Sydney Morning Herald Column

Perth Festival Art

Published March 3, 2017
Joh Akomfrah, Untitled, 2016, C-type print mounted on Dibond, Framed: 101.6 × 152.4 cm / 40 × 60 in © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy the Artist; Lisson Gallery, London

Back in the 1980s when Adelaide was Australia’s only notable arts festival, it featured a comprehensive visual arts program. Today there are festivals in every major city and in several minor ones, but the visual arts are marginal to proceedings. The exception to the rule is the Perth International Arts Festival.
Long-term curator, Margaret Moore, has departed, leaving this year’s program to be managed by two curators from Sydney, Felicity Fenner and Anne Loxley. There are pros and cons in getting outsiders to choose work for the West, but no-one seemed to be complaining. As usual, the great topic of complaint in Perth is the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) which seems to drift along from year to year, with little support from the state government or local plutocrats.
Many are hoping that the recent appointment of former Rio Tinto CEO, Sam Walsh, as head of trustees, signals a change for the better. Walsh is allegedly a take-no-prisoners type, and the gallery needs a strong advocate. There is no expectation of much political support regardless of which side wins the forthcoming state election.
AGWA’s contribution to the Festival is Everyone has a history – Part One: Plain Speak, (until 23 Aug). Curator, Carly Lane, has put together a  survey of 50 indigenous works of a largely urban persuasion, telling “stories that just have to be told.” But do stories that had to be told twenty years ago still feel as urgent today? With indigenous art, alas, it’s probably true that the same issues need to be revisited from one year to the next.

Tony Albert, No place warrior, 2009, Watercolour on arches paper, 76×57cm.  Courtesy the Artist, State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia; Purchased through the TommorrowFund, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2010
Tony Albert, No place warrior, 2009, Watercolour on arches paper, 76×57cm.
Courtesy the Artist,
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia;
Purchased through the TommorrowFund, Art Gallery of
Western Australia Foundation, 2010

At the very least there is a change of tone. Gordon Bennett’s paintings of the late 1980s seem positively militant compared to the bleakly ironic nature of Bindi Cole’s photoseries, Not Really Aboriginal (2008) which features groups of people with faces painted jet black. Tony Albert has pumped up the humour even further with pictures of himself wearing a wrestler’s mask, looking remarkably like the Phantom.
The tone is completely different at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, which is presenting Jacobus Capone’s Forgiving day for night (until 16 April). Despite his exotic name, Capone hails from Perth. He has compensated by making works all over the world, with Greenland being his current place of residence.
Forgiving day for night, which is arguably the stand-out work in the Festival, is a seven-channel video installation featuring seven Portuguese Fado singers. Each singer stands in a different location, looking out over Lisbon in the early hours of the morning. As the sequence progresses from one screen to the next, night gives way to the first light of dawn, and to the rising buzz of the city.
The lyrics of the song were written by Capone, who made an intensive study of Fado during a three-month residency in Lisbon. The tune is improvised by the singer, but it’s invariably a melancholy affair.
Fado is a distinctive folk form with deep roots, full of longing and nostalgia. In content it may be compared with the blues, but musically it’s completely different. Listening to the singers in this installation I was reminded of the plaintive cry of the muezzin, summoning the faithful to prayer in Muslim countries.
PICA is also featuring Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions, a virtual reality work set in the outback near the site of the atomic blasts at Maralinga. The season ends tomorrow so I’ll be brief (NB. now extended until 16 April) but this is probably the first genuinely creative and thoughtful use of VR I’ve encountered in an art gallery. We get a story that links past and present with a vivid sense of place, as Wallworth contrasts the managed burn-offs of indigenous fire-farming with the destructive cataclysm of the explosion.
Image courtesy of PIAF
Film still courtesy of PIAF

