Close Quarters

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

Close Quarters, the title for this project, is well chosen as an expression of the often uncomfortable relationship between Australia and New Zealand. The Macquarie Dictionary proffers two definitions for the term: '1. a small cramped place or position. 2. direct and close contact in a fight'.1
As with siblings who share a room and constantly militate to express their individuality, all the while knowing they are inextricably bound together by shared histories and proximity, sometimes relative harmony prevails, often it does not. As the curators suggest in their catalogue essay, 'Speaking of Strange Bedfellows', there is a history of occasionally working together productively, but mostly there is determined independence.
It is something of a surprise then that the three curators of Close Quarters have identified 'overlapping and interlocking fields of concern' commonality rather than difference as their approach to this project.2 'lt is an exhibition of New Zealand and Australian artists who have been brought together not because they match or can be paired, nor because they serve as adequate representatives of each distinct place; but because they occupy and reflect upon their deterritorialised but highly specific local terrains.'3

The catalogue essay proposes an intersection between Australian and New Zealand artists based on 'deterritorialisation': a kind of erasure apparently generated by the blanket effect of American cultural dominance. The writers imply that this clearance somehow articulates a free play of secondary associations between practices which would not otherwise be apparent. it is probable however that given the globalizing power of communications technology such a connection might just as easily be made between artists in virtually any Western country.

There are some interesting and substantial differences between Australia and New Zealand, such as the dominance of theory in Australian art schools and of art history in New Zealand. New Zealand has not had the long history of funded contemporary spaces which Australia has enjoyed, nor has I had the benefit of overseas studios such as the Australia Council provides. The recent makeover of New Zealand's only funding body is pertinent. Parallel but very different battles to assert the voices of indigenous contemporary artists are entirely relevant. The importance of such key events as the Sydney Biennale and Perspecta for artists from both countries seems relevant. An investigation of how factors such as these might influence practices seems a sight more interesting than yet more cyber bonding.

The exhibition, Close Quarters, frustrates. The dilemma of the group show is that it can seem fine on paper but feels tenuous in the gallery in spite of the integrity of its component parts; this is the fate of Close Quarters, and several factors are at play. Much contemporary work is made for installation in very specific and often quite small spaces and as part of a discrete group of work. Transposing this type of work to a large touring group exhibition is risky- virtually all the conditions change. Success requires a deft curatorial touch combined with considerable clarity of purpose: but perhaps the curators' intention here was deliberately not to make an ensemble but to promote a sense of awkward or even reluctant fit.

In Brisbane, at the Institute of Modern Art, the exhibition had to contend with the host organisation's uphill battle against an inadequate and rapidly deteriorating building-far from ideal conditions. Close Quarters was installed in the ground floor galleries and the second floor barn-like space, which broke up any continuity there might have been and also unfortunately cramped much of the work. 'Sampling' the work of so many artists (18) may help to promote the notion of deterritorialisation but it does very little to assist the viewer who might be attempting to catch a glimpse of the 'terrain' through the shifting and inherently unstable 'territories'. However the effort to do so is rewarded by some fine work.

Natalie Robertson's luminous images of street signs carrying the names of Maori prophets arrest the viewer. While street signs may be artefacts of the 'every day', this work transcends such a limited confinement. These are emblems that speak directly of being of a place. Simryn Gill's mysterious and delicate carbon copy texts and collection of cast and real mango seeds refer both to obvious locations in space, and historical/political time. The territory seems clearly mapped and voiced. The work of Harry Wedge could only come from a quite specific location, however much it may seem to be mediated by television 's ubiquitous glow. On the other hand Destiny Deacon certainly appropriates an American classic as she treats the viewer to yet another teasing with her tableaux of 'blak' dolls. Sean Kerr's irritating and unsatisfying wallpaper of dumb texts, insolently still on their fake backgrounds, insist their way into the viewer's consciousness like a bad advertising jingle. Marie Shannon and Danius Kesminas work in their own backyard, plundering the art-about-artists context in a way that uneasily affirms the initiated as an in-crowd with backstage passes. The work of L Budd et al fits least well in the group context. The curious inscribing of texts over chalky paint, and singular locating of objects, definitely needs to be seen away from the clamour of the group. Lyell Bary's text painting however holds its own in the mob by virtue of scale and gregariousness. Bary's painting, with Mikala Dwyer's garish IOU letter forms, and Constanze Zikos's curtain might be said to demonstrate a vein of Australian work which can be characterised as brash and often campy, where text and decorative elements and materials are foregrounded, compared perhaps with a recognisably lower key aesthetic and straight delivery from New Zealand typified by Terry Urbahn, L Budd et al and even Michael Harrison. Gail Hastings' elegantly witty work moves more in the direction of Kesminas and Shannon. There is scope here surely for investigation and speculation which is richer than a catch-all such as deterritorialisation.

A project such as Close Quarters is long overdue and was always going to be as difficult to navigate as the turbulent Tasman Sea with plenty of fair- weather-sailors willing to criticize the course sailed. Close Quarters may have sprung a few leaks but the crossing has been made and hopefully there will be others to follow.

notes: 

1 . The Macquarie Dictionary, 1997

2. Christina Barton, Zara Stanhope & Clare Williamson, 'Speaking of Strange Bedfellows', catalogue essay for Close Quarters, ex. cat. p. 4. ACCA, Melbourne, 1998.

3. Ibid.