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Imagine the denouement for a Ha! Hartley character, Martin Donovan for instance, who has accidentally found himself in a Mike Leigh film. It's dawn and Donovan has just illegally climbed to the top of a television tower. There is no audio except for the sound of the wind and his movements clambering up the tower; the vision is such that we seem to be looking through his eyes. He is alone, looking out over a suburban landscape that is responsible for constructing his psyche but from which he is irreconcilably alienated. Perched atop the tower, he is situated, both mentally and physically, at the very limit of the built environment. The film finishes and we are left wondering whether he jumps, overcome by his ennui with the petty pressures of his suburban lifestyle, or climbs back down the tower and commutes to his job as a TV repairman. Now, consider that this is not the last scene of a strange Hartley/Leigh collaboration but a video work that has been looped so that it repeats this moment over and over. Matthew Bradley's 5-9 May Dawn 2001 is the stand-out work in Z, a group show at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, which was curated by Chris Chapman. The work was installed in the Gallery's small space, and comprises a video projection and the actual equipment used by the artist to produce it - a backpack and a handmade helmet/video camera apparatus. In the work, the artist himself dons the helmet/video, moves straight past the CAUTION KEEP OUT signs and precariously scales the tower. For the first few metres there is not even a ladder and Bradley is forced to contend with the metal structure itself in order to hoist himself higher up. The absurdity of our social existence and the psychological gulf between the individual and society, as represented by the structures of our built environment, is articulated in Bradley's work via Chapman's show.
Z included work by Matthew Bradley, Yoko Kajio and Tim Sterling-all Adelaide-based and not widely known in Sydney-and 3 videos by Gordon Matta-Clark. According to the curator's text, Z explored the graphic, mathematical forms of certain elements of urban architecture and the spaces between and within these forms. The title of the show refers literally to the shape of these forms, such as the zigzagging frame of the tower in 5-9 May Dawn, and it acts also as an algebraic symbol signifying shared elements between works. Chapman states that the artists 'investigate the psychological effects of breaching these structures in order to activate metaphoric and poetic resonances' .1 This theme was eloquently borne out by Matta-Clark's and Bradley's work but perhaps less relevant to Kajio's and Sterling's.
The historical significance of Matta-Clark's practice lent the exhibition a certain curatorial weight and suggested a conceptual point-of-departure for engaging with the other artists. Having said that, his physical presence in the exhibition was very slight and comprised a single TV monitor installed at coffee-table height in the entrance corridor to the main gallery. I sat down to look at this work before viewing the rest of the show. The cycle was already part way through his most famous work, Splitting, 1974. In this piece Matta-Clark bisects a suburban New Jersey house. The house is cut exactly in two from its roof all the way down to its foundations. At one side of the house part of the foundations are removed so that half of the house tilts away from the other half creating a wedge-shaped void in the centre. When I started watching, the cut through the house had been completed and the Super 8 camera on which it was filmed panned from the roof down to the ground in front of the house to show the wedge-shaped beam of sunlight projected onto the backyard grass. It is an incredibly beautiful moment. The generic suburban house is literally and metaphorically opened up allowing the sunlight to shine through it and to illuminate the otherwise hidden internal voids and layers of its structure.
Matta-Clark and Bradley represent two quite different approaches to breaching urban structures. Matta-Clark's physical alterations to buildings transform them into psychologically charged sculptures. The buildings are altered to the point that they are unable to reasonably serve their intended purposes and their functionality is subverted to more poetic ends. For Bradley, however, the structures are impinged upon rather than altered. In his work urban structures seem to appear as emblems of conventional, organised society. The individual's transgression of these structures points to the psychological space situated between human action and the built environment.
1. Chapman, Z, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2003.