elastic contemporary art projects
Leah McLeod
 
 
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Stephen Ralph, In and out
of love
, photocopy
of drawing, 2000.


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Stephen Ralph, In and out
of love
, photocopy
of drawing, 2000.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s 2000 report to the Australia Council yielded the ridiculous result that 78% of Australians reckon art could be consumed like sport. True, back-room squabbles at the judging of the Samstag, Contempora or Willoughby Council Art Prize might make for more entertaining television viewing than ABC’s drab Sunday afternoons. But the questions linger. Would we get to press the mute button and tune into Roy and HG’s commentary for the main event? And how about the drug testing requirements that could kill a nation’s cultural production instantly? Moreover, the art marathon spans years not hours, although I’m sure I could reach bonanza ratings with a Truman Show approach.

That the Australia Council considered juxtaposing art and sport at all in framing their research requirements reflects a misperception on the part of policy makers that the future of Australian culture lies in homogenising art as a commercialised spectacle. I am still not convinced that Australians feel so alienated from art that they need to look to Messrs Packer and Murdoch for mediation. Conversely, art is the more able interpreter, with its ability to re-connect with the real and its unwillingness to cooperate in the cultural mythologies that characterise the mass media vehicle.

What is apparent is the need for Australians to feel more connected with the arts on an everyday level; to experience and treat art as an ordinary part of the daily journey. Art on display. Art on location. As Hannibal Lector put it, to see is to covet.

elastic contemporary art projects wanted to provide a casual, candid encounter with art for people who might be intimidated by esoteric settings. elastic did not set out to be outside the mainstream gallery scene, but rather to be an informal insider of the wider community.

Elvis Richardson, Mark Hislop and I had long been talking about the need for more spaces in Sydney that reached beyond a trade crowd. We had the luxury of drawing from numerous art outreach models trialed by artists over the last few decades. We idealistically wanted to try them all, to fervently raise the banner of art in a range of settings, in the spirit of access that has historically motivated artist-run initiatives. elastic’s first project in fact wound up a modest venture—a gallery designed to run for six months. The availability of a small, cheap shop close to home coincided with the receipt of a small Pat Corrigan/NAVA promotional grant.

While I still fantasise about a chain of drive-thru art spaces, elastic satisfied our need for our artwork to be included in the daily lives of a non-art community. For six months, a converted barber’s shop demystified the art practices of 40 artists in a mix of solo and group shows. The space's large viewing windows captured the interest of local residents, passers-by and a massive drive-by audience.

Echoing the great modernist rhetorics of capitalism and democracy we chose for elastic a model designed to produce maximum output for minimum input of time and money, involving as many artists as possible. The core group was extended to nine to include Jay Balbi, Deej Fabyc, Sarah Goffman, Andrew Hurle, Anne Kay and Elizabeth Pulie. Some had been involved with coordinating artist-run spaces before. A couple were represented by commercial galleries. All had a history of showing in alternative spaces and had a commitment to continuing to do so. Each artist was responsible for curating and organising three shows. These were decided at the outset and two three-month calendars were printed and distributed.

Artist-run spaces notoriously occupy unwanted or abandoned space. elastic gallery sat on the corner of Abercrombie Street and Dangar Street, just off Cleveland Street in the shadow of one of the anti-aesthetic apartment blocks that pass for gentrification at the seedy nexus of Chippendale and Redfern. It’s an infamous area with a reputation for violence, grunge and neglect. The next lane was the site of the ‘74 Roger Rogerson/ Wayne Lanfranchee shoot-out. Over the road is “the block”, inner-Sydney’s ghetto—a locus of blackness, poverty and desperation. The focus of the area is a bottle-store with a stream of mixed clientele. The residents immediately preceding elastic’s presence were a bunch of Nazi youths who claimed the shop as a propaganda headquarters. The local residents related these stories to us as we minded the gallery, told us about the barber who was in residence for several years, considered elastic “a shaft of light” and loved the constant display of art. elastic injected entertainment and whimsy into the area. 117 Abercrombie Street was not O’Doherty's “limbo-like” white cube, rather a real place with a physical, social and political context.

