You go in, you see a thing
You go in, you see a thing … blah, blah, blah, just fucking describe it.’ This is Damien Hirst to Will Self in 1994, addressing his pointed directive to art critics to forget about what it all means, and instead pay close attention to how a thing is made, how it works and—the basic prerequisite—what it looks like. When thinking about the work of a group of young male Sydney artists who can loosely be grouped into makers of things, inventors of machines, industrial inspired structures and kinetic forms, I think of Self’s sardonic title for a collection of his stories, Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys. Works by such artists as Marley Dawson, Kenzee Patterson, Will French, Jesse Hogan and, in his especially idiosyncratic way, Christopher Hanrahan, share Self’s mocking of both the materiality of actual playthings and the desire within a certain posture of masculinity for the simple joy and surprise in the utilitarian sense of playthings. They’re sculptors of a type, but more than that. Too skilful to be classed tinkerers, too sophisticated to pass for blind searchers, they’re experimenters of the kind that pervert our expectations that any given form, ipso facto, follows function.
So you go in, you see a thing: Kenzee Patterson’s White Guy, a spotted gum telegraph pole with two round reflectors nailed into its head for eyes, standing there like a sentinel to greet you as you enter The Camden Valley Way, Patterson’s solo show at Darren Knight Gallery. Camden Valley Way, formerly a leisurely rural drive along rolling hills linking Liverpool and Camden in Sydney’s south west, is presently being transformed into a dual-lane arterial road in service of the inhabitants of encroaching McMansions. To take a drive along its course today is to witness the gradual disappearance of small-scale farms in place of land package developments and homemaker centres. It was once a place for sheep, and horses too, as Patterson reminds us with El Caballo Blanco, a baffling knee-high structure of galvanised steel whereby a twin set of conjoined white painted Yokohama tyres (rim size 195/65R15) are set in rotation by a system of pulleys, belts and electric motors that squeak as they turn, rather like the braying of a gelding. So named after the failed theme park of Andalusian horse shows and fairground rides, El Caballo Blanco suggests that simply going through the motions is never enough.
In the adjoining room sits the real stand-out of the show, Macarthur Square, which upon first reckoning appears as an architectural maquette before closer inspection reveals the forms to be two ends of the ubiquitous polystyrene blocks used to pack TVs in their boxes—and nothing else. Named after Campbelltown’s largest shopping mall, Macarthur Square is a ripe visual pun: buttressing the colonial legacy of John and Elizabeth Macarthur against the temples of modern commerce by way of formal references to minimalism and the question of framing devices (as signalled by the absent TV screen). To pack these historically rich potential lines of enquiry into what is an utterly banal, aesthetically impoverished, sorry looking object is Patterson’s remarkable achievement. To stoop on bended knee and really eyeball the thing on the gallery floor and discover a hairline crack in the original polystyrene now rendered permanent by the artist in cast aluminium, is to be reminded, in the eternal words of Marx, that when it comes to the everlasting uncertainties of history all that is solid melts into air.
Marley Dawson’s HEAVY INDUSTRY/LIGHT COMMERCIAL presents a suite of five sculptures each titled Endless Loop, shiny black car tyres atop steel frame plinths, with qualifying subtitles designated by the brand of each manufacturer of tyre: Pirelli, Yokohama, Bridgestone, Kumho and Zetum (rim size 205/65R15). Powered by a system of mechanics and electrics the tyres spin on rollers in perpetual revolution, subtly swaying from side to side as they independently search for their centre of balance, reminiscent of Jeff Koons’ seminal 1985 series of Total Equilibrium works where brand name basketballs are suspended dead-centre in water-filled vitrines, as if held by the hand of God. And like Koons and Hirst, Dawson certainly displays a real lust for the inhuman shine and cleanliness of industrially manufactured goods.
The five Endless Loops are accompanied by three works titled High Speed Counter-balanced Discs, coldly beautiful things of highly polished stainless steel with mysterious etchings of lines and punch-cut circular holes like the astronomical markings on talismanic objects of an ancient civilisation. At time of viewing I wondered if and how the discs possessed any kinetic relation to the tyres, so it was with some disappointment that I discovered upon leaving the gallery (by way of scanning the room sheet for the show) that, yes, viewers are invited to set the discs in motion. For this viewer, at least, the pro forma approach of look but don’t touch left me bereft of half the fun. So as the tyres turned they burned, the smell of rubber filling the gallery. Standing there I became aware that this olfactory aspect of the work meant, in effect, that I was ingesting its molecules. Forget post-object art, Dawson seems to be saying, you can have your cake and—quite literally—eat it too.
With thanks to Kenzee Patterson.
© Pedro de Almeida 2011.