Published in RAVEN Contemporary, Dec 2015.
Right before a mega storm intrudes upon – and hastily cuts short – Queensland College of Art’s Brisbane launch, I find myself fossicking among seven thousand soap rings, dangled on the wall like a ring-toss game. Titled Choose One, the rings are hand-cast and carved by jeweller Pippin Blackwell, and designed for audience to take, wear and keep – until this soapy bling disintegrates over time.
The weather tonight though is causing rings to momentarily solidify. “They’re turning crusty around my pinky!” a visitor fascinatingly discovers, before scurrying off for shelter. What later amuses me is that my finger-hitching ring will go on to become a handy soap dispenser for the next week, echoing Blackwell’s intention for her objects to form bonds with their hosts.
Returning to the exhibition a week later, during tamer weather, I compare and pocket another ring (it was flakier and porous this time). As I circle the gallery I approach two female acquaintances who are plonked on a floor carpet having a chat. Centring the carpet is an electronic diamond-shaped steel structure housing three silicon tongues that are wagging in slow motion.
As if by osmosis, we – as a trio – start to wag our own tongues: first we chat about this choice of carpet (silky, Turkish), then on to Christmas sales and what tech gadgets we simply have to get. I later learn from Kiah Reading that his participatory installation, I Suggest We Congregate, lures the curious into a space where the nuance between humans and machines is heightened. It’s a witty declaration of our elevating need to use modern technology to talk to humans; at the same time technology today is so shadowed, so second nature, that we often forget it’s there.
Nuance also informs the practice of Sancintya Mohini Simpson (aka CHICHI MA$ALA), whose hip-hop music video Mixed Girl Militia forms an anthemic salute to cultural hybridity and otherness. The film starts off with Simpson slashing and gorging on a pomegranate, perhaps as an attempt to consume mixed-race and migratory stereotypes (pomegranates are native to India). Squadded by mixed-race women, Simpson shells out sharp rhymes of empowerment such as ‘Try to divide my mind to fit your design/when will you realise I’m dark-light combined’ and ‘I am the hybrid, the specimen, I am the one with the special skin.’ Through song, costume and ritual, Simpson offers viewers a spliced apparition of her Eastern and Western persona, at the same time it is a reminder of the absurdity of racial fetishism, as exemplified by a twerk vs Bollywood scene.
Over at Queensland University of Technology, Anita Holtsclaw explores otherness as that of the unknowingness that comes with longing and loss. In the waves, Holtsclaw explores the 1975 disappearance of Dutch artist Ban Jan Ader, who attempted to sail solo from Cape Cod to the Netherlands. Even though his partly submerged boat was later recovered, his body was never found.
For her latest series, Holtsclaw disassembles a previously exhibited work, palaces, and resurfaces its materials as two separate entities. Screened cinematic-style in a blackened room, this is a meditative video of a scaleless, boatless sea, perhaps an insight into the solitude and loneliness felt by oceanic travellers. Ten minutes away at Metro Arts Gallery, Holtsclaw’s work searching comprises sheaths of sail-like voile, appearing to mimic a boat wreck as they cascade across the walls and onto the wooden floors. These scattered pieces add to Holtsclaw’s puzzle-piecing pursuit of hope and discovery, set in a heterotopic ‘no man’s land’ that is neither here nor there.
The service of plants is highlighted by Matthew Hutchison in his domestic greenhouse Sing To Me Like I Once Sang To You. Upon entering the room, audiences are instructed to poke and caress an assembly of plants with stems hooked up to sensory speakers.
As I become part of a crowd that is plummeting fingers into soils for cacophonous entertainment, I realise that Hutchison’s plants are hypothetically trained to sing to us through an automation of coos and howls. This soothing yet evasive act reminds me of farmers and gardeners who sing to their crops to stimulate growth, but also of the rigorous crop-production that comes with global supply and demand.
A sound-driven, simulated environment is also explored by Jack Packshaw from Queensland College of Art – Gold Coast, whose work, Separated, takes place in a pitch-black booth drowned by the sound of heavy breathing and nails scratching chalkboards. As an exercise in sensory deprivation, the box immediately discombobulates me upon entry, and because I’m afraid of the dark, this transforms into a test of endurance. I last five minutes. Outside the booth is Packshaw’s equally disorienting video, filmed downwards to show a path being hazily walked, but exhibited on the wall at eye level.
As it turns out, the artist suffers from epilepsy, and this work is designed to replicate the loss of control and distorted perception that Packshaw feels during and post-seizure. How this operates on a broader existential level is revealed in the guest book, laid out for participants to comment on their experiences with the work. It is scribbled with descriptions of claustrophobia and hallucinations, but also feelings of metamorphosis and Zen-like healing.
A week later, another storm hits Brisbane, leaving me temporarily blinded from an electricity blackout. Recalling Packshaw’s chunky darkness jolts me out of me that fear, and for the first time, I am ready to let go.
Reflecting on this year’s selection of graduate works, ‘pursuit’ feels to be an underlying theme that threads these artists together. There’s the search for the new hybrid (Simpson), the ideal conversation (Reading) and the perfect environmental elements (Hutchison/Packshaw). Then there’s the poetic pursuit for the ghost and the host, the vanished and the unreturned (Holtsclaw/Blackwell) – elegiac elements that add to my excitement in anticipating what these artists will produce post-studies.
Funnily, as I type this, I notice that my honey-melon soap ring is skinnied through friction, and pretty soon, showers and swims will lead to its disappearance.
For now, I am its host, and I’m not ready to let go.
1 Pippin Blackwell, Choose One, 2014, soap, nails. Image credit: Mariam Arcilla, image courtesy of Pippin Blackwell.
2. Kiah Reading, I Suggest We Congregate, 2012, steel, silicon, electronics & carpet. Image credit: Mariam Arcilla. Image courtesy of Kiah Reading.
3. CHICHI MA$ALA – Mixed Girl Militia. Image courtesy of Sancintya Simpson.
4. Anita Holtsclaw, palaces, 2013, digital video, steel and voile. Image credit: Sam Cranstoun. Image courtesy of Anita Holtsclaw.
5. Matthew Hutchison, Sing To Me Like I Once Sang To You, 2014, wood, paint, Otto boards, electrical wire, tape, lights, speakers, additional electronics. Image courtesy of Matthew Hutchison.
6. Jack Packshaw, Separated, 2013-2014, mixed media video and sound installation. Image courtesy of Monique Montfroy.