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perth international arts festival 2012

the artist-in-residence: beyond just being there

sarah miller: iaska’s spaced: art out of place

Sarah Miller was flown to Perth courtesy of IASKA [formerly the acronym for International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia]. The Spaced exhibition catalogue will be available mid May.

Julia Davis, Headspace, spaced 2012 Julia Davis, Headspace, spaced 2012
courtesy the artist

The ecology is fragile and geological features are often dwarfed by the immensity of space and sky. It is spectacular, rather than picturesque, excepting the scenic and temperate southwest corner. It’s not surprising that questions of space, place and identity are often at the forefront of artistic concern here. The downside of this preoccupation is the potential for a dreary form of parochialism. The upside is clearly visible in a project like IASKA’s inaugural Spaced exhibition, which draws on 21 Artist in Residence programs undertaken over a two-year period by artists and collectives, both Australian and from overseas.

the quality of engagement

Embedded in the curatorial ambition of the overall project is the desire to move beyond the privileging of artists parachuted into communities who make art out of the experience of ‘being there.’ Instead each project emerges from a negotiated and carefully managed partnership with groups and individuals from towns and communities spaced out (sic) across the state: from the Dampier Peninsula to Esperance, from the Abrolhos Islands to Leonora, from the mining town of Roebourne in the Pilbara to the coastal towns of Albany, Mandurah and Denmark and the very different wheat belt towns of Northam/Bakers Hill, Moora, Mukinbudin, Kellerberrin, Narrogin and Lake Grace.

Consequently Spaced is not only concerned with exhibiting art and its documentation, it also seeks to represent something of the quality of the engagements undertaken and the relationships developed in remote locations and small country towns over at least 10 weeks, and developed through what IASKA director Marco Marcon describes as a “decentred organisational structure.” The exhibition represents these relationships through an extended series of filmed interviews, encompassing the views of both artists and community members shown on wall-mounted LED screens in the hallway of the Fremantle Art Centre.

Inevitably, the exhibition represented only the tip of the residential iceberg. Of course this is true of most exhibitions. Whether socially engaged or not, few artworks speak to the experience of their coming into being. In this project the desire to foreground the experiences of not only the artists but also community members, led to a rich and complex, often paradoxical and occasionally confronting, series of artworks, conversations and engagements that will surely resonate long after the individual projects have ended.

Spaced also encompassed a weekend symposium, which sought to tease out some of the ideas, paradoxes and conundrums around ‘socially engaged practice,’ and to reflect on the processes of interaction between artists and communities. Whilst participating artists and community members spoke on panels about the experience of their respective residencies, five keynote speakers, including David Cross (NZ), Margo Handwerker (US), Ian Hunter (UK), Zara Stanhope and Ian Tully (VIC), punctuated the proceedings with reflections and provocations on thematically connected practices from other parts of the country and the world. It is ironic to consider that despite the plethora of residencies, exhibitions and artists’ projects taking place in remote and rural communities, and small towns globally, the idea that contemporary art practices are solely the provenance of first world, metropolitan centres such as New York, London and Tokyo, remains remarkably tenacious.

On the ground in WA, however, artists and collectives took up residence in small communities in strange locations. Even for local artists who might be expected to have an understanding of country and the complexity of issues confronting, for instance, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, such projects can be as challenging as they are extraordinary. Sohan Ariel Hayes spent two months in Roebourne in the Pilbara, infamous for the tragic bashing death in custody of 16-year-old John Pat in 1983. It was clear from the outset that if a residency was to go ahead in this place, then much more would be expected than just another white fellah dropping by and building his career on the suffering of Aboriginal people.

birndi wirndi—worlds apart

Hayes worked closely with Michael Woodley, a filmmaker and CEO of the Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation, not only to create a meaningful art work but also running skills development workshops in editing and filmmaking. Ultimately they created a powerful and evocative projection project called Birndi Wirndi—Worlds Apart which projected images of Yindjibarndi people from Juluwarlu’s extensive digital archive, as well as footage from the two-part documentary, Exile and The Kingdom, which tells the story of the last 150 years from an Aboriginal perspective. In Roebourne, the work was projected onto the façade of the old Victoria Hotel which closed in 2003 at the request of the local Aboriginal community, given the catastrophic impact of the 1960s mining boom and alcohol. Hayes describes this project as an act of cleansing, an invocation, a summoning, and whilst the gallery-based work probably doesn’t carry the punch of the site specific original, for those of us who couldn’t be there, it remains a beautiful, powerful and poignant work.

