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Puff and swallow
Sydney Biennale Parallel Program, June- July 2004
Initiated as a process-based response to the theme 'On Reason and Emotion' and unfolding events of the Sydney Biennale 2004, Sydney's artist run Phatspace produced a dynamic and diverse itinerary in which seventeen emerging artists embarked upon six weeks of playful installations, innovative interventions and performative critique. Aptly titled 'Puff and Swallow', the exhibition referred to the conflicting terms and conditions involved in producing and receiving art.
Defined as a reactionary expression of exasperation or exhaustion, and similarly an overly enthusiastic review or promotional feature, the term 'Puff' was explored in a mock 'speakeasy' environment located in the back gallery, which also functioned as a tongue in cheek pressroom. Swallow on the contrary, refers to the process of devouring, consuming or destroying by ingestion, yet can also imply connotations of passivity, and easily swallowing information-concepts that several artists employed in and outside the gallery. With three sequences of alternating artists, the space and individual works were perpetually re-interpreted, consequently exposing a lateral artistic logic and methodology, and further questioning the positions of an audience.
As the first stage of the 'Puff and Swallow' program commenced Holly Williams, Jen Bell , and Pep Prodromou converted the main gallery into a mawkish pink expanse. A forest of fake Christmas trees sprung in the foyer, ceiling rosettes covered the walls, cracks started to weep bodily substances. A constant soundtrack of swallow songs along with the effects of the nauseating, ultraviolet butcher shop bulbs created a surreal, visceral, and highly self-conscious atmosphere. With the serving of rose flavoured Turkish delight on the opening night, the tone seemed to infer a dubious and beguiling seduction about to unfold.
With the inauguration of the official Biennale program, artists such as Gerry Bibby began a series of interventions via the apparatus of backpacks that referenced an urban and international nomadism and call for mobilisation. Invoking a motif one equates with movement, but as a contemporary and commercial accessory, Bibby's backpacks made from tie-dye textiles, as a metaphor of chance and random patterns, juxtaposed such terms with notions of bohemian subcultures and grass root political actions. Four chosen 'Stunt Doubles' wearing the backpacks at the opening of the Biennale party, offered the international crowd a colloquial experience by serving fairy bread on plastic plates-a gesture attempting to undermine the highbrow and elite context.
As the backpacks represented an architecture of exile, of an artistic existence on the periphery of society, so did Jesse Hogan's claustrophobic installation. Resembling a cage that segregated artist and audience, the space was locked from the inside and only permitted a view of a sleeping stretcher, some haphazard fluorescent paintings, a video of graffiti sites and a floor space filled with empty spray cans. Beyond the unfortunate literalism of such objects, symbolizing an exterior perception and anarchical status, Hogan's posters managed to incite a more provocative proposition. Composed of collected signs found written in the dirt around homeless campsites in the United States, the posters present a secret language decoded only by those that embody the experience of the author. Highlighting a reciprocal process of analysis, the posters emphasise the desire for and difficulty in achieving immediate translation within modes of expression. They also denote a multiplicity of language, where as one form may become obsolete another model develops.
Several of the 'Puff' artists utilised alias and veils that granted an indirect commentary on the Biennale program. Jemima lbester's character 'Fantasy Guinea Pig', an absurd image in a brown velour bodice, gold fake eyelashes and a feather boa (a vehicle akin to a Paul McCarthy performance) mingled with crowds, distributed homemade comic zines illustrating the qualities of the anthropomorphous being, qualities such as 'superficial , charming, fake, sweet, backstabbing, social climber and an obsessive compulsive'. Fantasy Guinea Pig later enacted a manifesto performance citing the classic Stooges mantra 'I'm bored, I'm bored, I am the chairman of the bored '. Rachel Scott's elusive costumes of wigs and heavy make up also suggested a superficial facade depicting success and glamour. Both artists seem to be mocking an industry of constructed identities, and a popular culture obsessed with fame.
