Between Friday the 10th of September and Monday the 4th of October, Cockatoo Island was the stage for the Artists in Residency Program, or ‘A.R.P.’, the Harbour Trust’s new initiative, set up as a trial to help local emerging and established artists with studio space. The Artists in Residency Program brings eight established and emerging modern artists to Cockatoo Island to create an ongoing spring exhibition. The artists were Sydney-based installation artists Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams, architect Richard Goodwin, visual artist Keg de Souza, painter Daniel Boyd, installation and video artist Margaret Roberts, interactive media artist Mari Velonaki and Australian activist art collective boat-people.org. All participated in an Artists Residency Program on the island during the last twelve months. Annie Laerkesen is organiser and curator of the exhibition, which is the first of what is hoped to become an annual event.
As I am a volunteer, I was invited to help at the opening. I did not know what to expect, as I had not heard much about the exhibition, but made an assumption from the little that I knew that the crowd that it would ‘draw’ would be the typical Sydney art scene. Indeed, the ferry was almost packed to the brim with ‘artsy’ types, which was unsurprising as it was an opening to a semi-obscure event, on a cold, wintery spring evening. However when I got to the island I was pleased to see a range of people from all walks of life and from all parts of Sydney – small children to elderly grandparents – actively enjoying each one of the artworks. Of course, the highlight of the evening was the band which played at the end, but people braved the rain and the cold to walk to many of the outer buildings in order to experience the video installations and artwork. Indeed, when it came to the end of the evening, it was hard to pull some viewers away from said works as we tried to shut them down. This is a positive start for something that is a trial!
The exhibition had a wide range of paintings, photographs and installations regarding various topics, however the following artworks, installations and opening presentations give a broad overview of what the A.R.P. is about, and what can be expected of a visit to Cockatoo Island to see the exhibition.
Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams
Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams joined forces to create a video installation inspired by the story of Captain Thunderbolt, the Australian bushranger who was held on the island and aided in escape by his wife, Mary Anne Bugg. The installation depicts figures in striped outfits reminiscent of prison clothes drilling and building within the 1940s bomb shelter where this installation is housed. After watching for a few minutes, it is revealed via a stilettoed heel that these faceless figures are in fact women, adding an element of sexiness and intrigue to the situation. Both artists were intrigued by the story of Thunderbolt’s escape and the love of his wife, and have symbolised the plight of bushrangers such as himself that were held on the island through the costuming.
This is a bi-polar piece, set on two screens. Although the images are generally similar, their editing and overall presentation are quite different. One section has been overly digitally enhanced, with red and green printings coming on and off screen for no apparent reason whilst the female goes about her business of sawing the ground. The other is sleeker, focusing in muted tones on the ‘prisoner’ and their work before showing the reveal of the stilettoed foot. I am unsure which artist created which video, but the differences in style are very striking. This in turn has two effects – it can cater to a wider audience through the differences in style or polarise them as there is not enough unity through the works. One looks messy and like something a first year time-based art student would create, whilst the other is a sleek, sexy production that you would almost expect in an arthouse film. Indeed, throughout the evening it was interesting to notice which video the audience was drawn to – many would watch the sleeker video for a few minutes, quickly glance at the second video, and walk out again. The location of the installation was also problematic – set away from the rest of the exhibition in an outhouse, and as one patron observed, not indicated well enough so that people could easily find it – many audience members accidentally stumbled upon it when trying to find the toilets. The concept behind the installation is quite interesting, however, and it was perhaps one of the better video installations presented at the exhibition.
Boat-people.org created a video installation and series of lit photos from their Muted Sydney show. This collective focuses on the issue of boat people and came into being in 2001 as a reaction to John Howard and the Coalition’s policy regarding illegal immigration. According to their website:
…The government of that time, led by Prime Minister John Howard, exploited the deep vein of xenophobia in this profoundly colonised nation. Their rhetoric of ‘illegal migrants’, and ‘boat people’ took hold of the national imagination, so that the majority of Australians supported the incarceration of refugees and their children in detention camps… Boat-people.org was formed in response to such policies, which over the past 12 years profoundly harmed the emergence of a multicultural and tolerant society. (boat-people.org, 2010)
It is interesting that this is part of the exhibition, as once again boat people are topical within Australian politics and this is one of the few works that addressed a topical issue. The photographs are sharp, well focused, almost reminiscent of something you would see on the front of Australian Government brochures promoting ‘Young Australia’ (sans the flags wrapped around the head). The flags symbolise the ‘national blindness’ of the Australian people as according to the collective’s website. Mounted and backlit, the images looked almost like stills from a film, and in fact some viewers asked that exact question – were they watching a paused movie or were these deliberate photographs? By themselves the images are striking, and with the added context even more so. These were some of the more effective photographs of the exhibition.
