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the edge of reality

bec dean: reality check: watching sylvania waters


“Everyone likes to look through the net curtains, on a dark night when they walk down the street. Everyone likes to hear and see what’s going on over their neighbour’s fence. It’s partly because you want to know if things are better than your lot, or worse than your lot.”
Paul Watson, Director of Sylvania Waters, interviewed for the 7.30 report, ABC 1992

David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, The world's more interesting with you in it  2009 David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, The world's more interesting with you in it 2009
Image courtesy of the artists
As if mirroring the words of Sylvania Waters’ British director, Paul Watson, Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey have created a miniature version of the once infamous million-dollar waterfront home occupied by the Donaher family. In this three-dimensional environment, inserted into the a wall of the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, the artists represent their video selves through the device of the Pepper’s Ghost, peering around the house’s garage and lurking in front of the bay windows of its living room. A replica Victorian streetlight wetly illuminates the empty driveway as the artists haunt the house’s exterior like apparitions of nosy neighbours.

Described as a long-term project by curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Reality Check deftly intertwines analysis and discourse around popular cultural forms of entertainment with the commissioning of works by 10 established and emerging Australian artists whose practices variously remix, retroactively adjust, repurpose or re-mediate our cultural ephemera. The exhibition is firmly situated within a specific locale; The Sutherland Shire where Sylvania Waters was filmed and the Hazelhurst Gallery resides. Reality Check not only focuses on the histories and legacies of this community—but how, in the rarified moment of Sylvania Waters, and through a single family, it shaped and challenged ideas of representation and the construction and international dissemination of national identity.

In Reality Check, the rapid proliferation of confessional-style entertainment and exploitative forms of television since the early nineties is of course a recurring theme. As a teenager and recent migrant to Perth at the time of Sylvania Waters’ original airing on ABC TV, I have to admit to never watching a single episode of the docu-drama that seemed to polarize the nation. In a 7.30 Report interview, accessible via YouTube, the Donaher family—in defence of themselves—grappled with the problematic and cynical machinations of so-called Reality TV; the subjective nature of which we now expect, enjoy and take for granted.
John A Douglas, Ask Noeline....(not the ogre) 2009 John A Douglas, Ask Noeline....(not the ogre) 2009
Photo by Silversalt. Courtesy the artist & Chalk Horse, Sydney
Cunningham’s exhibition is filled with phantoms of the Donaher family, from manipulation of actual Sylvania Waters footage, to representations of the home and family members; in particular their outspoken matriarch, Noeline. The Kingpins’ series of colour photographs and towering blonde-humanoid-wig-sculpture Blonde Ambition resurrect her domineering feminine presence and aggressive consumption of particular products: Jim Beam, Coke and Winnie-Reds. John A Douglas’ video installation, Ask Noeline...(not the ogre), reframes the ubiquitous Australian backyard pool as a kind of wishing-well where sound-bites of Noeline dispensing advice like an agony aunt are aired as her face shimmers across the screen’s blue surface. Carla Cescon’s installation with Donaher effigies situates Noeline’s caricature within the kitchen as the central hub of the family’s operations, while two shack-like ‘outposts’ on the grounds of the gallery are connected by walkie-talkies.

The exhibition space of Reality Check is filled with the sound of Elvis Presley’s Edge of Reality courtesy of Ms + Mr’s video Alternate Realities 1992/2009, which presents a spectral, uncanny parallel universe/narrative to Sylvania Waters by working with a video archive acquired through another Sydney-based family, the Archibalds of Glebe who were shortlisted, but not selected for the BBC show. In this work, several short scenes of the family interacting are treated as if the digital archive were permeable in real time: wormholes appear and people slip-through, while the poster image of Elvis (Time traveler? Alien abductee?) looms in the background. In Luis Martinez’ detailed pencil drawings, the Donaher mansion on Macintyre Crescent is contrasted against the humble Cabramatta home the artist was living in at the time, drawing attention to the wealth disparity of ‘average’ Australian families.
Ms & Mr, Archibalds/Donahers 1992/2009 Ms & Mr, Archibalds/Donahers 1992/2009
Courtesy the artists & Kaliman Gallery, Sydney
Elvis Richardson’s Sylvania Waters/Elvis Rants Away considers the constantly overwritten and obsolescing format of the personal VHS archive in two large-scale photographs representing VHS spines with assorted anagrams of the TV show’s title. Holly Williams’ card game Happy Families also addresses the decline of analogue forms of domestic interaction and play. The live-feed video installation of Archie Moore conversely reveals the instantaneous and manipulable nature of digital image-making technologies, effected directly upon the gallery visitor.

While the monochromatic abstractions and pared-back symbolism of Mitch Cairn’s work require a deeper knowledge of the Sylvania Waters episodes to adequately decode, they bring in to focus from my perspective the tendency to misread and misinterpret edited and decontextualised information or images—which is a constant criticism of the reality TV format. For Sylvania Waters novices (like myself), the curator has also assembled episodes from the series, Noeline Donaher’s one and only cringe-worthy hit single No Regrets, as well as works by artists who responded to the show at the time of it’s first screening including ceramicist Peter Cooley and performance artist Simon Hunt.

Seventeen years after Australia’s first brush with reality TV, the Hazelhurst Gallery’s curator, Daniel Mudie Cunningham has presented the organisation and its community with a curatorial coup. As an artist whose practice operates at a sometimes dazzling intersection between popular culture, performance art and fandom, Cunningham’s curation of Reality Check is richly informed by not only his creative methodologies but by rigorous research, as evidenced in the exhibition and it’s ambitious and thoroughly absorbing publication.
The Kingpins, Unstill Life 2009 The Kingpins, Unstill Life 2009
Photo by Jordon Graham


Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters, curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham, artists Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey, Elvis Richardson, Mitch Cairns, Holly Williams, The Kingpins, John A Douglas, Carla Cescon, Ms + Mr, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery 10 Oct–29 Nov

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg.

© Bec Dean; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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