INTERNATIONAL NEWS - MELBOURNE

Review by Andrew Mackenzie
Publication – Contemporary Magazine
February 2003 pages 78-79

Australian galleries have a hard time selling contemporary art. This not only keeps artists broke and stuck in low-rent grunge burbs, but significantly determines how artists get to show their work. Whether it's an under-resourced artist's space, a high-rent chic minimalist gallery, or a state museum, the reluctance to hand over the gallery to one artist has led recently to a large number of group shows. Some with great work in them, which is not always to say great group shows.

At one end of the spectrum, Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion at the Art Gallery of New South Wales had a highly complex, yet legible theme bringing together such diverse artists as James Turrell, Gary Hill and Mariko Mori. The exhibition took the form of a series of darkened, captivating spaces- an Orphic journey, not into Hades, but into the mesmerising psychological drama that is light and shadow. This was a corporeal experience of space and enclosure, the very opposite of virtual. The act of placing one art work next to another under a discursive theme is notoriously difficult and often ends up compromising both. Space Odysseys, however, carefully articulated associations between the works, enriching the experience of each and leaving this viewer hypnotised in a Bachelardian world where space is a matter of perception, not square metres.

Humid at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art was less successful in engendering dialogue between the works shown. Its curatorial thesis, from the hand of Melbourne's doyen of contemporary art Juliana Engberg (who otherwise delivered a memorable art festival in November), was besieged by gender platitudes, ill-serving this otherwise interesting collection of work. Reading the catalogue essay, I wondered what exactly 'the bulging part of weather, all moist and dense sensuality itself hangs expectantly in the ripeness of things' has got to do with Pipilotti Rist smashing car windscreens, or Ann Hamilton's mouthful of stones. With other artists including Tacita Dean, Kate Daw and Mariele Neudecker, it felt like a great opportunity missed. Bulging in all the wrong places.

At a less institutional level, 200 Gertrude Street (Melbourne's most renowned artist-run gallery, studio complex and all round art incubator) recently opened its annual group show. Free of heavy-handed curatorial narrative, the show included many interesting emerging Melbourne artists, but didn't quite manage to get them talking to each other. Two artists did stand out, however, by the simple fact that they engaged in the space of the gallery. Natasha Johns-Messenger's subversion of architectural space with a disorientating use of mirrors went beyond circus trickery and recalled Dan Graham's viewer/participant manipulations, provoking similar unease and self-consciousness in those who approached it.

A piece by Harriet Parsons also stood out, perhaps because it made a noise. Wire was twisted into an intricate drawing of delicate flowers which doubled as a tiny theremin emitting strange Lilliputian sounds. The piece related to a larger project called Call Signs- a series of wall-hung fragile wire objects portraying miscellaneous naturalist scenes, each squeaking an erratic composition of tiny high-pitched notes. Its LED lights, trigger switches and solenoids forged a curious hybrid of lacework and wired technology, blinking and twitching with Panamarenko-like anthropomorphism.

Finally, one artist to break free from the group show and demonstrate just how important it is to give art some space was Christine Borland, whose work in Humid was somewhat lost amid the exhibition's emphasis on gender. In contrast, her solo show Fallen Spirits at the capacious Anna Schwartz Gallery was a distilled evocation of mortality through the minimal means of a handful of leaves, bleached white and scattered in a small circle in the centre of the large floor. Characteristically balanced between forensic process and the melancholic subjects of loss and absence, Borland's use of the gallery was both highly dramatised and as subtle as a Haiku poem. Gestural and yet not the least bit flippant, Fallen Spirits paradoxically made maximum use of the gallery despite minimum occupation.

Though spaces like 200 Gertrude Street work hard to promote emerging Australian artists through studio provision and group shows, there remains in private galleries like Anna Schwartz a lingering cultural cringe which only dispenses the largesse of such a relatively 'empty' gallery to a seasoned yBa like Borland. Roll on the day when Natasha Johns-Messenger or Harriet Parsons has that chance.