Sydney and Melbourne may consider themselves the nation’s cultural powerhouses but when it comes to the annual festivals Perth now has a greater commitment to the visual arts than any other city. In the years I’ve been attending the Perth Festival it’s never disappointed.
First-time director, Iain Grandage, a composer, has put together an exceptional musical program which ranges from a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday to a tribute to AC/DC frontman, Bon Scott, that will comandeer 10 kilometres of the Canning Highway on 1 March! I’m not going to wade into music criticism but the two concerts I attended – Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, by Paul Kelly and colleagues, and a recital by American pianist, Garrick Ohlsson – were truly memorable events.
The Festival is also notable for its investment in indigenous themes. The subtitle is Karla – not George Smiley’s nemesis from the John Le Carré novels, but a Noongar word meaning “fire” or “home”. Audiences often fail to rally to such well-intentioned exercises but this year attendances have been more than healthy. It’s a testament to the quality of the offerings, and raises hopes for Brook Andrew’s plan for the 2020 Sydney Biennale, which will present a showcase for indigenous artists from around the world.
The Festival’s stand-out exhibition is by an indigenous artist but anyone who imagines Aboriginal painting as a matter of ochres, dots and symbols is going to be blown away by John Prince Siddon’s All Mixed Up at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Siddon is a Walmajarri man who lives in the remote township of Fitzroy Crossing, but his style of painting and sculpture is eclectic, gothic, psychedelic – frankly bizarre. As an artist Siddon has more in common with Hieronymus Bosch than Papunya Tula.
Most indigenous artists find their subject matter in their country and their tjukurpa (AKA. Dreaming). Siddon is a very different proposition. His pictures, painted in vibrant colours and packed with squirming imagery, engage with issues of national and global significance, from the bushfires to endangered species, to the shortcomings of our politicians.
In the exhibition brochure, Siddon dedicates his show to the people who lost lives and homes in the fires, and to the animals that suffered. He also has words of praise for the firemen. In one painting he shows the Prime Minister being beseiged by angry animals. As the artist himself describes this scenario: “Poor Morrison will be burn by the Koala. The bug is holding Morrison, crocodile don’t like him.”
This is only the beginning of the action in this mind-boggling show, put together by independent curator, Emilia Galatis. I’m regularly surprised by new developments in indigenous art, but in this instance I was staggered.
As if John Prince Siddon wasn’t enough, Fremantle Arts Centre is also hosting a small survey of gouache paintings by Butcher Cherel Janangoo (c.1920-2009), one of the greats of the Kimberley art scene; and an installation called Bricoloage, by Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary, Sebastian Diecke and Josephine Wilson, who are associated with the Perth-based art & science group, SymbioticA.
Bricolage is one of those projects that looks disarmingly simple but entails months of painstaking labour in the laboratory and the studio. It consists of a ceramic wheel suspended in a room, looking like a space station from a science fiction movie. It’s really a purpose-built incubator for tiny animate forms floating in three glass containers. One watches translucent cellular structures made from blood, silk and heart muscle twitching with the faint pulse of life. It’s an eerie ‘living art’ that blurs the line between aesthetics and biology. Some viewers find this beautiful and touching, others are creeped out.
The next outstanding festival exhibition is Ian Strange’s Suburban Interventions 2008-2020 at the John Curtin Gallery. Strange is a local-boy-made-good who has become an artist of international stature with an epic series of works in which he has painted and photographed abandoned houses. It’s an apocalyptic public art that forces reflections on themes such as dispossession, homelessness, natural disasters, economic crises and the rapid fading of the suburban dream.
Not only does Strange photograph these houses, he restores and repairs them, and lights each image in the manner of a motion picture shoot. He has worked in Perth, in New Zealand, the United States and even Poland. There is nothing tricked-up about his photographs and videos which faithfully record his elaborate paint jobs that spread crosses, skulls and words such as RUN and HELP across the facades of houses.
Some of Strange’s most stark and disturbing images come from buildings covered in saturating tones of black or red. By painting a suburban bungalow a dense, sooty black he shrinks the structure into a block as heavily compacted as a lump of coal.
The companion show at the John Curtin Gallery is a survey by Sandra Hill, a celebrated Western Australian artist who has mined her own history as a member of the stolen generation, to produce a series of broadly satirical works that expose the injustices and absurdities of goverment policies towards Aboriginal people. When Hill inserts a brown-skinned woman in a possum cloak into a classic Woman’s Weekly-style image of 1950s domestic bliss, she raises a smile but perhaps also a gasp.
I can only touch on the three other venues involved in this year’s festival. The Art Gallery of Western Australia is showing Lynette Wallworth’s Awavena, a masterly virtual reality piece reviewed in these pages at the end of 2018. At the nearby Perth Institute of Comtemporary Arts (PICA) there’s another important VR piece in Laurie Anderson and Hsien-Chien Huang’s Chalkroom, recently shown in the Singapore Biennale.
Chalkroom is certainly impressive but Wallworth’s work is like nothing previously attempted in VR. It breaks boundaries that are implicitly accepted by Anderson and Huang.
As for the other shows at PICA, I’ve never quite understood how anybody can get excited about Sydney artist, Tina Havelock Stevens, who travels around with a drumkit, making dull videos. If there’s a point of interest, it comes through her choice of locations. In the case of the film, Thunderhead, it’s an unusual weather formation witnessed in the Texas desert. God, however, might expect a share of the credit.
A third audio-visual piece at PICA is Hudson Valley Ruins by American artist, Jacky Connolly. An animated film that tells a tale of teenage boredom and squalor in upstate New York, it’s very watchable but the point seems to be that there is no point.
The final Festival show is The Long Kiss Goodbye, an enterprising if slightly oblique group exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery at the Universiity of WA. The curator is Gemma Weston, who is also the Festival’s new Arts Program Associate. In other words, she runs the visual arts program.
Taking her title from a large multi-media piece by Sarah Contos, Weston has brought together the work of six artists – Contos, Penny Coss, Iain Dean, Claire Peake, Michele Elliot and Brent Harris – in a cryptic, shape-shifting display that offers many points of contact and affinity among the participants but never permits anything so banal as a theme.
Such wilfully shapeless exhibitions of contemporary art are more common than one might think, but they are always a dance on thin ice. If The Long Kiss Goodbye succeeds better than most it’s because of the inherent strength of the selected artworks. “Finality is an illusion,” writes Weston, by way of explaining her premises. And that’s an excellent way of ending this overview.
John Price Siddon: All Mixed Up; Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary & Sebastian Diecke with Josephine Wilson: Bricolage; Butcher Cherel Janangoo: Janangoo, Fremantle Arts Centre, until 22 March
Ian Strange: Suburban Interventions 2008-2020, Sandra Hill: Mia Kurrum Maun (Far From Home), John Curtin Gallery, until 24 April
The Long Kiss Goodbye, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, until 9 May
Jacky Connolly, Hudson Valley Ruins; Tina Havelock Stevens: Thunderhead; Chalkroom, Laurie Anderson & Hsin-Chien Huang, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, until 19 April
Lynette Wallworth: Awavena, Art Gallery of WA, until 2 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February, 2020