Connection to the non-art community was central to elastic’s success. The gallery became local entertainment, complete with bells and whistles, quick scene changes and even quicker cut-aways with each show up for only four or five days. Many of the viewers commented that they had not been art lovers; some had never been to a gallery before. Yet they had no difficulty connecting with the work at elastic and after the first month lost their shyness as it became clear they were welcome to enter the space and engage the gallery minders. They developed ways of discussing the work, formed opinions and talked about their “favourites”. Contrary to Saatchi’s findings, these interactions attested to the ability of contemporary art to communicate relevant social themes with clarity and wit.

Equally, the space provided artists with a cheap alternative place of exhibition, and the short shows offered freedom for experimentation. Many artists showed work that paralleled their main practice, taking the opportunity to play cross-media with their primary concerns. The weekly openings provided a place for artists to connect, have a beer and talk about art, life and nothingness—that strange blend of work and pleasure that openings afford. The diversity of the core nine members and the mix of established and emerging artists shown consolidated the arts community and allowed for cross-community links. Beyond the beauty and humour available to the fresh audience, the work shown at elastic operated with intricate theoretical and practical concerns of interest to artists and curators.

elastic then became an expression of internal/external tension, a balancing act of differing expectations and experiences and ultimately a tribute to the outsider. This was manifested in the levels of content as enjoyed by those within the art world and the general public; the different viewing experiences of the wider community in the form of transient passing cars and the ambulant local community; the freedom of the artist-directed venture versus the commercially dictated mainstream; the approach of contemporary work versus traditional high art forms; and the physical views from inside and outside the gallery.

The most successful shows exploited this tension and the visibility that the space offered. Many artists employed the gallery not only as traditional wall and installation space, but as a box, a showcase. Humour was a recurrent tool used to propagate serious themes.

Photographer Rebecca Cummins' show carried her ability to unveil optical theory through familiar, domestic references. Known for her commitment to public art, particularly through her humorous camera obscuras, Simply Smashing demonstrated how lenses operate while celebrating the performance of daily life. Cummins constructed tiers of water-filled wineglasses against the windows, a sensual wall of swirling activity that toasted the traffic. Optics could be studied by viewing the streetscape reflected in the glasses from outside and inside the gallery and by comparing the effects of day and night. The piece made both technology and art accessible and many locals commented they had come back to view it again and again.

Stephen Ralph’s large-scale architectural photocopy, In and Out of Love, was best viewed in its completeness from across the road, offering primary pleasure to the outsider or passer-by. Ralph exploited the potential of the gallery to expose perspectival drawing as a rationalist phantasm, entrusting to the viewer a plurality of layers, fields and scale. Ralph’s work revealed many gods, multiple experiences of equal validity with a straightforwardness that colluded with elastic’s aims.

In separate works Luke Parker fully utilised the space both inside and outside the gallery. His illuminated sign “flimsy crust of our world/over the naked universe”, hung outside the door, locating the previously unlabelled gallery as a site of risk and vulnerability, so much so in fact that the sign was vandalised, an unwitting performance which only compounded the adventure of self-exposure. His exhibition Sampler contained wall work, the most deceptive show of the gallery’s run. Looking in, the work masqueraded as inked drawings. Once inside the space, the stitching which made up the images was evident, a deliberate anchoring of cotton on paper, a seeking to salvage boldness from the imposed precariousness of humanness and artistry.

