12 - 31 August, 2018
How often do we pretend that life is not full of, or shouldn't contain spectacular failures? Yet the tropical north is littered with them and the resident willingness to turn spectacular failures into stories of place full of humour, pathos or reverence creates a culture of resilience against the inevitable spectacular failures that 'go with the Territory'.
In this group exhibition, creative arts PhD and Masters candidates of CDU respond to spectacular failures, making commentary on social or institutional absurdities or honestly delving into the art making process to reveal that anartist’s work will often appear a spectacular failure until it can be truncated through skill and the happy accident into simply spectacular.
Image: Spectacular failures, 2018, installation view. Photo: Fiona Morrison.
Spectacular Failures, NT-Style
Putting the two words together, “spectacular failures” sounds paradoxical: how can failure be spectacular? We usually think of the term “spectacular” in a positive way – often in the sense of a dazzling visual show - yet when it is coupled with the word failure, it means monumental wrongdoing. “Spectacular failure” is disaster arrestingly over-the-top: it is so bad that you want to go and tell everyone about it. It is catastrophe so operatic that it takes on sublime qualities.
“Many failed projects and plans litter the north,” notes the 2015 Australian Government report Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia, which was produced in the hope that the region could eventually “grasp its full potential and become an economic powerhouse within our great country” (iv). Here in the Northern Territory, we ask serious questions about the failures of local politics, which might traverse diverse topics such as indigenous health, the state of detention centres or the ecology of Darwin Harbour. From the failed rice paddies of Humpty Doo to the futile attempts to curb the cane toad invasion, this part of the country has a long history of spectacular failures, so even drawing attention to them means enacting a criticism of the region, or perhaps more pertinently those in power. The artists that make up this exhibition are acutely aware of these local connotations as they interpret the theme, taking the topic into intriguing directions.
A major theme of the exhibition taken up by many of the artists connects to questions of environmental sustainability in the region. Sarah Pirrie’s sculptural work Spent – A mystery never owned has developed from the artist’s real-life discovery of a range of explosive fuses near the East Point coastal reserve. Pirrie sought to locate the owning company of the fuses - which could have been local mining or gas companies - but none admitted to ownership of the fuses, or to losing them on to Darwin’s beaches. Pirrie has noted that such discoveries are “a disturbing sign of our times” in relation to the vulnerability of the local coastline. In this work, the political resonance about the monitoring of major companies for environmental impact is manifest.
Yvette Martin has contributed three pieces of work to the exhibition that actively question environmental methods used in Darwin. Here, we have two photographic works - Warning upon Reflection and Inside the Alcove - and a sculptural work called Place, constructed from paper mache, clay, ash, dirt, pigment and yoghurt. Together, the suite of works reflect upon the recent environmental devastation caused by Cyclone Marcus, but also of the troubling methods to clean up the region, including the production of heavy plastics as tape used to cover dangerous fallen trees. The cyclone’s destruction has been cited as a local spectacular failure of urban planning, as many of the trees that fell were ill-equipped to endure the harsh conditions of Northern Australia. Even questions of horticulture become political in the Territory – Martin’s work draws attention to acts of nature, decay and societal mistakes, with the recurring theme of the body or corpse to emphasise what can be lost.
The creative experimentation process requires lengthy time working with a range of media, techniques and effects, until that Eureka moment of the “happy accident” might lead to an innovation. PhD candidate Bronwyn Dann’sUntitled work builds failure into part of the process, building with layers that together are able to transcend the ordinary: and to reflect upon the Northern Australian pearling industry, arguably even on the layered construction of the pearl itself. You might say that the pearl itself represents a biological failure – each shiny orb is formed by the mollusc as a defence mechanism against invading parasites. There is a deep irony then that this act of self-defence has led to the creature’s constant annihilation –another “spectacular failure” that has long been cultivated into a lucrative industry.
