chris downes

the disappearance of sir w.d. chosen
Fine Arts Gallery, Hobart
22 February - 6 March 2002

Tucked away in an obscure corner of the Union Building at the Hobart campus of the University of Tasmania is the frosty white orifice of the Fine Arts Gallery. A gallery reserved for the funky fresh shows of fine art students and emerging artists, the Fine Arts Gallery has played host to exhibitions as diverse and daring as Duncan Robinson's minimalist explorations into the fine art of video static and the elegant 'bookish' talents of popular Tasmanian performance artist, Brigita Ozolins. The early autumnal offering was The Disappearance of Sir W.D. Chosen, an exhibition drenched in myth and legend conjured up by recent Masters graduate, Chris Downes. Hailing from Tennessee and inspired by the storytelling talents of his Southern grandmother, Downes combined aspects of his old world heritage and a grisly passion for tales of a supernatural flavour to explore the use of interactive storytelling and illustration in a contemporary art space. Centred on the fictitious facts surrounding the unexplained disappearance of botanist Sir W.D. Chosen in 1911, Downes spun a macabre tale of murder and mystery spiked with a sour dash of malevolent ectoplasm. With an intent to physically and mentally plunge the viewer into the plot, white doors adorned with outstretched hands opened onto a lush red velvet curtain brandishing the words, 'Come my child, walk through these doors. Embrace my reality and forget yours'. With a series of large finely detailed pen and ink illustrations, layers of fabric and antique props, Downes achieved the full effect of immersive storytelling with enthusiastic zeal. The adventure began as the viewer passed through the doors and was guided around the story by an abundant twirl of fabric, curling around the gallery like a maze of spiraling ribbon or the wispy tendrils of a cotton smoke machine. Once inside the fabric corridors, I was reminded of the feeling one has at the end of a long flight coming in to land through a sea of thick cloud. The anticipation of seeing the unfamiliar landscape unfold beneath you was much like the experience of being inside Downes's corridors, not knowing where they could take you or what the scene ahead might reveal. Each corner was flanked by thin sheets of yellowed paper inscribed with text that with each step, sunk the viewer deeper into the mysterious events which encompassed the death of Sir W.D. Chosen. The complex core of the mystery crescendoed into reality with a re-enactment of an imaginary art exhibition held in honour of Sir Chosen by his glamourous wife, lsabel and her lover, Eugene Retsy. Hidden within some of the sumptuous works (mostly 'self portraits of the key characters) were tricky clues and codes which would lead the vigourously discerning viewer to delve into the ever thickening plot. The highlight of the 1911 exhibition was a meticulously rendered portrait of lsabel Chosen. Reaching almost three metres in length , the impressive Art Nouveau style and intricate line work of the sumptuous works (mostly 'self portraits of the key characters) were tricky clues and codes which would lead the vigourously discerning viewer to delve into the ever thickening plot. The highlight of the 1911 exhibition was a meticulously rendered portrait of lsabel Chosen. Reaching almost three metres in length , the impressive Art Nouveau style and intricate line work of Digitalis 1910, made for a healthy dose of eye candy. Handmade police reports aged to perfection were tacked to the wall leading away from the striking lsabel and documented the sinister fate of Eugene Retsy. Set inside a nook of coiling fabric, a brass antique phone stood proudly next to the waxy stubs of a candelabra and a weathered leather bound book (a treasured possession of lsabel's mute daughter, Elizabeth). A handful of words with letters slightly askew persuaded the viewer to 'listen to the phone' and hear a woman's anxious voice hastily whisper the remaining clues of the mystery. The conclusion of Downes's suspenseful trip into artistic fanfare and murderous fantasy was cleverly placed across town in the Archives Office of Tasmania under the call number NSMB 8. A tell-all letter written by Elizabeth at age thirty-six drew the strings, which had been cast to the breeze in the Fine Arts Gallery, together into a satisfying, complex and ornate tapestry. Echoing the stately sagas of Edgar Allan Poe and the musty mysteries of Agatha Christie, The Disappearance of Sir W.D. Chosen was an exceptional treat for the mind and the senses. With most art denizens launching into the interactive worlds offered by computers and high-tech electronics, Downes brought the viewer back to the subtle pleasures and possibilities of words and pictures (with a prickly puzzle thrown in for good measure). Assembled to accommodate those with and without the desire to scratch out the clues, Downes created an alluring environment injected with beauty, graceful technique and an enigmatic theme. A demonstrated ringmaster of all things aesthetically phantasmic-if there is something strange in the neighbourhood gallery, Chris Downes is the one to call.