Reviews Sep 26, 2011 2 Comments

Here are the facts: Billie Rose won last year’s Marrickville Contemporary Art Prize. A year later the artists has a show with At The Vanishing Point. And releases a CD. Got it? Meredith Birrell tries to make sense of all the excitement…

Kick back with my boots on!… I’m listening to Billie Rose’s EP while writing this… I just wanna stay in bed and play! Yeh!PsychoActive the album is available either as either a download or a CD at The Vanishing Point Gallery . The show itself meanwhile is the culmination of winning last year’s Marrickville Contemporary Art Prize – the prize consisting of cash and a solo show at ATVP the following year. The MCAP’11 Exhibition at Chrissie Cotter Gallery and The Fringe Dwellers at ESP Gallery in Marrickville, (those who didn’t make the final selection), make up a trio and are part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.

Billie Rose, Psycho Active, Installation View.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from PsychoActive, apart from a range of cross-media work. I certainly didn’t anticipate the sexiness, the shrewd social scrutiny and the acerbic humour. It is a lot of work to take in, particularly in the small space that is the ATVP Gallery. Unfortunately one of the videos wasn’t working when I visited, but there was enough energy there to fill the space. To quote the press release, after winning last year’s MCAP, Billie Rose, “…like a doped up psychopath…decided to tackle a variety of artforms for the first time – nude photography, solar powered sculpture, sound activated installation and living art.”

I find myself up against my own limitations with this show, struggling to locate any handy ‘art’ categories to slot this work into, scrabbling for reference points. I’m not sure what to name it and that’s quite a good place to be. In this awkward place of not-knowing, I might just try to describe some of my responses. It helps to know the tracks, as they were all written to complement specific works within the show. You also hear how the artist sounds (she has a spectacular voice) which is a nice point of connection. Boxing gloves at the entrance sort of prepare you for the work you are about to encounter. There is anger here, but not of the alienating kind – the bright yellow gloves and drapery add rather a fairground atmosphere. To the left; a bed on the floor, neat with yellow quilt and plush cushions. I read this work as a scrutiny of our culture of sex, youth and, as I take it, the colonisation of Australian culture by American idioms. ‘GAME ON’ travels across an LED screen (of the type you see in the windows of discount stores), a heart shaped pizza print adorns the central pillow and “Home” and “Away” are embroidered on two more. A lot of cultural references here, at first not easy to unravel. The sporting references within the context of the bedroom evoke the idea of sex as a conquering act, a conflict that must result in the subordination of one party…but perhaps not. Perhaps that’s only my negative interpretation, always ready to jump to the self-defence of women. What if this is an encounter between two women, or two men, or three? Perhaps it is just a game – equal players, equal rewards for all! On the quilt cover are embroidered dozens of words. I begin reading them, trying to understand their cryptic meaning. Finally I realise they are all euphemisms for sexual positions, some violent sounding, most definitely offensive. Billie Rose is playing the game with us, shifting between innocence and guile, cuteness and violence.

If ‘Game On’ is about sex, there’s no doubt about the fact of death in ‘Coffin Table and Tomb.’ Brown school chairs with attached writing desks and grass sprouting from them are arranged around a coffin-shaped table, the whole contained within a sheer black tulle ‘tomb’. Again, I can’t help thinking of the circus, the tomb is more reminiscent of a tent. The living grass makes this a work also about life, in a kind of absurdist way. I’m at a bit of a loss, here. I liked it’s black-comedy, its dada-esque resistance to interpretation. I’m currently listening to Psychos and Villians, the track that is coupled with this work:

Stalking the streets while you talk to yourself, / say do you want to be you, or somebody else? / Do you want to rest up your bones, or can I break them instead? / Walk, imagine you’re already dead.

I’m coming round to the thought that this work, like poetry, only alludes to ideas, evoking associations and dredging the dark pits of memory.

Apart from buying a CD, I also couldn’t resist one of the works that comprise ‘Puss in Boots’, small portrait photographs mounted on records. There must have been at least 20 of these works, all of a different woman, nude except for a pair of boots and posed in various kitsch set-ups. It’s really easy to assume this kind of image is degrading, but I think it is clear from the endearing wit with which these are done, that these are very female-affirming works. It plays with all the clichés – sexy boots, beds, toys – but there is also nothing gratuitous here, which would be heavy-handed and miss the point. The fun these models and their photographer had is palpable. So I bought one, of course.

Seductive beats pull you through into the far dark recess of the gallery. There you watch a video of Lick Sip Suck, a great track that corresponds to the work, ‘Rebel Remorse.’ I won’t insult Billie Rose by attempting to explain her meaning, which she does much better in her own words, but it is powerful. She is able to deal with ugliness and, I think, her own personal demons in a way that speaks to the universal.

In reflecting on this body of work, you could think of Tracy Emin’s bed as a precedent for ‘Game On’, but this is not necessarily a good fit, as Billie Rose does not have that rage that can distance audiences. Even the dada association I made earlier seems naïve, as there is no nonsense here, but actually clear narrative drives for the most part. There is always a vacillation between the outward-looking social self and the highly subjective. The personal is political after all.

I attended the MCAP Launch/Awards at Chrissie Cotter gallery the same night. The standard of work was very high, and the calibre of judging was too, which included gallery director Barry Keldoulis and photographer Anne Zahalka. Judging such a diverse prize, with 35 finalists to choose from, is no easy task, I’m sure. The two highly commendeds were very well-deserved, although they spoke a similar language of mood and tone. I was a little disappointed, too, to see the first place prize divided between two artists, in this case working in extremely different modes! I don’t think this benefits either of them. They are now presumably thrust together for their show at ATVP next year and the prize money will have to be split also, not what they would have been expecting. However, that aside, I was very heartened by what I saw coming out of my local area. I literally felt glowing with pride, even though I knew absolutely no-one in the show, but just to feel part of such a vibrant arts community was exciting. Maybe I’ll get to know a few faces by the time next year’s MCAP rolls around – and I might enter then, too.

Billie Rose, PsychoActive, At The Vanishing Point, Newtown, until 25th Sept

MCAP’11 Exhibition, Chrissie Cotter Gallery, Camperdown until 25th Sept

The Fringe Dwellers, ESP Gallery, Marrickville, until 25th Sept

Image credits:

Diego Bonetto (winner MCAP’11), Terrarium, Sydney Park, 2011. Terrarium, soil, weeds. Courtesy ATVP Gallery

PsychoActive, installation view. Courtesy Chrissie Cotter Gallery

Andrew Frost


  1. Janette

    I saw the Psycho/Active show too. Very powerful and yet .. what is it…made you want to smile and squirm at the same time… like a tease, a tickling game, when you’re never sure if its going to push you ‘too far’. Thanks for insightful and thoughtful review Meredith.

  2. Pingback: Art Reviews « meredithbirrell

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