Andrea Bell – 26 July, 2011
So what happens when you take a group of established city artists out to a small country town and get them to work with the locals? Balancing artists' optimistic expectations with the reality of working with those outside their usual audience and community seemed like a recurring theme.
Fiona Abicare, Benjamin Armstrong, Damiano Bertoli, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Nathan Gray, Matthew Griffin, Bianca Hester, Helen Johnson, Laresa Kosloff, Nicholas Mangan, TV Moore, Joshua Petherick, Stuart Ringholt, Andy Thomson, Justene Williams, and Gabrielle de Vietri
Presented by ACCA
Curated by Hannah Mathews
7 May - 3 July 2011
ART#2 in Horsham is the latest in a series of projects by the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art where that gallery produces and tours contemporary art projects and exhibitions around regional galleries in Victoria. This began in 2010 with ART#1 that toured Shepparton Art Gallery, Wangaratta Exhibitions Gallery and Benalla Art Gallery. Whereas ART#1 consisted solely of a touring gallery show, the more ambitious ART#2 opted for more community engagement, and featured both a touring exhibition and series of site-specific projects. For the Horsham edition of ART#2, most of these projects took place over Queen’s Birthday Weekend (11-13 June) at locations across Horsham and the nearby township of Natimuk.
The exhibition (on display at the Horsham Regional Art Gallery’s temporary home, the Jubilee Hall while the gallery proper is upgraded) brought together a strong selection of recent works by renowned, mainly Melbourne, artists. While the introduction to the catalogue stated that this show would respond to HRAG’s photography collection, aside from a few sculptural works, the exhibition was really just a collection of recent works largely using collage techniques, and found imagery. While this may suggest a rather narrow, or arbitrary curatorial premise, it provide a great thematic framework for showcasing recent works by contemporary Australian artists. My only suggestion would be, given the intended local audience, a few brief wall texts may have been helpful, as an alternative to the longer essays in the catalogue.
In Brutalist Reintegration Project, Helen Johnson applied her gallery based practice of pasting up painted images to the side of the local post office - ‘Horsham’s most controversial building,’ (ART#2 programme broadsheet) in an effort to re-engage locals with their own, generally disliked, example of Modern architecture. The images that made up this mural were painted by Johnson following several research trips to Horsham and featured references to local architecture, business signage and the town’s two football teams, the Saints and the Demons. These were rendered in a flat, simplified style influenced by German designer Gerd Arntz’s isotypes. As an attempt to use one Modern visual language to address the failure of another, Johnson’s Brutalist Reintegration Project subtly activated conversation about progress and history, design and community. In this case one cannot help seeing ironic parallels between the ART#2 enterprise and the utopic ideals behind this Modernist building. Hopefully this time, contemporary art finds a warmer reception among the locals than Modern architecture has in the past. When Johnson returns in a month to take down her paste-ups it will be interesting to see what kind of condition they remain in.
Nathan Gray, who often works in collaboration as both a visual artist and experimental musician, worked with the Natimuk Brass Band to develop the collaborative performance, Rural Infrasonics. This was performed at the unveiling of Johnson’s mural, at the sports grounds before the Saturday football match, and at the Natimuk Sunday Farmers Market. Using a self made sound and effects unit, Gray was able to amplify and alter the Brass Band’s rendition of the theme song to the film A Beautiful Mind. Undoubtedly, this kind of music would have held a certain novelty value for locals. I don’t remember any mention of any experimental music scene in Horsham while I was there. And while I only made it to the final of the three performances, I was told that although each was unique, the last was best. The warping sound of the brass instruments certainly managed to attract, and crucially, hold, the attention of many of the shoppers at the Sunday market.
