nightshift: wendy mcphee and george poonkhin khut

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery / Bond Store, Hobart / Artspace, Sydney
13 - 28 July 2002 // 22 August - 14 September 2002

Pandora's Box was dark and quiet. Before she opened the lid. Temptation and curiosity proved to be the key to Pandora's secret vice. Unlocking the heady atmosphere of the Bond Store is much the same. Designed by Colonial architect, David Lambe in 1824, the Bond Store was originally a storage facility for ammunition, grain, spirits and tobacco. Since 1995, this historical appendage to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has been turned into one of Hobart's most atmospheric art spaces. Reeking with the musky scent of history, the hardened, knotty floorboards bend and creak underfoot, the silent witnesses of almost two centuries of human traffic. Directly above the scuffed surface of a trap door, graffiti scrawled in old time script boasts the date, 1911. The air is thick with the essence and grit of time. Break into the stillness like Pandora and there is no telling what might be found.

With the entrance as the only source of natural light, the Bond Store lends itself well to video and sound based installations. From the collaborative team who brought audiences the ethereal 'Immersed' (CAST Gallery, November 2000) and the provocative 'Censored' (The Backspace, April 2001) came the aptly titled 'Nightshift'. In a work of anxious proportions, gutsy performer Wendy Mcphee and sound artist George Poonkhin Khut made the most of the nocturnal windowless interior. The flickering cacophony of black and white video imagery with a soundtrack of whispering voices blended into the atmosphere of the subterranean cavern.

Hanging inside the door was a still photograph of a woman mischievously bending to look at the viewer upside down. Text ran down the centre of the image and drew attention to captions like, 'watch me', 'one hundred eyes to drown in ', 'consumed' and 'twisted '. Seduced by the lush text, the viewer was captured like a fish on the tempting hook of curiosity and slowly drawn into the beckoning darkness. Guided deep into the space by a thick black curtain, the first of four large projection screens loomed out of the darkness like a luminescent apparition.

Initially bombarded by the huge screens and the darkness, I had a sense of trepidation about venturing further away from the door. The fast flickering images projected on screen and the urgent whispers and ghostly melodies of the soundtrack were unnerving. Like Jonah, I felt as though I was about to step into the black belly of a gargantuan dozing whale, hesitant in the face of the unfamiliar and hostile terrain.

Hurtling onto the screens in rapid succession were words which were spliced in between images of a lithe woman dressed in alluring frilly or slinky attire, writhing and contorting in angular, impulsive movements. Shadowy glimpses of a female form crouching on the floor, sitting with hands clasped, arms stretched towards the ceiling, sinuous legs in fishnets and heels, were interspersed with flashes of text that came and went so quickly the words were hardly recognisable. In time, some captions were punched out long enough to grasp ('gently', 'a wall of dreams', 'she does not hear'), allowing the text to string the images together in their jerky urgency.

A woman's whispering voice darted around the room and gathered in the dark corners like sticky dribbles of honey. With the ebb and flow of pitch, the voice came close to letting one in on a secret. Straining to hear the incessant chatter, the only words audible were, 'and on and on and on... '. The low volume of the sound and the intense movement of the images tempted one to linger, yet the speed of the voice and images continuously denied the satisfaction of leisurely comprehension. Tempt and deny, linger and turn away, swallow and be swallowed. Like the thorny limbs of a tangled blackberry bush, 'Nightshift' kept one at a distance. Swirling fast and hard with images, text and sound, it was an exotic, tantalising fruit held just out of reach. A taste of the unbearable nature of desire and the bitter pill of unfulfilment.

Moving around the gallery, flashes of a face, arms, breasts, limbs swinging wide as though summoning an unknown force or simply trying to keep balance, streaked into the darkness while the faint lilt of singing shyly persisted behind the whispering. Inundated, screen by screen, with tantalising phrases ('not quite', 'nylon ', 'red ', 'she hopes') 'Nightshift' became a frantic symphony of suggestion, a flipbook of the unconscious mind.

Accelerating into the realms of fantasy, seduction and frustrated temptation, 'Nightshift' was all that runs beneath the surface, an inherently anxious yet curiously enticing work of subtle intensity. Like restless portraits hanging in the halls of infinity, the images and sounds of this work appeared as though they had morphed from the shadows and seeped in from the walls. Flashing tempestuously into the darkness, 'Nightshift' pulled the viewer further away from the outside world. It was an invitation to seek the depths, explore the shadows and absorb the ceaseless murmurs of what lies beneath. When the lights are off, the doors are closed and all is quiet, this is what comes out to play.