Failure is often part of the process of creating meaningful art. One artist interested by the potentiality of language is Matthew Van Roden, whose work Seven words I published in Cambridge University Press is a video installation, and as the artist notes it is a “reflection on the kaleidoscope of failures that led me to publishing my first article for Cambridge University Press”. Sometimes in the production of art, human error can occur and an artwork can take on an imperfection. Lillyana Toushek was photographing the Aegean Sea on a visit to Samothrace – captivated by the landscape and musing on the legends of the Greek gods – when she was brought down to earth by the discovery of her fingerprint smudged onto the lens. Rather than using digital editing to remove the error, Toushek has deliberately retained the flaw in her work Descent of the gods. With the name evoking the myth of Daedalus, her piece contains a built-in reminder that there is a long distance between artistic aim and ideal.
Lee Harrop’s work Everything will fake its place is a black neon construction that interrogates the job of inquiry and research by institutions such as media companies and universities, which demonstrates a palpable anxiety towards the circulation of false information through the fake news phenomenon. The projection of the words in the gallery space illuminates the role of the institution, potentially emphasising the university’s importance for conserving mechanisms to substantiate “truth”, whilst suggesting a certain scepticism - the artist seems to suggest that inquiry is endless and must be turned onto the institutions themselves in order for that “truth” to be legitimate.
Two artists have sought to articulate the impossibility of self-representation. Korin Lesh’s interactive installation It’s all a perspective cleverly emulates the mechanics of inner reflection, and plays with understanding the limits of both personal and public memories. Her work reminds us that ideas that seem intimate and personal actually culturally mediated. Then, Debbie Walter is also interested in the failings of self-representation and investigates new ways to represent a human life span. In her work Layers in time with paintbrushes we see the result of this contemplation: a dynamic mixed media artwork that is intrinsically concerned with mortality and attempts to graph the lived experiences of a lifetime. Taken this way, both Lesh and Walter’s works could even be considered radical forms of self-portraiture.
Jean Bolagdan’s work Poinciana, how do I love/portray thee? acknowledges the difficulty of finding a representational medium that can do justice to the artist’s aesthetic appreciation of the plant. Bolagdan’s work enacts an ambiguity: in one of the series that is exhibited here, she has produced paper using Poinciana flower petals. The “blank page” of the paper also suggests manifest possibility or else the failure of language to improve upon a plant that is “produced” naturally. Hence, she notices the relationship between artifice and the natural.
Another artist to examine this relationship is Ian Hance. Hance’s work Darwin Stubbie 2 continues a major project that examines the dressed-up termite mounds that line the local highways of Northern Australia: again, artworks that have been dressed by humans and naturally produced by termites. Hance has journeyed the region, carefully documenting hundreds of these strange public sculptures: visiting them again months later to see how they deteriorate or withstand the wet season. The large stubbie humorously depicted in this painting signifies the local drinking culture, which also gets problematized in the Northern Territory, as it is one of the highest alcohol consumption areas in the world. Hance emphasises the mound’s kitsch and grotesque attributes in this vivid painting, whilst simultaneously drawing our attention to the way that this drinking culture is celebrated in the region as a signifier of a macho kind of local identity.
Certainly, the North often trades on failure: troppo stupidity is often used as a branding point when it comes to being an NT local. The notorious NT News newspaper, for example, celebrates botched nights out for local Territorians, with enthralling headlines such as How I stuck a cracker up my clacker! The final artist of this exhibition, Kaye Strange, examines this unique aspect of Northern Australian identity. Her work See you in the Northern Territory reflects upon the “C U in the NT” fake tourism campaign that made national headlines when it first appeared on social media in late 2016. While the campaign was in reality shrewdly made by a private company to sell merchandise, it appeared so much like an official tourism campaign that many still believe that it was officially produced by Tourism NT (and hence consider it a local “PR fail”). Strange uses repetition of the phrase to defamiliarise us to the language used, which includes the expletive spelled out in the capital letters. The effect is to emphasise the constructed categories of these local discourses. Strange wants us to be critical of the ways that local identities are formed. It’s a fitting way to conclude an exhibition that eclectically examines the theme of spectacular failure: perhaps the real failures are the things around us that we fail to take note of the first time around.
Australian Government. (2015). Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia. [Accessed 15 July 2018]. Available from URL: https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/our-north-our-future-white-paper-on-developing-northern-australia