There is more audio-visual work at the John Curtin Gallery, in two pieces by British filmmaker, John Akomfrah. I wrote about Vertigo Sea (1915) when it was screened last year in Sydney. In Perth it’s being shown alongside a new piece, Auto Da Fé (2016).
It’s almost a relief to report that the 40-minute Auto Da Fé is less ambitious than its 50-minute predecessor. It occupies only two screens, as opposed to the three used by Vertigo Sea. In place of the latter’s complex blend of landscape imagery, newsreel footage, and tableaux vivants, it follows a simple chronological progression, setting displaced people from different communities and different ages amid the ruins of their former homes. Among those groups are the Jews of Brazil, the Huguenots, Africans taken by the slave trade, and inevitably, the Middle-Eastern refugees who have perished attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
These are powerful stories but Akomfrah’s methods are so stagey and repetitive one feels he has never quite relinquished the false hope of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘alienation method’, which proposes that instead of eliciting our empathy, an artist must keep us at a distance, asking us to engage with the head rather than the heart. This sounds good in theory but only seems to work with audiences that are already on-side. Most people are merely bored by this ultra-self-conscious form of narrative.
As in Vertigo Sea, most of Akomfrah’s actors are mannequins in fancy dress who stand like statues staring at the sea or the landscape. They are witnesses to history who call on us to throw off our complacency and bear witness ourselves to the terrible events that are repeated from one era to the next. It’s the solemnity of the process that becomes wearisome, because people’s lives may be painful and tragic, but they are never so one-dimensional.
Sydney artist, Joan Ross, is also preoccupied with the chequered history of colonialism, but she takes the opposite approach to Akomfrah. Her video installation, The art of trying to control flowers, at the MOANA Project Space (until 25 March), is a satirical animation that owes a debt to Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python. Drawing on paintings by John Glover, Ross charts the gradual subjugation of the Australian landscape by the extravagantly dressed representatives of the Enlightenment. It’s not deep but it’s fun, and that’s a rare pleasure in contemporary art.
No-one could accuse Helen Britton, at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, of lacking a sense of humour or variety. Her survey exhibition, Interstices (until 15 April) is a sprawling mix of art, craft and architecture that takes us from the beach and the bush to a gothic horror Ghost Train.
Image courtesy of PIAF
Helen Britton, Detail: Dough Devil, 2015, Gold, diamond. Courtesy the Artist

Britton was  born in Western Australia but now lives in Munich. This may account for the slightly schizoid nature of her subject matter but she comes across as such a restlessly creative personality one can’t imagine her settling into any single groove. In one room we find a collection of brooches, a large necklace made from Snapper scales, and a model industrial village in which pieces of mutant jewellery rest on the roof-tops. The second room, painted black, has an elaborate train set with two shark-faced locomotives whirring around. The small pictures on the walls relate to Britton’s childhood memories of the Ghost Train at the Royal Agricultural Show but she now has a German word for the feelings it inspired – Unheimlich – imperfectly translated as “uncanny” or “creepy”.
Britton’s show is a portrait of a very busy mind, but the sheer diversity is almost daunting. SPAN, a show of five local artists at the Fremantle Art (until 26 March), seems equally oblique if one looks for an overarching theme. One thinks wistfully of the simple elegance of Capone’s Forgiving day for night.
Susanna Castleden, 1:1 Gangway (detail), 2016, Rubbing on gesso on paper maps, 3.2 × 15.4m. Photo by Robert Firth, Acorn Photography Courtesy the Artist
Susanna Castleden, 1:1 Gangway (detail), 2016,
Rubbing on gesso on paper maps, 3.2 × 15.4m.
Photo by Robert Firth, Acorn Photography
Courtesy the Artist

According to curator, Ric Spencer, SPAN “traverses the connection and disconnection of boundaries while mapping the passage of the journey.” I won’t attempt to interpret that mystical utterance, although there is a consistent quality in the work by Susanna Castleden, Olga Cironis, Tanya Lee, Clyde McGill and Andrew Sunley Smith.
Cironis was busy creating a carpet of human hair that will eventually be 500 metres long, but it’s still early days. The piece that stayed with me is Sunley Smith’s Carbon Supremacy, a room packed with shredded tyres, burnt wood, a mysterious blue light, and a stuffed hummingbird. It felt like a projection of what the world might look like if we followed Tony Abbott’s five point plan. Unheimlich!
Jacobus Capone, Forgiving Day for Night, Perth institute of Contemporary Arts, until 16 April
Lynette Wallworth, Collisions, PICA, until 5 March
John Akomfrah, Auto de Fé, John Curtin Gallery, until 30 April
Joan Ross: The Art of Trying to Control Flowers, MOANA Project Space, until 25 March
Everyone has a history – Part One: Plain Speak, Art Gallery of WA, until 23 Aug.
Span, Fremantle Art Centre, until 26 March
Helen Britton, Interstices, Lawrence Wilson Gallery, until 15 April
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4th March, 2017.