptych is completed by a third depicting red-tail black cockatoos. The memento mori these works evoked in the tradition of Dutch oil landscape was punctuated by the imagined throng of laughter these birds managed to evoke.
Gough’s forms and shapes of imperfect curves and contours found in natural states link to other works, forming additional threads to this exhibition’s central concept connecting growth and potency.
The themes are exemplified by Tarron Ruiz-Avila’s mixed media works, where breasts in pictorial collage form manifest into with sculptural three-dimensional form. These works hint at female potency, and explicitly engage the audience in a sexual relationship with nature. Hands are represented fondling and pinching supple breasts. The plaster of Paris sculptural works in an open display on a shelf provoke erotic imaginations to do the same.
Curves, contours, lines, and blots of paint interconnect in the vast and complex ecosystem of life. Monica Watson’s Pukara, I 2017, acrylic on canvas depicting her homeland and its flora, celebrates the kaliny-kalinypa, or honey grevillea plant, and its associated cultural story.
The scattering of seed in the air is characterised by the repetitive gesture of a fluid brush work. The composition includes a representation of two waterholes. The opaqueness of the pink and white brushstrokes contrasts the solid green of the waterholes, providing the exhibitions synthesis with all other works, connecting themes with the myriad of forms and colour threading throughout the exhibition.
There are opportunities when critically engaging with the materiality of space to intertextually connect an exhibition with the happenings of the overall space.
While visual metaphors are relatively easy to read when critically engaged, it is the aural sensations sparked by sound that can prick unintended meanings, which upon recognition, can shift consciousness through a portal where infinite juxtapositions are possible.
It was precisely at that juncture where I was sitting before Claire Bridge’s 2016 film and sound work Tempest Flow which captures a harmonious soundscape arrested by the siren call of chainsaws, referencing Tasmania’s controversial logging history and empire’s global assault on habitat more generally, that I became aware of other sounds, spilling from Melabat Wanbala-Ngukurr Arts, another exhibition nearby, where Walter Rogers’ voice can be heard talking and singing, accompanied by the eerie sound of clapsticks beating rhythmically.
These sounds, spilling out from another space, from a distinct film and audio work I am Numamurdirdi 2016, wherein an important ceremony man articulates the story behind feathered headband preparation for ceremonial dancing, connecting song lines, dance and art to the health of country, that unintentionally transported me from an abstract intellectual realm to connect me, as an essentially whole being to the physical space and time of my immediate location.
Given the opportunity to engage with this exhibition with the benefit of the curator, I understood her approach to tell a story about potential and growth, exploring the idea of “fecundity” in both biological and philosophical terms.
According to Clare Armitage, “The conceptual underpinnings weren’t particularly rigid, and the story the exhibition tells was shaped by the inclusion of particular works.” However, her selection of work was driven by a strong desire to include early career and established artists from all over Australia, from metropolitan, regional and remote communities.
Armitage tells me that, “The SPARK brief is that at least half of exhibiting artists will be from the Northern Territory, so that was a requirement I had to meet. As a member of the Northern Territory arts community I also feel strongly that we should be in regular and robust conversation with the rest of Australian arts, because our perspectives, politics and products are significant and unique.”
Aside from this, her choices were informed by the works, and how she perceived these could bring to the story from a visual and conceptual standpoint, to develop an exhibition that is interesting, diverse and beautiful.
I keep in mind my conversations with Armitage as she takes me through the process of handling, packing and completing exhibition reports after the exhibition was de-installed. I am able to touch Winsome Jobling’s Wet and Dry, 2016 feeling the physical potency in her experimentally produced handmade paper, ontologically aware of the fibres, seeds and traces of the plants from which it was made as I carefully roll and slip the work inside a tube.
I slip on a pair of cotton gloves to handle with an almost ecclesiastic reverence Ruiz-Avila’s sculptural breasts, tactile handling the exhibitions powerful sexual metaphors. As the Senate Inquiry continues in the adjoining room, I carefully pack away the DVD box with Clare Bridge’s Tempest Flow saved on a USB stick which contains in digital silence the soundscape of torrential storms and chain saws.
I wrap and pack away Steve Gough’s triptych imagining the bird song and laughter acutely aware of how all these sounds and images have merged synchronously in my mind with Walter Roger’s voice caring for country through ceremony and song, and wish that the exhibition continues to spread the artists hopes and fertile imaginings “ … of ourselves, our world, our hopes and fears for our future, and our enduring bond with our environment.”
Following its Darwin and Katherine seasons, Fecund—Fertile Worlds was exhibited at Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in Tennant Creek, throughout August 2018, and will be exhibited at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs from 16 November 2018 to 3 March 2019.