Magic in the Mundane

Most of us are familiar with the cliché ‘you must appreciate the small things in life’, but how many of us have actually pondered the meaning behind this banal platitude? It is creative avenues, such as contemporary art that stimulate our curiosity, that allow us to tap into the undiscovered ‘magic’ in everyday life. When viewing things in a new light, we develop a heightened sense of appreciation and understanding of different perspectives. Most importantly, it is an acquired ability to find ‘value’ in even the most mundane things. This may come from experiencing a sense of wonder in the everyday and may pertain to aesthetic qualities or be a catalyst in delivering powerful content. 

‘Everyday Magic’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane, is a group exhibition that explores this idea of finding value in everyday items and experiences. The exhibition draws upon John Cage’s commentary regarding Robert Rauschenberg’s practice, in particular Cage’s statement: ‘beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look’. This reference encourages us to discover the often overlooked ‘magic’ in the world. Through various mediums, including collages, videos, photographs and sculptures, Everyday Magic evokes wonder and explores how the ordinary can be transformed into the extraordinary. The featured artists, such as Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, Charlie Sofo, Edward Ruscha and Romuald Hazoumé, differ greatly in their mediums and content. They are, however, analogous in the way that they utilise remnants of the everyday to explore certain themes, deliver intended meanings, or simply trigger thought provoking ideas.

Upon entering the exhibition, I became immersed in its tranquil atmosphere, where audios of initially unseen videos mingle from their different sections, encouraging viewers to explore the exhibition’s colourful depths. One of these videos is Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker’s Tapitapultas (Capapults) (2012) which explores themes of consumerism and human relationships with the environment. The artworks of the exhibition neatly span its four sections and each conveys aspects of the commonplace as sites of wonder. This is particularly evident in Charlie Sofo’s and Sandra Selig’s unique use of found items to depict aesthetic beauty. From artists including Rosalie Gascoigne, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Callum Morton and Angelica Mesiti, the exhibition consists of two videos with one being a video installation, a series of photographs, sculptures made from wood and aluminium, to lights, etchings, a slideshow and collages. Among these works, are Edward Ruscha’s image-based etchings of blank billboards that sit like bare canvases on skeletal-like structures in blending shades of grey. The interplaying qualities of nostalgia, poignancy and beauty create a sense of profundity, conveying the transformation of the mundane into works of art. Contrasting this work is Romuald Hazoumé’s use of basic ‘jerry cans’ to suggest the economic exploitation of West African cities by first-world countries. Hazoumé delves into these political and economic issues through his series of framed photographs that depict the jerry cans in separate processes of transportation, as well as his handmade masks constructed from modified jerry cans and other materials. The exhibition’s underlying theme of discovering magic in the everyday is embodied by the artworks that evidently express insignificant products of life in new ways that reflect beauty or make statements about certain issues. 

 ‘Click…clack…click…clack’, the audio from Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker’s Tapitapultas (Capapults), resonates from their collaborative video, which investigates far-reaching social issues. Viewers are drawn in to the experience of colourful plastic bottle caps being catapulted by plastic spoons into a hole in a concrete platform located in Panama City National Park. This recent collaboration reflects the duo’s interest in using insignificant objects to explore and critique contemporary culture in terms of consumption, accumulation and the effects of urban development. By watching Tapitapultas (Capapults), the viewer encounters themes of pollution and consumerism, especially as the accumulating bottle caps culminate in a mountain of plastic waste juxtaposed by the green, natural scenery of the national park. Through the patent contrast of plastic waste and the natural environment, viewers are influenced to reflect on the impact human consumerism continues to inflict on our environment. The colourful bottle caps playfully and poetically portray this serious issue—an approach which the duo usually adopt to investigate their recurrent themes. The use of such materials to explore the human relationship with the environment demonstrates how prosaic items hold potential meaning and value—even negligible bottle caps which communicate the artists’ message regarding environmental implications. 

