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i'm okay, you're okay
Not so long ago there was a small but wonderfully thoughtful exhibition at one of Brisbane’s youngest artist run initiatives, Level. Curated by local artist and Level co-director, Alice Lang, I’m Okay, You’re Okay featured work by three artists: Sanja Pahoki and Kate James from Melbourne and Sydney-based Agatha Gothe-Snape. The show took as its premise the notion of anxiety and its relationship to performance, productivity and creativity, with the artists ‘analysing its role in the creative process; drawing from and re-enacting its presence in everyday scenarios; and incorporating it as a tool to fuel labour-intensive processes’.¹ Discreetly tucked up in the back exhibition space and distinctly lacking in spectacle, I’m Okay, You’re Okay characterised all that is best about Brisbane’s currently-flourishing ARI scene, providing both critical engagement with the work of early career artists and a platform for emerging curators and writers.
The first work encountered by the viewer was Croatian-born Sanja Pahoki’s The Test (2001), which explores the common fear (and one that is often exacerbated for non-native speakers) associated with the mispronunciation of words. A single-channel video comprised of short clips, The Test documents the struggle of Pahoki’s small cast as they attempt to pronounce words that we encounter in text but are rarely used in conversation. This exercise produced visual and audio evidence of performance anxiety as ‘almost everyone in the video either mispronounces or is not totally confident with the words that they are presented with’ and it also provided the soundtrack for the space.2 The curator’s decision to place this work on the gallery floor added to its already intimate framing; whilst Pahoki’s participants may have been brave enough to agree to this filming, the low positioning of the screen did seem to beg discretion. Shot at close-range, the viewer witnesses men and women of various ages confronted by troublesome words such as siege, chagrin, voila, verisimilitude, hyperbole and oeuvre. What is played out is essentially a series of small triumphs and failures, punctuated by awkward pauses, flushed faces and nervous laughter, which serve to both implicate and reassure the audience, reminding us of the futility of too harshly judging our own, or another’s, faux pas.
A sinuous installation of horsehair by Kate James, Pony Tales (2009-10), provided a static yet unnerving counterpoint to the two screen-based works that flanked it. Installed on the central back wall, James’s three ‘ponytails’ abruptly protruded from the plaster (think Maurizio Cattelan, minus horse) with the longest piece reaching and piling upon the floor. By entering the viewer’s standing space, Pony Tales forced the audience to connect with its materiality. There was something a little bit high fashion (and maybe also a bit low brow á la Paris Hilton’s hair weave?) about the long ebony and platinum plaits, but their aesthetic appeal was marred by subtle undertones of anxiety. These came from James’s use of real (animal) hair; the labour-intensive process of rope making which, according to the artist, reflects the ‘unsettling, intrusive and relentless nature of anxiety’; the connotations of rope as a tool for control and of course the macabre fairytales to which the work’s title alludes.3In the accompanying essay, the curator discusses the link between repetitive-action craft making and the anxiety relief often found in this repetitive process. To this end, Agatha Gothe-Snape’s work provided an interesting juxtaposition.
For I’m Okay, You’re Okay, Gothe-Snape revised an earlier pair of works: a series of drawn reproductions of pages from her journal Originally compass; Originally false lead; Originally the year in art (2010) and the work these drawings culminated in After it all (The names have become insignificant with the passing of time), based on Major Major (2009) (2010). Through the scribbled apprehension of her drawings (frantic mind-maps of both connected and unconnected ideas), Gothe-Snape reveals the difficulties she traverses when conceiving and making art: ‘I try to work with nothing. With only what is there inside me. I make diagrams and mind-maps and emotional drawings of the territories I am moving through’.4
Whilst this element of the artist’s practice is entirely self-reflexive, it does depict the closeted relationship of anxiety and creation with honesty. The realisation of these mind-maps comes in the form of a text-based new media work, created in Microsoft’s low-fi PowerPoint program. In what essentially are four slides of white text on black, projected in a continuous loop, Gothe-Snape ‘creates a new media work without the stress of malfunctioning equipment, non-compatible formats and corrupted files’.5 Alternating helpful advice (TRY NOT TO TELL EVERYONE EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME / TRY NOT DO EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME) with some of anxiety’s favourite taunts (IT’S BEST TO DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE / EVERYONE NOTICES EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME), the artist reveals a difficult internal dialogue.
With touching honesty and some humour (Pahoki’s subjects enjoy a laugh at the expense of their own falsely affected French accents), I’m Okay, You’re Okay laid bare the personal concerns of its artists, showing us that while there are fears which we all share (failure, loss, ridicule) and others which are less common, anxiety unfortunately resounds universally. Reflecting the fraught concerns surrounding making, viewing and understanding contemporary art, this exhibition, for me, was like a good friend reassuringly telling me I’m Okay, You’re Okay.
1. A Lang, ‘I’m Okay, You’re Okay’ catalogue essay, Level ARI, 2010.
3. Kate James, Artist statement, 2010.
4. Agatha Gothe-Snape, Artist statement, 2010.
5. A Lang, op. cit.