Charlie Sofo: A Gap Opens Up

Living Museum of the West, Melbourne

At an exhibition by Charlie Sofo the room sheet is crucial. It is a way of decoding the underlying narratives of the objects, actions or rituals that inform the works. Phrases such as Wedges Used to Secure Wonky Cafe Tables, or ‘museum blinds opened daily’, assume a poetic status as adjunct works. Incorporating adjustments to existing architecture as well as found objects, video and photography, Sofo’s recent exhibition at the entry to the Living Museum of the West is the culmination of a three-month residency where the artist gathered information through research and ambient observations.

The Museum itself, situated on the Maribyrnong River in Pipemakers Park, is founded on the value of community-based history making. The Museum’s collection policy places emphasis not just on material artefacts that relate to local history—such as the distinct artillery, meat processing and pipe making histories of the area—but to oral histories, film footage, photography and paperwork.

Largely thanks to the sustained commitment of artist Kerrie Poliness as a volunteer, there has been regular interest from the contemporary art community for projects in and around the museum over the past twenty-eight years. The entry to the museum has not previously been used for such a project, and as Sofo is well aware, there is a vividness to art projects free from the ghosts of previous exhibitions. Through the artist’s simple act of opening the museum blinds, the exhibition provides a radical new view upon entry, incorporated into the exhibition as Open Blinds. The act draws attention to both the existing architecture and to the natural world beyond the windows. The work displays the kind of simple clear-sightedness with which we view a house—and all of the attendant flaws—before moving in.

Time-based rituals form a large part of Sofo’s output. Along with a number of other pieces installed on the floor of the Museum, is a piece of laminated MDF to which three eye drops are re-applied every five hours, precisely the time for the liquid to evaporate (as well as the opening hours for the exhibition). Elsewhere, on Sofo’s blog, we discover how, on a residency in Prato, the artist recorded the fluctuating water levels of a bidet. Each of these works, composed from narratives that relate to daily rituals, foster an alertness to the way that these seemingly mindless rituals might be composed of infinitely interesting variations.

Through the titles and material descriptions, it is easy to get the sense that Sofo is constantly interrogating the role and value of art. He is also unafraid to subvert, to question the value of, say, costly public art. Sofo segues comfortably into the genre of Land Art with a sequence of ten found tree stumps, recently lopped to create sightlines to a large and expensive public sculpture installed within the park. This question of the relative values of art, also extends to a piece of brown cardboard which bears blackened imprints of shoes. The cardboard is a common example of makeshift doormats placed in front of restaurants in nearby Footscray during wet weather. It falls within an interesting history in Conceptual Art of works that bear the marks of pedestrian activity. These include Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) and, earlier in 2016, Ian Milliss’s toothpaste green foam mattress wedged in the entry point to Seventh Gallery in the exhibition Bedshed.1 In Milliss’s case the floor piece served as a record of movement through the gallery. Sofo’s work instead opens up discussion about the ethics of sourcing found materials. Much, actually most, of his work employs found objects, and so the artist regularly faces conundrums about the acquisition of potentially useful but so-called worthless objects. It is telling that Sofo acquired the piece of cardboard when it had drifted away from the restaurant, at the beginning of its transition from doormat to rubbish.

Whilst each work is drawn from a unique context, the overall effect of the exhibition is of an entire composition, balanced by varying degrees of scale across one horizontal and one vertical plane. There is a unifying aesthetic across Sofo’s practice, but it is hard to pin down: scatterings of grain, objects pressed under glass, a monochrome here and there. More than something to look at, Sofo’s power lies in the way he re-directs our gaze upon the rest of the world.

Charlie Sofo, A Gap Opens Up, 2016. Living Museum of the West, Melbourne. Photograph Christo Crocker.

notes: 

1. Bedshed was curated by Jessie Bullivant and included the artists Christo Crocker, Brian Fuata, Ian Milliss, James Parkinson, Gemma Weston, Makiko Yamamoto. It was held at Seventh Gallery, Melbourne, 5 – 20 May 2016.