With more ambiguous meanings are the works of Charlie Sofo and Sandra Selig, which are arranged on adjacent walls and portray insignificant items as modest beauty. Sofo’s four collages, Library Hairs (2008), Needle Eyes, (2008), Lint from 16 items of clothing, (2008) and Unknown Particles, (2008), initially attract attention through their whimsical yet precise designs. However, upon closer examination the viewer is left intrigued by the fact that the subject matter is comprised of ‘useless’ items. The first image consists of hairs found in library books glued onto cardboard, each individual fragment of hair arranged to form the continuous lines of a circle inscribed with a square and triangle. The second image was created by synthetic polymer paint playfully scattered in a meticulous rectangle. The imposing square divided into numerous colour-coded squares of the third image is composed of thousands of specks of lint obtained from sixteen different items of clothing, and the final collage presents an array of miniscule, unknown articles arranged in a perfect circle. It is the meticulous use of miniscule items that initially grabs the viewer’s interest; yet once this initial impact subsides, the works continue to intrigue because of the significance they place on such disregarded items. This could be perceived as a comment on art making itself, as Sofo substantiates that art is not confined to the traditional paint on paper. Whilst others may interpret his collages as one-dimensional works that lack profound meaning, they patently convey how the mundane can be transformed through art to display overlooked beauty. 

Just like Sofo, Sandra Selig employs a great deal of intricacy in her work Untitled (from Webs From My Garden) 2004-05. Her series of strewn spider webs reflects the delicacy, spontaneity and splendour of nature through an unlikely source—most of us are harrowed by encounters with spiders or their webs. Like fragile thread the red webs fall elegantly in a way that resembles abstract ink drawings. The framed images all display enamel on spider web, yet each one is characterised with the uniqueness of a fingerprint. The young Brisbane artist, represented by Milani Gallery, has a history of working with everyday materials, such as string, polystyrene balls, paper, flyscreen mesh and straws to create artworks that investigate illusions, geometry, patterns, mathematics and the incorporeal atmospheric elements of light and sound. As Rex Butler (School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland) states, Selig’s works ‘involve seeing them as a form of drawing in space’.1 Her spider web pictures can be ‘reimagined as delicate drawings’,2 and reinforce the sense of fragility and intricacy that is so often associated with her works. The magic in Selig’s web pictures may be found in their intricacy, spontaneity and complexity, or simply in the fact that something of such beauty can be created by mundane spider webs. The ways in which Sofo and Selig draw on the discounted elements of life to create awe-inspiring artworks demonstrates how value can be discovered in all things around us and hence, position viewers to appreciate the ‘small things in life’. 

The artworks presented in Everyday Magic are interconnected by their internal use of discounted, insignificant, or ordinary objects or circumstances to create art. Whether they showcase unexpected beauty or the passionate statements and beliefs of their makers, the diverse works capture attention and intrigue viewers through their transformation of the mundane into the extraordinary. As viewers, we realise the importance of the elements in life we are usually guilty of ignoring or perhaps take for granted. The artistic way in which materials, such as hair, dust, lint, spider webs, plastic caps and jerry cans are used to give meaning and beauty encourages us to find value in the simple things in life, not just the ones that come with a hefty price tag. The artworks satisfy viewers who enjoy aesthetically pleasing works, such as Sofo’s and Selig’s, as well as those who prefer concept driven ones, such as Conlon and Harker’s Tapitapultas (Capapults). By engaging in these unconventional forms of art, our worldly perceptions are challenged, enabling personal growth by which we learn how to appreciate and find greater meaning in life. 

Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, Capapults, 2012. High Definition, 16:9, NTSC, 3’40”. Courtesy the artists.

Charlie Sofo, Lint from 16 items of clothing, 2008. Clothes lint with glue on cardboard, 62.3 x 66.2cm. Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. 

Sandra Selig, Untitled (from ‘Webs from my garden’ series), 2004-05. Enamel on spider web with adhesive and sealant on paper, 27.7 x 41.8cm. Purchased 2005. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. 

notes: 

1. Rex Butler, Circuit (catalogue essay), 2006, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. See <http://www.ima.org.au/pages/.exhibits/circuit14.php>
2. QAGOMA, Everyday Magic, 2013. See <http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/current/magic>