The programs second group of artists introduced a strategic process of displacing and transferring objects. Amanda Williams' installation of projected images purchased on ebay presented a sentimental and nostalgic collection of family celebrations, and domestic scenes. Although the subjects of these works were strangers, the nature and circumstances of the settings were familiar to the viewer. As the images alternated in speed by sensorial mechanisms that recognise the distance of a body, the viewer naturally observed yet paradoxically became aware of their own intrusive gaze into private worlds. Such a device subtly enacted the notions of public surveillance and spectatorship, and the work raised sophisticated questions of fictionalized histories. In the same vein, Harley Ives' reprocessed and intensely distorted, yet invariably static, images of a lakeside chair at sunset, effectively abstracted the temporal and material qualities of video. Sam James miniature theatre, screening footage of animals in cages at a zoo, disrupted by images of two of the exhibitions performance artists in rehearsal, discussed the medium or media's authority as an authentic record of a landscape or portrait, and implied a fabrication of event or moment.
Brian Fuatu's performance, a stream of conscious monologue, threading thoughts and questions of acceptance, a desire to move into new territories conflicting with an indecision of whether to stay or to go, was tenderly expressed towards the alternating images of Amanda Williams' family slide show. Victoria Hunt's cathartic gestures of pushing and pulling against immovable structures and undressing, revealed states of exposure, vulnerability, destruction and self doubt. Chanting, 'She loves me, she loves me not' the audience witnessed an intimate dialogue between artist and object, and in assuming a role of witness, particularly in an open gallery context, became intrinsically involved in this transaction .
The final phase of the program saw Danielle Coonan, Chris Hanrahan, and Ms and Mr (alias Stephanie and Richard Nova Milne who regularly collaborate as a married couple) sort, shift and recycle all the previous art works installed in the space. Through a process of dissection and eclectic assemblage, items took on a new and often whimsical meaning. Playful and flamboyant, leaning towards obscure, the manifestations of such an experiment highlighted the artistic and indeed cultural practice of appropriation. The reference to the readymade, hybridisation and re-invention also appeared in the form of lakovos Amperidis' cryptic gold lettered 'Ya Kill Ma Dog lm a Slay Your Cat' and Chris Harahan's chalkboard announcing 'eetfuk', an ambiguous term that has regularly appeared on Metalica paraphernalia.
During the course of the 'Puff and Swallow' program there were various supplementary events and 'Happenings'. International artists and Biennale participants socialised in the speakeasy, only to discover their activities were recorded and later exhibited. Peta Sirec's audacious and ironic collages of Biennale works from the Art Gallery of New South Wales were hidden behind paintings on hinges in the gallery. Patrons of the speakeasy exploited the available typewriter, noting overheard conversations, writing reviews and letters to artists-all of which were displayed. Possibly the most interesting of these evenings was a poker night, where a collective of artists, writers and curators attempted to establish a democratic system of game playing but which sadly and perhaps unavoidably resulted in unscrupulous cheating and political alliance.
'Puff and Swallow' was an expansive program endeavouring to capture the motions and intonations of local response and audience engagement. it was inevitably a difficult task to present and concisely summarise all facets of current arts practice and the intricate mechanisms of contemporary cultural production. However, the program did exemplify many interesting artistic idiosyncrasies and tangents. Furthermore, what the efforts of the 'Puff and Swallow' program confirm, as with many other process-based shows popular at present, is a desire to move beyond the 'product' orientated outcome of neoconceptualist tendencies seen in the lastten years. Such tendencies are especially visible within platforms such as international Biennales, which as forms of cultural tourism, answer to corporate and political infrastructures. Perhaps what artists are currently summoning is a series of objectives more closely related to the strategies of the Dada and Fluxus movements. These objectives negotiate exchange, a dialogue between collective artists, and a process of inclusion where audience participation is paramount. Effectively this challenges grand notions and myths of autonomous art objects, questions Institutional authority and dismisses the rhetoric of art for art's sake.