On the sandy banks of the Swan River, Do Ho Suh’s Net-Work gleams in fierce sunlight. The piece is a tightly woven mesh made from thousands of tiny gold and silver figurines joined at the hands and feet. Draped across a metal frame it forms a walkway through which visitors can look at the sky and river, or perhaps the towers of Perth’s CBD in the distance.
The Korean artist is a master of productive ambiguities. Do all those tiny figures represent mindless conformity or a vision of universal co-operation? To be caught in a net is a constraint, but being part of a network is an opportunity. By coincidence rather than design the piece relates closely to Australia’s ongoing debate about asylum seekers. We are not reaching out with a helping hand but fishing refugees from the sea and depositing them behind bars. Suh seems to be reminding us of our common humanity. Some figures may be gold and others silver, but all are precious.
Net-Work is one of the stand-out pieces in an excellent visual arts program at this year’s Perth Festival. While most festivals seem to treat the visual arts as a supplement to the main attractions, Perth follows Adelaide in giving artists a glimpse of the limelight.
Director Jonathan Holloway has employed Margaret Moore as a dedicated curator, and allowed her the autonomy to choose works from around the world. The result is a lively blend of Australian and international pieces that feel as if they belong together without the assistance of one of those vague, overarching themes beloved of Biennale directors.
The festival’s second major work of public art is Jeremy Deller’s bouncy Stonehenge, which I’ve already seen in Hong Kong and Sydney. Sacrilege should prove just as popular in Perth’s Supreme Court Gardens as it did in Hyde Park, although it is hardly more than an elaborate gag on the way tourism turns every major historical site into a circus.
The most substantial contribution this year comes from South African artist, William Kentridge. The Art Gallery of Western Australia has recently purchased Kentridge’s multi-media installation, The Refusal of Time, and has allowed the nearby Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), the first opportunity to display it in this country. This act of generosity is partly the result of AGWA’s own festival contribution falling through, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art withdrew from a series of five loan exhibitions before the fourth made it onto a plane. There is much debate about this, but I won’t be speculating on who is to blame.
The Refusal of Time was created in 2012 for Documenta 13. It grew out of Kentridge’s reading of the book, Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps (2003), by Harvard historian of science, Peter Galison, and subsequent conversations with the author. In typical fashion, Kentridge began to consider the science in relation to its social context, especially the attempts by colonial powers to enforce their own ideas about time and the regulation of working hours onto non-western cultures.
In the process Kentridge has revisited many of his favourite themes and motifs. There are echoes of the Russian revolutionary imagery used in his designs for Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose; and memories of works made in homage to pioneering filmmaker, Georges Méliès. Many of Kentridge’s smaller films now appear like preliminary sketches towards this ambitious project, produced in collaboration with composer, Philip Miller, and filmmaker, Catherine Meyburgh.
In the centre of the room sits a large device nicknamed ‘the elephant’. Wheels turn, pistons pump, and boxy wooden frames move in and out, as if impersonating a piano accordion. Presumably this represents the inexorable machine that is time. On three sides of the room there are projections, featuring figures and animations. Kentridge makes his customary personal appearance, along with his notebooks and collages.
The cycle runs for almost 30 minutes, with each screen buzzing with densely layered imagery. It would be anarchic, if not for the regular rhythm of the ‘elephant’ in the room, and the strong feeling that everything makes sense, albeit not at first exposure.
After the complexity of Kentridge’s installation, it’s a startling contrast to head upstairs for Embassy – a survey by Aboriginal artist and noted stirrer, Richard Bell. Inside a tent based on the tent embassy set up on the grounds of old Parliament House, one may sit and watch three of Bell’s videos. On the walls of the gallery there are large Pop-style paintings making aggressive points about race relations in this country.
Subtlety has never been Bell’s forte but his politics are leavened with an irrepressible sense of humour. In many of these horribly stagey films he bursts out laughing when trying to keep a straight face. It’s good that he leaves the bloopers in the final cut because the political messages are crude and obvious. He may contend, quite rightly, that the audience he is trying to reach has an equally crude set of attitudes towards Aboriginals.
The most uproarious film is The President, which features a group of people at a dinner party on the night when Australia’s first Aboriginal President announces his policies. The President is none other than veteran activist, Gary Foley, and his central proposal is to reclaim the assets and property of the wealthiest Australians and give every citizen a million dollars to live on. Those who don’t like it can emigrate.
This plan for direct action is a stinging riposte to all those token gestures made towards Aboriginal people. We’ve said “sorry”; we’ve acknowledged every elder, past and present, at endless functions – but we’ve never considered giving back the loot. It may not be likely, but it would be the purest expression of contrition towards the first Australians. Instead, we continue to practice those forms of genteel hypocrisy that provide Richard Bell with his subject matter.
Of the other festival shows, the Lawrence Wilson Gallery is staging Shadow Land, an impressive survey of Anne Ferran’s photographic work. The show will be coming to Sydney later this year, where I’ll have a chance to discuss it in greater depth. In brief, the display reveals a consistency and clarity of thought that only becomes apparent when the scattered threads of a career are gathered together.
Bali: Economy Return, at the Fremantle Art Centre, is another show that deserves to be seen interstate. It features a range of Balinese and Australian artists, working across genres from political cartooning to painting and sculpture. The idea is to investigate Australia’s love affair with Bali and the diverse expressions it has taken. It’s a quirky show that uncovers many different aspects of Bali beyond the tinsel paradise of the tourist industry.
Last year the John Curtin Gallery showed breathtaking large-scale projections by Italian artist, Grazia Toderi. This year the focus is on Japan, with remarkable installations by the group, Paramodel, and by Ryota Kuwakubo.
Paramodel consists of the duo, Yasuhiko Hayashi and Yusuke Nakano, who combine expertise in urban design, art and computer modelling. Their Paramodelic-graffiti is a sprawling affair than occupies every bit of space in the central gallery, including the ceiling. The blue plastic train tracks that provide a framework creep out of the gallery into the foyer. One stands in the midst of a fairy-tale landscape punctuated by model vehicles and miniature plastic animals. It’s no surprise that the project includes an extensive children’s program.
Whereas Paramodel spent weeks assembling their installation, Kuwakubo took about a day to set up . This work, which I saw in Japan last year, is a small masterpiece. On the floor of a closed room Kuwakubo has assembled a collection of ordinary objects – pencils, plastic colanders, light bulbs, and so on. Between these objects he has threaded a model railway track with a tiny makeshift engine that throws out a beam of light. When the lights are turned off, the train traverses this landscape, casting dramatic shadows on the wall.
The effect is mesmeric, poetic, indescribable. The journey through the realm of shadows takes about 15 minutes, transforming the most humdrum objects into monumental feats of architecture. The obvious reference is to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the world of the senses is portrayed as a series of shadows of ideal forms. Yet this doesn’t explain the elegiac feeling one gets from this work, which has the capacity to reduce noisy viewers to silence. Kuwakubo takes us on a journey around a stark, sorrowful land drained of colour and substance. It’s not a refusal of time, but a loss of the third dimension.
William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time
Richard Bell: Embassy
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, until 27 April.
Ryota Kuwakubo: The Tenth Sentiment
John Curtin Gallery, until 17 April.
Anne Ferran: Shadowland
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, until 19 April.
Bali: return economy
Fremantle Arts Centre, until 27 March.
Do Ho Suh: Net-Work
Sir James Mitchell Park, South Perth, until 1 March.
Jeremy Deller: Sacrilege
Supreme Court Gardens, until 1 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 22 February, 2014