Watch This Space

Alice Springs

From a viewer's perspective the most significant contribution of Alice Springs's only artist-run exhibition space has been to challenge the local dominance of two-dimensional art. While landscape is no longer the overriding impulse in the making of art in Central Australia, painting certainly remains the dominant form. This is possibly due, in part, to the invigorating influence of Indigenous painting since the late 1970s. It may also be that artists of European origin who have chosen to base themselves here-as opposed to the cities where, tor most, their art practice originally developed-have done so in order to continue to paint.

However, two artists with an installation practice recognised across state borders have been based in Alice Springs since the early nineties . They are Pamela Lofts and Anne Mosey, both among the founding group of artists of the gallery they dubbed Watch This Space (WTS) . Others in the group were textile artist Jan Mackay, painter Angela Gee and ceramicist Pip McManus. A survey of events in WTS since it opened in February 1994 reflects the diverse interests of all these artists as well as a commitment to exhibiting opportunities for visiting artists from interstate and overseas, and the development of an informal community arts space. Yet what stands out as absent from elsewhere in Central Australia is an openness to experimental work, work-in-progress and, in particular, installation practice.

As a physical space WTS could not have been better designed to generate possibilities for artists wanting to work in this way. Built as an ice and soft drink factory in 1951 , the main gallery has been cleaned and whitewashed but left otherwise untouched. Its former industrial use left behind a well shaft, which the artists have exposed and covered with a semi-circular grille, and a coolroom, in one corner of which is an expressive ooze of tar. The sawtoothed roof remains exposed. This space, minus the well and coolroom, is replicated on the other side, but divided by a wall. The artists have installed a ceiling and lighting. One room is used as a studio, available for outside hire, while the other room provides additional exhibition space.

A recent installation, ground games, by Sydney-based artist Margaret Roberts achieved the most elemental use of the space to date. Before considering this show however, it is worthwhile to recall some of the work by local and visiting artists at WTS which has broken with the "exhibition- of-paintings-and-drawings" mainstream.

Lofts arrived in Alice Springs in 1991. She "discovered" the old ice factory and was the prime mover in obtaining funding to open it as an art space. She was responsible for its first exhibition in March 1994, an installation called Skin Deep which, with a fitting sense of ceremony, used the original art material of Central Australia, sand. It covered the entire gallery floor and in it were inscribed Aboriginal "skin" names, the names denoting kinship.

Lofts maintained a strongly vernacular although more contemporary context in Dogs and Sticks, shown in May of the following year. Lofts' part of this joint show with Darwin artist Annie Taylor grew out of an earlier installation which she was invited to take to the 1995 National Sculpture Forum in Canberra. In that city the Pack (of 21 dogs), assembled at the National Gallery and other public buildings, must have read as highly disjunctive, but in AIice Springs the pack felt alarmingly familiar and close, seen through a slot cut into a corrugated iron barrier- a metaphor for the social tension between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Central Australia.

Lofts had also used WTS to develop her mulga root assemblages, one of which was shown at the 1995 Alice Prize, and another as part of the same Dogs and Sticks installation. The contrast of the two underlined the expressive possibilities offered by the physical space at WTS, compared to the more conventional gallery space of the Araluen Arts Centre which hosts the Alice Prize each year and houses the town's public art collections.

A similar point can be made about Robert Kleinboonschate's Fated Gathering, installed at WTS in September 1994. The WTS aura of abandoned industrial activity, its variety of spaces and surfaces, worked in intense interaction with Kleinboonschate's assemblage of faces on tiny boards, sourced mostly from newspapers. To be exhibited in the same year's Alice Prize (of which it was co-winner) the work was necessarily reassembled in an altered, more formal and self-contained form.

From the outset the WTS artists worked hard to encourage a greater flow of work and ideas between the Centre and interstate artists and art spaces. In July 1995 Neil Emmerson's installation Gui Nan Feng, first shown at that year's Perspecta in Sydney, came to WTS from 24HR Art in Darwin (with assistance from that gallery and the Northern Territory's Office of the Arts). The following year saw a proliferation of visiting shows, six of them from installation artists, including Nelia Justo's and Nigel Helyer's Filament. Chris Barry's X is the site of many accumulations, and A Lawn Blaze with Life Drawing by Cairns-based dance artists Leah Grycewicz and Rebecca Youdell and participating local artists, performers and musicians. In November Mosey and Dolly Nampijinpa

Daniels also showed their most recent collaboration, Nyurruwjyi Nyurruwjyi, long time ago, in which they contrasted the domestic lifestyles of past generations of their families. This included the full-scale construction inside the gallery of a bough shelter using only traditional materials.

While all of the works in one way or another embraced site-specific responses to WTS, they also all brought to it external concerns. Returning now to the recent ground games, Roberts by contrast, in a highly analytical work, focused exclusively on the fundamental spatial relationships in WTS, ground games was an outgrowth of some six years' practice in which Roberts has used existing forms in her environment, usually architectural spaces, to mark out "objects". Much of that work made a claim on a given space by painting geometric forms in richly coloured oxides that extended existing lines to imply spaces in front of or beyond the viewing space, thus transforming it – dematerializing walls and pillars, flattening some spaces, augmenting others, floating pieces of structure in and out of a different planes. At WTS however, Roberts eschewed colour for newsprint, and, despite the title of the piece, all but abandoned playing with perceptions. Rather she demanded that the mind structure a whole out of a piece that could never be perceived in its entirety. In so doing the "viewer'' arrived at an understanding of the structure of the actual physical space of WTS. The newsprint marked out a model of the basic structural elements, while isolating the non-structural elements, such as a raised floor, and the objects, such as those stored in the studio. In particular for viewers familiar with the space, the work could be read as a kind of homage to it, to its physical qualities that have made it so adaptable to a broad range of artistic intervention and to its infrastructural role in the development of art practice in Alice Springs. Indeed in her exhibition notes Roberts wrote: "In incorporating the store-room into the whole installation, there is also a recognition of the supporting background necessary for art-making. As a painting is supported by a stretcher and canvas, for example, an installation or gallery exhibition is supported by the background administrative and other work as might be represented here by the store-room." In terms of her own practice Roberts's work appears to have a transitional role, returning to her pre-1991 interest in free-standing objects in relationship to their environment. However, in the context of WTS, ground games stands as a neat metaphor for the space's evolution and promise.