Sarah Goffman similarly took advantage of extending the gallery space outside, hanging a reproduction painting of an Aussie lean-to on the brick fence of the apartment building across the lane. This is typical of Goffman’s work, as she seeks to convert any and all space to the purposes of art and similarly to subvert found material into her practice. The print was soon souvenired by persons unknown, mirroring Goffman’s process of gathering the substance of her work from the streets. Her show then comprised four shows: the painting outside the gallery; a plastering of the front viewing windows with found documents, letters and photographs; the side windows hung with plastic dress patterns modelled on Goffman’s own clothes; and a show of sculptures fabricated from torn cardboard inside the space. Each work spoke of discarded lives, remnants of culture, which Goffman lovingly reformed with new life and new direction.

Elvis Richardson presented a witty commentary on potential and reward by displaying discarded trophies of every ilk in a careful, almost pristine fashion on a table cloaked in a formal tablecloth by the window—all as if awaiting an impending presentation ceremony. Some of these trophies were beautiful, others ugly, most bespoke the year of presentation in their design. Something for everyone, everyone a winner. A tacky red velveteen curtain, hung floor to ceiling at the back of the gallery, evoking the stage backdrop and a microphone and speakers were casually placed to the side waiting for the MC to get the show on the road. This set-up bespoke expectation and hope, inviting the viewer to step up and receive her due. This was further offset by a sense of fragility of achievement, given that the trophies were sourced from op-shops and rubbish heaps. Brave deeds once lauded and now forgotten as the insensibility of competition was rammed home.

Mark Hislop’s work reflected his on-going concern regarding societal acceptance of rationality as a value-free concept. His practice frequently deals with medicine as a blatant cipher of this condition. Here, set on a plinth painted the same yellowy-green of the gallery’s ceiling, hundreds of unlabelled white plastic pill bottles were arranged in an installation that contained all the hallmarks of fascist architecture. Hislop’s piece convincingly reflected the facelessness of the medical discourse and assumed universality of scientific dictums.

Many other works warrant mention: Deej Fabyc’s video works including a humorous soliloquy delivered in the bath centred on the stresses and tensions of parenting and a loop of Abercrombie Street taken from the gallery; Anne Kay’s DIY quilling experiment; Jack Walsh’s two metre high lighthouse, Brave New World, complete with sweeping light; Jay Balbi’s intimate photographic exploration of a room in the Sine on the Green group exhibition; Misha Borowski’s song lyrics hand-printed on cigarette papers; Elizabeth Pulie’s decorative colour plays; Callum Morton’s recording of himself crying; Andy Davey’s golden-rough Olympic rings; Carla Cescon’s classical heads remade in moulded foam; Andrew Hurle’s notice of his own funeral. All contributed to making elastic an involving project, reflecting something of the diversity of contemporary art making in Sydney. Best of all, elastic was something to do, a way of contributing to the Australian cultural agenda. In a political climate characterised by closed purses and a deferential fear of cultural elitism, elastic’s attempt to engage new audiences was indeed deliberate and strategic. On a personal level, it turned out to be the most satisfying and stimulating achievement of the project and the comments I received on my work from art virgins were much more meaningful than those from established critics.

The first edition of elastic contemporary art projects is now complete, a facet of historical record. The next instalment is to be a survey-style show to be held in August 2001 that will aim to extend continue elastic’s mission to make of art intellectual accessibility, social commentary, and enjoyment.

Leah McLeod
2000

The artists &
Images courtesy of
the artists.

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Sarah Goffman, Do you want
to go back/Remnant
,
Installation detail,
2000.

 
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Mark Hislop, Untitled,
plastic pill bottles,
painted plinth,
installation view,
2000.

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Mark Hislop, Untitled,
plastic pill bottles,
painted plinth,
installation detail,
2000.

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Rebecca Cummins,
Simply Smashing
,
installation detail,
wine glasses, perspex,
water, light, 2000.

 

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Luke Parker, Joy Division
from Sampler, stitched
cotton on paper
2000.

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Luke Parker, Untitled
(Pasolini quote), wood,
light, enamal,
double-sided sign
(damaged), 2000.

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Sarah Goffman, Do you
want to go back/Window
dressing
, plastic 2000.