locus deperditus

For another West Australian artist, Kate McMillan, the town of Leonora about 830 miles east of Perth, described in tourism-speak as the “historical heartland of the Goldfields,” was a transformative experience, allowing her to finally experience herself as Australian. For McMillan, this residency initially represented an opportunity to work with asylum seekers in the detention centre, however that impulse was transformed by the experience of witnessing first hand the impact of youth suicide, following the death of a teenage boy. The disparity between resources available to detained children and those for ‘free’ Aboriginal children saw McMillan adding the roles of advocate and networker to that of artist. She undertook developmental community arts projects, including drawing workshops at the Refugee Centre and cultural projects at the local Indigenous Youth Centre, persuading BHP to provide $20K per annum towards an ongoing program of artists’ workshops. McMillan also established a deep relationship with local historian, Jill Heather, whose work in recent decades has been to record the history and whereabouts of lonely 19th century graves across three surrounding shires, and it is the photographic documentation of those graves that represent McMillan’s residency in the exhibition.


M12, Ornitarium M12, Ornitarium
photo courtesy the artists
Not every project was so inherently confronting. Colorado-based collective M12 created the Ornitarium, an architectural sculpture situated at the Wetlands Education Centre—operated by Green Skills—in the softer climes of Denmark in the state’s southwest. The artists describe the project as being “inspired by ‘local knowledge’...specifically knowledge related to birds that populate the region’s wetlands areas, regional timber types and building methods. The work is designed and built as a bird hide and as a social space [for humans]…” The guest watcher can be in their own custom built nest inside the hide but camouflaged from the bird life on the other side. In the gallery they created an installation curated in partnership with master taxidermist Michael Buzza that included objects collected by Denmark locals, Basil Schur and Tina Smith.

headspace, levelled ground, in transit

Julia Davis created the haunting, site-specific work Headspace, casting her own head from salt harvested from Lake Brown. Over time, the head dissolved back into the lake. She developed another project called Levelled Ground, shown at the Mukinbudin Railway Station that visually represented digital information in a gold-leaf wall schematic, from recorded interviews with local people no longer able to live on their farms. At the Fremantle Art Centre she showed an interactive video work, In Transit, which documented the friendly but characteristically laconic gestures of acknowledgement made by local people as they pass by each other in cars and trucks.

the way you move me

David Chesworth and Sonia Leber’s beautiful and joyous video installation, The Way You Move Me, filmed in Moora, a wheatbelt town about 177 kms north of Perth, took its inspiration in part from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The experience is mesmerising, sometimes funny—there are sheep after all—and occasionally poignant. Handsome cattle lumber down the green hill chasing a small tractor, jostling for precedence, or cluster closely, gazing deeply into the camera lens. Sheep move constantly in and around each other, whether up close in pens or trotting down a country road, juxtaposed against paddocks of unbelievable greenness or the eye-bending golden fields of canola. Moments of intensity, changing rhythms and gaits, are interspersed with personal, almost transcendent moments of interspecies connection.

to the other end

In the gallery, the photographic documentation and blood-stained prayer rug that comprises To the Other End by Dutch artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis forms a savagely ironic juxtaposition to Chesworth and Leber’s bucolic video work. To the Other End follows the journey of live sheep exported from the small wheatbelt town of Lake Grace, 345 kilometres southeast of Perth, to the small island country of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. It examines the use of sheep for both wool and for meat. Helped by local farmers and craftspeople, the artists learned how to shear a sheep and card and spin the wool, from which they wove a black and white copy of a Baluchi funeral carpet. After a year of knotting they completed the carpet and took it with them to Bahrain during the feast of sacrifice.

In Bahrain, they found an Australian sheep from Lake Grace and a local family to organise the ritual killing of the sheep on the prayer carpet during the feast. The meat was distributed to the poor. Photographic documentation included a portrait of the slaughtered sheep hanging on the wall of a small cell-like room, with the prayer rug saturated and stiff with black blood.


