Thresholds is the very model of an underground art exhibition. Between 2016-19 Julia Davis and Lisa Jones explored the subterranean spaces near St. James Station, taking photographs, shooting video and making unconventional large-scale drawings. The results of their investigations are displayed at the Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney University.
There’s an intrinsic fascination in such a project. Sydney may not be Rome, where every excavation yields a horde of artefacts. There may not be ancient tunnels or catacombs beneath the city streets, but it’s still a secret world, undreamt-of by thousands of people who walk over these spaces on their way to work and back.
The thought of a world beneath the earth’s surface is one of most cherished conceits of science fiction. Although the hypothesis of a hollow earth was raised in all seriousness by the scientist, Edmond Halley (who should have stuck to comets), it found its most vivid expression in the works of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In her novel, Mizora (1890), Mary E. Bradley Lane even set a feminist utopia beneath the surface of the planet!
I’m sorry to report there doesn’t seem to be anything quite so sensational in the underground tunnels near St. James. It looks just as dank and desolate as might be expected. The passages are strewn with rubble, the concrete walls are discoloured and grimy, smeared with occasional graffiti. Tree roots dangle from the ceiling, seeking moisture.
It is, in brief, a ruin. I can hardly improve on curator, Claire Taylor’s description: “Ceilings of cavernous chambers glisten with crystallizing mineralisation from constant seepage. Pooled storm water is thick with sediment. Walls are caked with heavy layers of grime…” And so on.
One can appreciate all this squalor, momentarily, but the novelty soon wears off. Shine a light on anything in a dark, cavernous room and it will look creepy and dramatic, but with repetition those bare, grimy walls become merely picturesque – examples of “pleasing decay”, or perhaps “the industrial sublime”.
Davis and Jones do their best to capture the atmosphere of this underground realm in Thresholds: A Chorus – a massive three panel video projection that takes up the entire back wall of the gallery. The screens are pitch dark for much of the time but suddenly the darkness will be broken by a puff of dust that swirls ghost-like in the void. These illuminated clouds of dust are caused by the vibrations of trains racing past. The soundtrack captures faint noises from the trains and the nearby station, but there is nothing else to interfere with the emptiness of this tomb-like space.
We catch glimpses of doorways, piles of rubble and other debris, the most Gothic moments coming from dangling roots captured in shafts of light, casting spidery shadows on the wall. One might wish for a little more theatre, a sense of the chill in the air or the musty smell of these chambers. It would be the perfect subject for a virtual reality installation in which the viewer is enclosed by darkness, with no sense of his or her own body.
Four large ‘drawings’ (for want of a better word) have been created by submerging large sheets of paper in pools of water, letting sediment accumulate on the surface, then drying and fixing the results. The resulting works are described as “site-accreted-residue on Heritage rag”, giving due credit to the natural processes behind each composition. As usual, Nature shows a preference for Abstract Expressionism, working with deposits of grey-brown concrete dust that retain traces of their watery origins. I’ve seen less convincing abstract paintings made by fully conscious artists but the air of randomness is hard to shake off.
Artists such as Vik Muniz and Zhang Huan have shown that materials such as dust and ash can be used to produce complex, layered images, but the lack of agency in the residue drawings means Davis and Jones tend to act as conduits rather than creators. If we accept that art is essentially transformative the weakness in this exhibition is that so much of the work is focused on simply re-presenting those things discovered on the artists’ subterranean excursions.
This appears to be no handicap in generating discussion as there have been two forums on the show already and two more to follow. Although the idea of deserted spaces beneath the living city is one to capture the imagination, the topics it raises are general ones: the changes wrought by time and decay as nature reclaims the built environment; the urban infrastructure that has been abandoned or never used at all; the pathos of relatively modern structures that now resemble the remnants of a lost civilisation.
Beyond any considerations around architecture or urban design the artists’ ambitions are broadly poetic. The “thresholds” they nominate are the borderlines between light and darkness, life and death. The living metropolis is underpinned by networks of dead spaces – tunnels and chambers that have outlived their usefulness and are now slowly disintegrating under the slow assault of seeping water and intrusive vegetation.
Like all ruins Sydney’s underground caverns lead to reflections on the ephemeral nature of a civilisation’s creations and aspirations. There is no light at the end of those tunnels Davis and Jones have illuminated with their flashlights. The darkness around the opening is echoed by the darkness into which the passage recedes. The flash of a bulb acts as a metaphor for the transience of human life in relation to the vastness of geological time and the unknowable future.
While the philosophical underpinnings of Thresholds are open to endless elaboration the raw material is of limited appeal. Looking at dirty concrete walls or piles of rubble is not like looking at the tombs of the Pharoahs or Aboriginal cave paintings. There is no underlying aesthetic or religious significance in structures that were intended to be purely functional. It’s only posthumously, with the onset of obsolescence and decay, that these prosaic spaces can be reimagined as art.
Thresholds: Julia Davis and Lisa Jones in collaboration
Tin Sheds Gallery, 21 January – 19 February, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February, 2021