Right before a mega storm intrudes upon – and hastily cuts short – Brisbane’s Queensland College of Art (QCA) graduates launch, I’m fossicking among seven thousand soap rings, dangled on the wall like a ring-toss game. Titled Choose One, the rings are hand-cast and carved by jeweller Pippin Blackwell, and designed for audience to take, wear and keep – until their ‘precious’ disintegrates over time.
The weather tonight though is causing rings to momentarily solidify. “They’re turning crusty around my pinky,” a visitor fascinatingly discovers. What later amuses me is that my finger-hitching ring goes on to become a handy soap dispenser for the next week, echoing Blackwell’s intention for her objects to form bonds with their hosts.
After returning to QCA a week later, during tamer weather, I compare and pocket another ring (it was flakier and porous this time), and as I circle the gallery I approach two female acquaintances who are plonked on a floor carpet, having a chat. Beside them is an electronic-driven diamond structure housing three silicon tongues that are wagging in slow motion. As if by osmosis, we – as a trio – start to wag our own tongues: first we chat about the work and choice of carpet (silky, Turkish), then on to Christmas shopping and gadget wish-lists. I later learn from Kiah Reading that his participatory installation, I Suggest We Congregate, is his attempt to lure the curious into the space to highlight the nuances between humans and machine. It’s a witty declaration of our elevating need to use modern technology to talk to humans; at the same time technology is so shadowed, so second nature, that we often forget it’s there.
Nuance also informs the practice of Sancintya Simpson (aka CHICHI MA$ALA), whose hip-hop music video Mixed Girl Militia counters the racial stereotypes she faces as a mixed-race female living in Australia. The film sees Simpson reincarnated as a spliced apparition of her Eastern and Western identity, and shelling out sharp rhymes such as: ‘Try to divide my mind to fit your design/when will you realise I’m dark-light combined’ and ‘I am the hybrid, the specimen, I am the one with the special skin.’ With an anthem that salutes ‘otherness,’ Simpson is able to reclaim her cultural hybridity with anarchist-like empowerment.
Over at Queensland University of Technology (QUT, Kelvin Grove), Anita Holtsclaw explores otherness as that of the unknown that comes with longing and loss. Holtsclaw explores the 1975 disappearance of Dutch artist Ban Jan Ader, who attempted to sail solo from Cape Cod to the Netherlands. Even though his partly submerged boat was later recovered, his body was never found.
For her latest series, Holtsclaw disassembles a previously exhibited work, palaces, and resurfaces its materials as two separate entities. Screened cinematic-style in a blackened room, the waves is a meditative video of a scaleless, boatless sea, perhaps an insight into the solitude and loneliness felt by oceanic travellers. Ten minutes away at Metro Arts Gallery, Holtsclaw’s work searching comprises sheaths of sail-like voile, appearing to mimic a boat wreck as they cascade across the walls and onto the wooden floors. These scattered pieces add to Holtsclaw’s puzzle-piecing pursuit of hope and discovery, set in a heterotopic ‘no man’s land’ that is neither here nor there.
The service of plants is highlighted by Matthew Hutchison in his domestic greenhouse Sing To Me Like I Once Sang To You. Inside this booth he has lined up plants whose stems are hooked up to sensory speakers. He instructs visitors to poke and caress the plants, which then reply in coos and howls. As I become part of a crowd that is plummeting fingers into soils for cacophonous entertainment, I realise that Hutchison’s plants are perhaps trained to sing to us. While this work is a throwback to a time when farmers and gardeners would sing to their crops to stimulate growth, it’s also a commentary on the social expectations that result in the supply and demand of mass crop production.
A sound-driven, simulated environment is also explored by Jack Packshaw from QCA (Gold Coast), whose work, Separated, takes place in a pitch-black booth drowned by the sound of heavy breathing and nails scratching chalkboards. As an exercise in sensory deprivation, the box immediately discombobulates me upon entry, and because I’m actually afraid of the dark, this transforms into a test of endurance. I last five minutes. Outside the booth is Packshaw’s equally disorienting video, filmed downwards to show a path being hazily walked, but exhibited on the wall at eye level.
As it turns out, the artist suffers from epilepsy, and this work attempts to replicate the loss of control and distorted perception Packshaw feels during and post-seizure. How this operates on a broader existential level is revealed in the guest book, laid out for participants to comment on their experiences with the work. It is scribbled with descriptions of claustrophobia and hallucinations, but also feelings of metamorphosis and Zen-like healing. A week later, the aforementioned storm hits Brisbane, leaving me temporarily blinded from a chunky indoor blackout. Recalling Packshaw’s darkness jolts me out of me that fear, and for the first time, I am ready to let go.
Reflecting on this year’s selection of graduate works, ‘pursuit’ feels to be an underlying theme that threads these artists together. There’s the search for the new hybrid (Simpson), the ideal conversation (Reading) and the perfect environmental elements (Hutchison/Packshaw). Then there’s the poetic pursuit for the ghost and the host, the vanished and the unreturned (Holtsclaw/Blackwell) – elegiac elements that add to my excitement in anticipating what these artists will produce post-studies.
Funnily, as I type this, I notice that my honey-melon soap ring is skinnied through friction, and pretty soon, showers and swims will lead to its disappearance. For now, I am its host, and I’m not ready to let go.