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Regimes of Value
In a well-known passage of Nadja (1928) André Breton recounts scouring the Saint-Ouen flea market in search of ‘old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse’ relics. Since the Surrealists’ embrace of the salvaged ‘ruins of the bourgeoisie’ in the early twentieth century, outmoded and discarded materials have been utilised by a variety of artistic movements. Regimes of Value, an exhibition curated by artist Elizabeth Gower, suggests that although this may not be a particularly new artistic strategy, it is one which has much currency in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Spread across two venues, The Substation and the Margaret Lawrence Gallery in Melbourne, this ambitious exhibition features the work of more than twenty-five local artists who use urban detritus and ephemera as their primary material.
Regimes of Value is the fifth exhibition Gower has curated, since the late 1980s, dedicated to artists’ collections and methodologies of collecting. She notes that the shifting political and cultural conditions of the time have informed the kinds of materials utilised and investigations undertaken within each show.1 We might add that these same conditions inevitably frame the viewer’s interpretation of the work. Over recent decades there has been growing public awareness and anxiety about the devastating effects of global capitalism on the natural environment, fuelled in large part by the accumulation of scientific evidence attesting to anthropogenic climate change. Concurrently, eco-aesthetics have become increasingly prevalent, with a number of major exhibitions addressing environmental issues staged around the world.2 Against this backdrop Gower’s marshalling of works crafted from waste materials appears a reproach to a contemporary consumer culture characterised by excess, disposability and waste.
Indeed, a number of works in Regimes of Value carry clear environmental missives. For instance, Ash Keating’s Escape from Tag Mountain (2008), a performance in which the artist theatrically attempts to disentangle himself from an enormous, twisted mound of clothing labels, makes an explicit comment on the damaging personal and environmental effects of rabid consumerism. The majority of works presented, however, possess a more circuitous political charge. By conjuring new life and possibilities from the by-products of capitalist culture, in diverse ways they offer poetic forms of resistance to its oppressive logic. Works such as Christopher LG Hill’s clunky sculptural assemblage respectful distance (2013), Joshua Petherick’s restrained composition Untitled (Bootleg at the Manor) (2009), and John Nixon’s suite of neo-formalist collages, bring together disparate salvaged materials in indeterminate constellations. Recalling the Surrealists’ pursuit of objective chance, they throw the formal and cultural character of a series of discrete materials into generative relationships with each other. Other works mine the emotional and psychological residue embedded in their sourced material more ruthlessly. Lou Hubbard’s alarmingly forensic modifications of small scale ornaments in her videos Drill (2009) and Dog Dogged (2010), unleash waves of suppressed sentimentality, while Elvis Richardson’s Bastard Love Child (2006), a twisting column of discarded VHS cassettes, acts as a nostalgic ode to the collective televisual memories trapped within a now obsolete technology.
Several works in the exhibition foster novel encounters with everyday objects by manipulating or deploying them in unexpected ways. In Untitled (2012), Matt Hinkley has crafted an intriguing sculptural form from a ping pong ball, by carving an intricate pattern, which he based on the shape of a pre-existing imperfection in its surface, across its entire circumference. Charlie Sofo’s video work 33 Objects that can pass through the hole in my pocket (2013), documents a series of banal items emerging from the bottom of the artist’s shaking trouser leg and making their escape across his naked foot. The quietly absurd interaction between these objects and the artist’s body frees them from conventional connotations, granting a fresh perspective on their material qualities. Many other works in Regimes of Value similarly work to infuse inert materials with a sense of movement. Nathan Gray creates a palpable sense of embodied duration in Boxes (with the sound of their own whatever) (2013), an installation fashioned from discarded TV cabinets mounted with speakers that broadcast a recording of an earlier performance in which the artist and cohorts rode the furniture along the streets of Melbourne. In Melanie Irwin’s Elastic Aggregation (2013), a jumble of furniture frames pushes out against a semi-transparent fabric skin, their protruding limbs resembling a dance ensemble in a flurry of action.
The most successful works in Regimes of Value are aligned by their ability to engender curiosity, wonderment and inspiration from the most mundane of waste materials. They encourage us to look at these neglected objects differently and, in doing so, suggest new ways of being in the world.
Christopher LG Hill, Respectful Distance, 2013. Various materials. The Substation. Photograph Elizabeth Gower.
Charlie Sofo, 33 Objects that pass through the hole in my pocket, 2013. DVD, 1:30mins. Margaret Lawrence Gallery. Photograph Charlie Sofo.
Nathan Gray, Boxes (with the sound of their own whatever), 2013. DVD-video w/ soundtrack, 10:30mins. Margaret Lawrence Gallery. Photograph Elizabeth Gower.