Art Life , Reviews May 06, 2011 1 Comment

Meredith Birrell takes a peek behind the curtain…

You might be mistaken in thinking the art world has gone in for some cheap and tawdry entertainment at Firstdraft if you just looked in the front window. Inside a gold tinsel curtain shimmers provocatively. Part of Firstdraft’s emerging curator’s program, SPECTACLE/OBSTACLE is a group show that features installations, kinetic sculpture, video and photography. Yet it’s really the invitation to peer behind the glittering façade of the spectacle to the emptiness or ugliness beyond that is the serious business of this show. With such a theme, it might be tempting to take a bombastic standpoint, yet it is incredibly restrained and its logical flow-through allows for breathing space where conversations start to reverberate between works.

Gallery Installation (clockwise) SuperKaleidoscope, Universe, 2011, Mixed media, dimensions variable. Rebecca Baumann, Untitled, Cascade, 2010, Tinsel curtain, fan, 1.2k Selecon zoomspot
Pia van Gelder, Video Bells – Rimington Scales, 2011, Interactive 6 channel audio video installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artists. Photography: Craig Bender

Rebecca Baumann’s glittering Untitled, Cascade marks the entry to the exhibition and functions as both a stage curtain and an obstacle. Do you burst through the middle or edge around the side? Its sense of fun sets a positive tone for the show, but it also makes one’s visceral responses an acutely self-conscious process. The viewer is now the participant. Perceiving is an active process, both in a phenomenological sense but also in the context of post-structuralist theory, where ideas of authorship and hierarchies of meaning (from artist down to audience) have been undone. As co-curators Sarah Mosca and Kim Fasher explain in their catalogue essay, “ the spectator is constantly observing, selecting, comparing and interpreting.” The works in this show demand audience participation. It is, after all, the audience for whom the spectacle exists, without one it loses all meaning.

Justin Balmain, AM.
Mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of artist. Photography: Craig Bender

In Justin Balmain’s installation, AM, a deconstructed memorial to deceased New York DJ, DJ AM, stands for the post-spectacle, the post-event, the death of the performance and performer. On learning of the passing of this popular cult figure online, Justin’s response was to make something that looked at the unpleasant side of celebrity culture. He first made the work in 2009 and has re-worked it for this show. When the lights go up and destroy the beautiful fantasy of the club environment, what is left, says Justin, are the “cigarette butts…passed out drunk people, people coming down, and the detritus of the night.” (via email, 2/5/11).

There is a kind of denial here too, for even as we see this ugliness, it is the beauty of the event that stays in our memory and the fantasy of celebrity lives on for the fans despite the observance of its dark underbelly. This refusal to see the darkness is underscored by the obstructing black mirrored wall that fronts and ‘props up’ Justin’s installation, an obstruction to our perception, but critical to the whole function of the spectacle. It is all façade and surface. The morning after, with all its destroyed artifacts and tackiness is a metaphor that functions here on several levels.

The penultimate spectacle, deep space, is explored in the collaborative piece by SuperKaleidoscope, Universe. Like a seventeenth century Dutch perspective box, the content is concealed in a wooden structure and can only be seen from each side, for which you have to get down on the floor to access. Yet the interior rewards with manifold reflections and perspectives created by mirrors, commenting on states beyond the tangible. I find a direct link between those golden age Dutch painters and their sophisticated visual puns and these artist’s reflections on pictorial flatness and depth, real and virtual space and the impossibility of a genuine representation of anything.

Michaela Gleave, Sincerity.
Sparklers and paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of artist. Photography: Craig Bender

Our powers of imagination and recall are required for Michaela Gleave’s work, Sincerity, where the title word is spelled out in sparklers on a mustard yellow wall. Again, Michaela forces us to question the genuineness of what we observe. It is an often touted view that ‘true’ meaning lies behind the presented mask, of our personas or of art, but there is just as strong an argument to be made for the locus of meaning to be right on the surface and that the distinction between false façade and inner truth is actually a false one. These questions have no definitive answers and this work opens up this conversation. On opening night when I was there, the question on everyone’s lips was, will the sparklers be lit? In a surprising twist and against the gallery’s initial intentions, the work was set alight and we all had to evacuate because of the smoke! In this way, the work became an even greater spectacle, just not the one everyone had probably imagined. Like Yves Klein’s 1957 work One Minute Fire Painting, in which 16 firecrackers were set alight in a blue panel, it is the transitory nature of the spectacle and the powerful memory it evokes that are critical to its meaning.

Artists from as far back as the mid nineteenth century talked about the spectacle as a paradigm of modern life, in which our senses are constantly dazzled by the array of diversions in the newly industrialised, urban word. This sensory overload has surely grown, especially since the advent of the internet. One of the questions this exhibition asks is, what are our blockages as perceivers and receivers of information? This exhibition interrogates our relationship with the spectacle – as relevant today as ever – not with the aim of finding answers, but more likely, of finding more questions.

Firstdraft Gallery, until May 15th

Greta Alfaro, Justin Balmain, Rebecca Baumann,
Michaela Gleave, Pia Van Gelder
Curated by SuperKaleidoscope
Photography: Craig Bender

Andrew Frost

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