Also working in collaboration with a local group, Laresa Kosloff and Andy Thomson developed The Green Text, with the Natimuk Bowling Club. This audio work (a video version was also produced), was played on mp3 players at a special bowls tournament (performance art?) put on especially, post-season, by members of the Bowling Club. While pre-recorded, and therefore not an actual commentary on the game at which it was broadcast, The Green Text was an insightful and amusing meta-commentary on bowls, sport psychology and art. The experience of watching the game while listening to the commentary, both of and not of the game, opened an interesting space to reflect on questions about how we frame art, collaboration and performance. I never would have expected a discussion of Derrida at a rural Victorian bowls match.
In the film L’Esprit de l’Escalier, developed during a month long residency at Horsham, Gabrielle de Vietri, worked with local school children and elderly residents to come up with aphorisms of general life advice through discussing philosophical questions, life experiences and regrets. From these numerous workshops, interviews and games of Chinese Whispers, de Vietri created an engaging and entertaining film, full of practical, profound and sometimes puzzling pieces of wisdom. An earlier, similar work Philosophy for Kids (2009), also featured as part of the programme, screening from 7 May to 3 July at Natimuk’s Goat Gallery. In this, children were asked to consider questions around topics such as: What is beauty? How do we live together? What is out there? Working with children drawn from the artist’s own milieu, it was interesting to compare the kinds of responses and experiences shared with those discussed by the rural children in L’Esprit de l’Escalier. While Philosophy for Kids was interesting, L’Esprit de l’Escalier, was at the same time both more funny and more poignant than the earlier work. And although the reflections of the elderly interviewed by de Vietri obviously informed the dialogue in the film, it was a shame they were not given more of a starring role.
Taking the form of a newspaper intervention, Sydney based artist Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Headliners appeared in Horsham’s local paper, The Weekly Advertiser, between 12 May - 30 June. In creating the work Gothe-Snape engaged in regular phone conversations with selected local residents, during which she would ask about their day’s events and highlights, from what they did at work to what they ate for dinner. During the conversations she would produce a series of mind maps, recording key ideas and phrases. From these notes, Gothe-Snape would then produce a cryptic headline (eg. “Rare bird lifts town with mighty arm”) to be published weekly in the local rag. As an incentive for local participation, readers were invited to write in with their ideas on what or whom the headlines referred to. In this sense, Gothe-Snape acted as a conduit, working behind the scenes to activate increased participation in the forum of the local paper. Like the other projects in the programme, Headliners successfully generates a temporary transformation of shared community space.
So what happens when you take a group of established city artists out to a small country town and get them to work with the locals? Balancing artists’ optimistic expectations with the reality of working with those outside their usual audience and community seemed like a recurring theme. At the artists’ talk de Vietri explained that she was surprised to find that the local country kids where not as articulate as the urbane, middle class children she had previously worked with in Philosophy for Kids. Gothe-Snape also told of how her first attempts to find collaborators (through newspaper ads) failed to elicit any response and eventually participants were found with the help of staff at Horsham Regional Art Gallery. Nathan Gray also spoke of having to negotiate artistic compromises with his collaborators, choosing to perform pieces familiar to and liked by the band, rather than composing original, abrasive pieces addressing the military origins of brass bands as was originally intended. In spite of this, the artists spoke enthusiastically of those they had met and worked with, and were grateful for their time and willingness to embrace the projects. This begs the question- how did the locals respond? Aside from the odd anecdote (local to Nathan Gray: ‘I didn’t expect to like you or your music - but I did’), as a whole, it sometimes seemed hard to gauge. Given the collaborative nature of the projects it would have been good hear more from the locals as audience as well as participants, perhaps with more feedback incorporated into the discourse of the events.
Overall, ART#2 represented a worthwhile attempt by a major institution to bring contemporary art to new audiences and support some truly unique artists projects. Hopefully the Hamilton and Warrnambool editions of the ART#2 tour, scheduled for later in the year, will be as interesting and entertaining as those seen in Horsham and Natimuk.
Andrea Bell would like to acknowledge the hospitality of Adam Harding, Director of the Horsham Regional Art Gallery, during her time in Horsham and Natimuk.