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The Shadows Calling
Pliny the Elder famously relates that the beginning of Art was when a love-sick teenager, fearing the veracity of memory, traced the outline of her lover’s shadow. For Ovid the shadows are where one can summon the past, the spaces where poetry and music can occur. This quasi-archaeological turn is apt when considering the extraordinary journey that Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey created for audiences at the new site of Detached Cultural Organisation in Hobart.
Acquired in 2013, the grand 1930s façade of the Old Mercury Building runs for two city blocks, and hides some 50,000 square meters of space soon to be redeveloped for a variety of art/cultural uses. The sense of the spectral looms large in most disused post industrial spaces. Indeed this site grew higgledy piggledy from 1853 to the 1970s, to accommodate burgeoning reprographic technologies and their associated workforce—at one stage the Mercury newspaper employed six hundred people on site, a huge number considering the generally Lilliputian Hobart population. Digitalisation means that Tasmania’s leading newspaper is now printed in Melbourne, and shipped in for daily distribution—so more shadows, more traces.
The shadows calling is the stunning result of a two-year commission. The first public collaboration of artists with distinct separate practices, the experience has obviously been liberating. This new dialogue between life partners has shifted, maybe even exploded, an increasing tendency towards an overwrought Cute-ism, particularly in Piccinini’s work.
Consisting of twenty four pieces (!), the majority made for this installation, as one would expect with such senior artists there were familiar echoes and returns—bravura, sometimes breathtaking technical skills, the hybrid, the doppelganger, the ugly/beautiful, the handmade/machine made, the processes of empathic identification. Once again, the artists questioned the insistent binarism that still infuses culture, suggesting that these dichotomies are not insurmountable edifices but much more flexible, even porous, structures. The sensitivity to site-specific imperatives—the installation was located in the hot metal typesetting basement area—was a key factor in the success of the work. Hennessey and Piccinini chose to hyperbolise their feelings of slightly fearful wonder and curiosity at their first site visit. For the first time both worked with found objects and materials. They revelled in the traces of inhabitation, stains and graffiti, isolated taps and sinks, obsolete machinery, seemingly inexplicable nooks and crannies.
It is easy to forget that pre-Internet and TV, the newspaper was the fulcrum of networks of knowledge and the creation of communities. In another refection on the original role of the site, notions of generation and the generative were keys to this exhibition. The inexorable vital forces of growth itself, of new relations and new languages in Science and Nature coalesced into the motif of fungi and the fungal … after all what grows best in the shadows.
The artists created a richly complex environment of fruiting bodies. After entering through a number of portals one was met by Kami, an enormous Triffid-like piece made of rope, old plastic chairs and formply, which filled one end of the atrium. Part guardian figure, it prefigured more marvels to come. With The Bridge we were in slightly more comforting territory … or were we? A young boy was greeting a large and hairy lumpen mushroom grandmother figure. Simultaneously hard, soft and shiny, ‘her’ posture was deferential, almost like a Joshua Reynolds shepherdess in pleated pink silk. At every turn there were works to divert, sometimes shock. Seedling, dangling dangerously from its found pre-used armature, spoke of the industry of labour. With Meadow, fifteen hundred concrete coloured seedlings grew in a darkened hypostyle hall. Deliberately top heavy, with buds uncannily like a uterus complete with ovaries, a clearing in this forest revealed a new species, Boot flower desperate to complete its life cycle. Three computer animations Metaflora (Aqua, Turquoise, Cerulean), the most labour intensive works in the show, lent a chromatic flickering to further animate the forms in the space. Synchronised to elements of a soundscape/performance by Heath Brown and Alyson Patmore, these hypnotic videos had something of the qualities of a late medieval bestiary.
Nearby were three rooms, like recently abandoned monastic cells, filled with apparatuses whose original function now exist only in our memory—remember cassette players, microfiche readers, hard copy books. A disconcerting fragrance infused the tiny alcoves—when fungi spores, when new life happens there is often unique smells. Here, a voice over by Peter Hennessy made us complicit in a narrative of meditation, discovery and resolution.
This was a fantastic exhibition. Like initiates in some primordial rite, we were led through a previously unknown and mysterious cavern, to encounters of sensory overload and sensory deprivation, eventually to emerge again into the real world with renewed knowledge.
Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey, Kami, 2015. Formply, chairs, rope, ABS plastic. Photograph Peter Hennessey. Courtesy of the artists and Detached, Hobart.
Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey, The Bridge, 2015. Silicone, fibreglass, auto paint, clothing, human hair. Photograph MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Courtesy of the artists and Detached, Hobart.
Patricia Piccinini and Peter Hennessey, Metaflora (Twin Rivers Mouth), 2015. Silicone, bronze, fibreglass, human hair. Photograph MONA/Rémi Chauvin. Courtesy of the artists and Detached, Hobart.