Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship

Artspace, Sydney

The aim of the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship is to enable an artist at the outset of his or her career to undertake a program of artistic study overseas. Valued at $40,000, the scholarship this year attracted submissions from ninety-two artists.

Previous Lempriere exhibitions have been somewhat lack-lustre, but 1999 was marked by an impressive and energetic array of deceptively simple works. Perhaps it is the end-of-the millennium hype, compounded by the screech of major construction and gaudy advertising, that has become Sydney over the last year, which prompted these artists to move away from showy egocentric displays of technical ability, towards a more pared down conceptual and aesthetic approach.

The quality of this year's entries was highlighted by the strategies employed by the curatorial team, who took a firm grasp on the selection of works for exhibition, rather than giving the thirty-one artists free reign to choose. This approach was successful, with the densely-packed and quirkily curated exhibition enabling an intriguing dialogue to be struck up between seemingly disparate works.

Several undercurrents of social commentary emerged through the exhibition, in particular ideas of consumption and consumer desire. Ann Kay's Picture Tree projected an image of a gum tree onto a plastic shopping bag stuffed with more of the same, hanging from a plastic kitchen towel rack that jutted from the wall. The image faded and we were silently reminded of the number of forests devastated everyday, but as the projector hummed at the pile of plastic, Kay also entered the philosophical debate of whether or not technology can recreate the human experience of interacting with nature. Natural selection through technological intervention––we can have our tree and consume it too.

The issue of consumerism is best demonstrated by the work of this year's scholarship winner, Maria Ionica. One of her exhibited pieces Cornered consisted of a pile of coloured wax tablets printed with designs that appeared to be lifted from both the 'high' decorative arts and wallpaper samples, and plonked in the corner of the gallery. This pile sat contentedly alongside Ionica's loosely rendered gouache mural, Nairnflock luxury vinyl, 7176 Rosetti, batch LR2, to create an installation that was at once, sophisticated in conceptual approach and relaxed in its display. A version of Cornered was exhibited in the 1998 Blake Prize, but had to be remodelled when Ionica realised that most of the ornaments had been 'souvenired' and those few remaining were badly damaged. Her work had not only been consumed by hungry masses, but repossessed. This disappointing element of society forced Ionica to recreate the work for the Blake tour, mounting the wax blocks into stark white painted frames (resembling old windows) which, sadly, detracted from the life of the original effortless pile.

Leah McLeod's Occupied Territory immediately referenced the belief of terra nullius. She installed, very simply, 4,500 train tickets collected from Central Station on Australia Day. The work stood as a poignant reflection on the crowds of people who trampled through Sydney for the Australia Day commemorations. It also referenced the attitude with which the British claimed possession of the land, because they held the tickets of authority––the European documents classifying the continent as 'unoccupied', and therefore able to be collected as another colony. In front of the wall of 'authorising passes', a video of the artist wandering through suburbia along private fence lines and boundaries emphasised the notion of western borders and methods of classifying ownership rights. Throughout the course of the day, some of the blu-tacked tickets fell off the wall. These discarded tickets seemed to be reassuring us that, no matter how dire one's position, authority can always be destabilised, and ownership can be negotiated.

The Australian Dream of 'owning your own home' was exploded by Mathieu Gallios. His contribution to the exhibition was photodocumentation of a house constructed from polystyrene blocks on a building estate site in the western regions. The photograph was real estate quality, all gloss and intense colour- not a cloud in sight in the perfectly blue sky, as the noon sun drenched the clipped green grass and the just-completed polystyrene house. Polystyrene as packaging refers to the bundled-up protection of the Suburban Dream. But a polystyrene house is more likely to keep things out in order to preserve the goods inside. The Australian Dream promises freedom and security on the surface, while it actually serves to alienate individuals through the very structure of society itself, and through the constant struggle to pay off the mortgage. The work may be titled Frontier, but to Gallios, there is nothing heroic or courageous about a society that programs its members to pursue goals that will leave them as empty and insubstantial as the polystyrene bricks.

Lucas Ihlein has signalled hope for the future within a climate of consumerism and capitalist greed. His work My typewriter only speaks English, Your honesty is appreciated, featured a metal shelf sagging with the weight of his books (a self published series of personal notes of his experiences in Singapore), and a desk top on which sat a money box and receipt books. Ihlein's work stands, perhaps, as an option to overwhelming consumer selfishness, with participants invited to issue their own receipts as they collect their 'souvenir'. He has even considered the GST and concessional rates. Maybe Ihlein should be the new President.