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Airports are usually environments which try hard to rule out surprises, but recently Qantas travellers at Alice Springs Airport had more than a few in store. Artists from Cairns and Alice Springs, in a joint project which was run by the Cairns-based Kick Arts Collective and Alice-based Watch This Space, with the backing of Qantas and outgoing airport managers, the Federal Airports Corporation, staged a multi-arts experience in the baggage claim area, called Baggage~ Transfer/Tranship. The focus of attention was some thirty art objects on the baggage carousel, but as well there were performers and musicians moving through the crowd, with voice and music also relayed over the PA system.
While the local audience, which at its peak must have been two hundred strong, were forewarned and predisposed towards the exhibition before it happened, travellers were genuinely nonplused . They mostly remained focused on the primary task of retrieving their baggage and moving on towards their destination, although they certainly lingered longer than they otherwise would have done. Thus the aims of Baggage were, in some measure, realised. These were: to take art to a non-gallery audience; to extend the viewing time of art objects; to enrich 'the cultural life of our communities, wherever they may be'; and to bring off a collaborative project between regions , between artists, and across forms. The project's creative director, Kick Arts's Sharon Pacey prescribed a broad journey- related theme. Much of the work was initiated through a literal interpretation of this theme, and worked its way from there towards metaphor, reflection or poetic statement. Hence, there were many suitcases, trunks and other forms of packaging used as a starting point. Most Alice artists worked with the iconography of The Centre. A selection of the pieces from the first staging of this event in Cairns, also were part of the Alice show, reflecting, needless to say, quite different a set of images: a lot of (although not exclusively) shells, driftwood and other elements of a tropical beach culture.
One of the most subtle of the Alice pieces was by Angela Gee. A small suitcase half-opened onto a diorama: a tiny white tent, one flap open, looming over what was the portrait of a very young child. On either side of the portrait was a hand-written text. Titled Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so, the piece undoubtedly told a personal story. it worked also with the resonance which babies, tents and testimonies have forevermore in Central Australia following the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and with all of the commentary that event has yielded about white Australia 's relationship to this country.
Another baby and country story was told by Pamela Lofts in her complex piece called Apology. In one of its elements, an old suitcase moved around the carousel, containing containing a snowy white sheet and an old-fashioned night-dress, resting upon which was a doll painted in ochre. In the lid of a suitcase sat a bandaged boomerang, above it a photo of Aboriginal women, and be low it the sentence: 'We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods'. How can you repackage cultural identity? How can you heal the wounds resulting from such an attempt?
By coincidence another Alice artist also made her statement using a bandaged boomerang. In Pip McManus's piece, One Nation-Cat. No. 000130698, the bandage was stained with blood, and the whole was ticketed as an artefact in a museum or art collection. The boomerang acted, of course, as a symbol of a wounded culture , but the piece also picked up on the way the boomerang has come to be used as an ubiquitous symbol of the Australian nation, and on how the recent revival of Australian nationalist sentiment is piggy-backing on anti-Aboriginal sentiment.
Many other pieces worked with ideas around the impossible packaging of dreams, experiences, relation ships and memories, and the reductive packaging of environments by advertising and the tourist industry. The carousel as attractant certainly worked for the presentation of all these objects, and while it was very well used for some of the performance pieces, it limited the viewing possibilities for the more subtle and detailed works.
The Alice Springs stage of the Baggage project, in both creative and logistical terms, should only have enhanced the chances of Kick Arts's initiative being taken to other airport venues, including those of the interstate capitals, in what could be an almost endless expansion of artistic collaborations and exchanges.