As an added extra for the opening, a choir consisting of a guitarist, pianist, singer and approximately twenty computerised heads mounted on a Medusa-esque statue performed a series of three songs for the crowd. Their songs combined a mixture of humour and pathos, although their point often seemed to be lost as the words were drowned out by extremely loud drums, bass and digital faces. It also didn’t help that the band was situated in a giant shed, thus making everything echo. The choir is quite new and has great potential. This was particularly apparent at the beginning of the performance, which consisted of a ‘sing-off’ between the digital faces and the singer, mimicking the digitalisation. It was not apparent whether this was intentional or not, but it certainly could be interpreted as a commentary on the autotuning of human voices – not only can digital voices mimic and recreate human voices, but it can also work vice versa, and perhaps even sound better coming from a natural voice. Was this the choir’s way of pointing out that nothing can replace the natural beauty of a human voice, or were they just trying to be clever?
The second song, combining different sound effects, snippets from films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and different faces, was too long and convoluted. Many in the audience were left shaking their heads as to what it was all about, once again partially because the lyrics kept getting drowned out. Overall, although the concept of a semi-digital choir is a clever one, the novelty of the faces wears thin when the songs become too long. The band needs more opportunity to experiment and see what they can do. Things that worked well and therefore need to be focused on more include the concentration on facial expressions that occurred, mainly at the beginning of the performance. It made each digital face appear more real and gave each a personality. Using snippets from old films also worked well as it added some humour to the songs, however the choir must be careful not to overload on loud noises at the expense of good song writing, and the human female singer must be given more to do in order for her role not to become superfluous.
These very different artworks are quite interesting but do not show anything particularly original or daring – it’s all been done before. Perhaps with the exception of boat-people.org, most of the artworks err on the side of caution, easily palatable and not necessarily there to make the viewer think. Even boat-people.org’s photographs, although topical in nature, are sleek enough to not be completely confronting. However this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the Harbour Trust are running this residency as a trial, the works needed for the exhibition to be a success (if success is counted as visitor numbers as well as benefiting artists) must be readily accessible to a wide audience. It is hoped, however, that in future years the works would present more of a challenge to the viewer whilst still being able to maintain an interest for the general public.
Overall, there are some concerns regarding the exhibition that should be remedied in future years. One concern is that in order to find out more about each artwork, viewers must do their own research after the event– the caption is generally insufficient for many of the works. This is particularly true of the boat-people.org captions, although in this case, that is perhaps a good thing as generating interest in their website and therefore their cause is part of the collective’s aim. It is concerning for the other works, however, as many have interesting stories and hidden meanings that cannot be interpreted from a caption yet would help give a broad audience a wider understanding of each piece.
Another concern is the venue itself. Cockatoo Island is a difficult space to run an exhibition at the best of time, and this is no exception. Although most of the works were placed in a large shed, some were in a smaller building and the Dwyer-Williams installation was in an outhouse 500m away from everything else. There were no maps or signs to show people the location of different works, and this led to some confusion as to both the location of the toilets and the art. This led to some works being missed altogether, which is concerning as this is an exhibition whose partial intent is to expose works to a wide audience. The echoing chamber in the shed did not provide appropriate acoustics for the choir. However in other ways Cockatoo Island has aided the artists and the works. Once again, the installation by Dwyer and Williams is an example of this, as the island directly inspired their artwork.
Overall, the Artists in Residency program on Cockatoo Island is a positive experience although in some ways it seems to have been under planned. Although the works are not necessarily challenging, they are interesting and it is great to see that they are reaching a wide audience. By focusing on organising the layout of the exhibition better and perhaps with some better promotion, the A.R.P. has the potential to become a highlight of the annual Sydney cultural calendar.
boat-people.org. (2010, August 31). Cockatoo Island Exhibition. Retrieved September 9, 2010, from boat-people.org: http://www.boat-people.org/
COFA online. (2010, May 28). Mikala Dwyer: Seance for an Island. Retrieved September 10, 2010, from COFA online: http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/cofa-talks-online/cofa-talks-online?view=video&video=89
Connellan, B. (2010, September 10). Unknown Territories: Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Retrieved September 10, 2010, from Concrete Playground: http://concreteplayground.com.au/event/6641/unknown-territories-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-plac.htm
De Souza, K. (2010, February 11). Cockatoo Island Residency. Retrieved September 10, 2010, from Keg de Souza (blog): http://kegdesouza.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html
Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. (2010, September). Events Calendar. Retrieved September 24, 2010, from Cockatoo Island: http://www.cockatooisland.gov.au/events/calendar.html