Nigel Helyer spent an enviable two months travelling around the turquoise waters of the Abrolhos Islands, home of the rock lobster or crayfish, and described as the world’s first sustainable fishery site. Helyer’s interest in the future viability and sustainability of our marine economies is represented through sound and object with a beautifully constructed wooden boat, CrayVox, that resonates with the sounds and stories of fishing communities in both the Abrolhos Islands and in the restaurants and seafood importers of South-East Asia.

narrogin banksia tower

Polish artist, Jakub Szczesny and curator Kaja Pawelek, developed the concept of an 18-metre tower inspired by Australia’s banksia flower. Proposed as an interactive and functional artwork with a hairy surface responsive to passing cars and visitors, a model of the tower, animations and a prototype forms the basis of a proposal to the Shire of Narrogin to undertake its realisation. The project forms the basis of a forthcoming documentary by Polish artist and filmmaker, Matylda Salajewska for Europe’s Canal+ television.

Sadly, space precludes me from writing about every project in this inaugural biennale, but I wish to acknowledge the calibre of art works and projects developed by Australian artists Bennet Miller, Mimi Tong, Makeshift’s Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe, Michelle Slarke and Roderick Sprigg, as well as Indonesian artist Ritchie Ned Hansel’s Abandoned Trolley Project, Japanese artist Takahiko Suzuki’s Global Store Project and French artists Marion Laval Jeantet and Benoit Mangin’s collaboration with SymbioticA.

emerging spaces for action

Spaced: art out of place, raises many vital questions about the role of art and artists, living sustainably, and the relationship of city to country. Most of us inhabit the cities and suburban margins and never really have to negotiate the complex relations that exist between species—whether domesticated or wild, indigenous or introduced, or to think about lack of meaningful infrastructure or cultural opportunities. It’s a cliché to say that we rely on country for life—for our food and water, for both physical and spiritual sustenance—and yet the divide between town and country remains a deeply felt schism in our everyday. Ian Hunter, in his provocative but stimulating paper, “Art and Agriculture–cultivating new metaphors for sustainability,” persuasively argued rural and non-metropolitan areas as new critical sites from which to think through relational, durational and ecological art and aesthetics—an emerging space of radical action. Less polemically, but equally passionate, Ian Tully talked of his more embryonic project, ACRE—Australia’s Creative Rural Economy, a project bringing together artists, arts workers and farmers in regional Victoria since 2009.

Spaced raises more questions than it could possibly hope to answer, but its ambition, generosity of spirit and willingness to experiment, and to generate what Marvin Carlson has described as “productive disagreement with itself” (1996), offered a radically different kind of biennial experience, one that actively solicited meaningful forms of ‘social engagement,’ while also allowing us to reflect on the wonder, the beauty and the terror of life on this planet we all share.

IASKA, Spaced: art out of place, inaugural biennial event of socially engaged art, exhibition Fremantle Art Centre, Perth International Arts Festival, Feb 4-March 11; spaced symposium, Feb 4, 5;

Artists and residencies: Nigel Helyer, Abrolhos Islands; Mimi Tong, Albany; Philip Samartzis, Dampier Peninsula; M12 Collective (Richard Saxton, Kirsten Stolz and David Wyrick), Denmark; Makeshift (Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe), Esperance; Ritchie Ned Hansel, Fremantle; Roderick Sprigg, Jakarta, Indonesia; Takahiko Suzuki, Kellerberrin; Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis, Lake Grace, and Michelle Slarke; Kate McMillan, Leonora; Art Oriente objet (Marion Laval Jeantet and Benoit Mangin), Mandurah; David Chesworth and Sonya Leber, Moora; Julia Davis, Mukinbudin; Jakub Szeczesny and Kajar Pawetek, Narrogin; Bennett Miller Northam/Bakers Hill ; Sohan Ariel Hayes and Michael Woodley, Roebourne

Sarah Miller was flown to Perth courtesy of IASKA [formerly the acronym for International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia]. The Spaced exhibition catalogue will be available mid May.

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 8-9

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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