Perth Festival Art 2015

March 7, 2015
Nalda Searles, Hirsute Vision, 2013. Eyeglasses with hair and blanket, salvaged woolen blanket, felted and stitched (eye glasses gifted by Ted Snell, artist’s own hair), 16x16x6cm. Photo by Bewley Shaylor.
Nalda Searles, Hirsute Vision, 2013. Eyeglasses with hair and blanket, salvaged woolen blanket, felted and stitched (eye glasses gifted by Ted Snell, artist’s own hair), 16x16x6cm. Photo by Bewley Shaylor.

Over the past few years the Perth Festival has established a reputation for an adventurous visual arts program. This is in contrast to most of the arts festivals around Australia, which are dominated by the performing arts. Even Adelaide, which has had a long-term commitment to the visual arts, has dispensed with its regular Artists’ Week – an event that has finally subverted itself into oblivion.

Perth has avoided the talk-fest and based its program on a striking range of international and local exhibitions chosen by Margaret Moore, a curator who is all action and no hype.

The two major international shows are Rebirth by Japanese artist, Mariko Mori, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (until 29 June); and a double-header by rising Icelandic star, Ragnar Kjartansson, at Fremantle Arts Centre and the John Curtin Gallery (until 5 April).

Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) is hosting Kaleidoscope, a Tracey Moffatt survey, (until 15 April); and a quirky group exhibition called An Internal Difficulty: Australian Artists at the Freud Museum, London (until 12 April). The Yirrkala Drawings from the Berndt collection, have been touring the country, but have now returned home for the biggest, most comprehensive display to date, at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery, University of WA (until 11 April).

Finally, the WA Museum is the scene for two group exhibitions that combine international and Australian work: Theatres – a video art survey that looks at places of violent conflict and unrest (closes tomorrow); and Spaced 2: Future Recall, which shows the results of 14 residencies undertaken in rural WA, by artists from across the globe (until 29 March).

So much for the gallery guide, I’m afraid I only have room to write about the core attractions. As the title suggests, Tracey Moffatt’s Kaleidoscope is such a diverse affair it requires a review in its own right, and I’ll hopefully get a chance closer to home. One basic observation is that Moffatt is returning to her roots in this recent work and that’s a wise move. Like Sidney Nolan, she seems to need the Australian content.

The major drawcard is Mariko Mori (b.1967), one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary artists, who works in a range of media, including painting and drawing, performance, video, and large-scale sculptural installations.

Mariko Mori, 'Birth of Star' (1995)

Mariko Mori, ‘Birth of Star’ (1995)

The exhibition, Rebirth, which I first saw at the Royal Academy in London at the end of 2012, is part of an ongoing transformation in the artist’s work, moving away from the playful videos of the 1990s in which she dressed up as an alien, a cyborg or a anime character. A former model and student of fashion, Mori traded on her own good looks in these science fiction vignettes.

In 1997 the artist undertook a pilgrimage to the Kumano region of Japan, a site sacred to both the Buddhist and Shinto religions. It sparked a meditation on those things that lie outside the body, on the transcendental and the ephemeral. Over the past decade Mori has delved deeply into the realms of philosophy, creating a body of work in which there is no specific human presence, but a constant emphasis on the soul or the spirit.

These investigations have taken her back to the Jomon period in Japan, which attained a creative peak around 5,000 years ago, when so-called ‘flame pots’ were produced in great numbers. The name comes from the complex sculptural additions made to the rim of the pots, which are clearly symbolic, not utilitarian.

Mori was inspired by the Jomon belief that the souls of the dead do not pass on to an afterlife but continue to circulate between the natural and human worlds. Pieces such as Transcircle 1.1 (2004), which features a circle of smooth, pale-coloured obelisks relate to these ancient beliefs, as does Flatstone (2006), which places an acrylic model of a flame pot within a circle of ceramic stones laid on the floor.

This fascination with the prehistoric era was linked with a new interest in the expanding universe, as Mori began to research elementary particles such as neutrinos, and cosmological concepts such as dark energy and black holes. One cannot expect any artist to be more than an enthusiastic amateur in this field, but Mori’s unscientific approach has given birth to a collection of works predicated on the idea that in death we are reduced to particles that remain perpetually at play in the physical world. Her ideas are more mystical than scientific, although as we have seen with films such as Interstellar, there is a region in which it becomes hard to disentangle the two categories.

Mori is not a crank who conflates science with religion, she is looking for ways to express these conceptions in works of art that do not need to be true in order to make a powerful impression. This has led to a collection of beautiful, minimal drawings made at dawn in Okinawa, over successive summers, from a studio looking over the ocean.

'Journey to Seven Light Bay, Primal Rhythm', 2011. Video with sound; 5 minutes, 14 seconds. Sound by Ken Ikeda. © Faou Foundation, New York.

‘Journey to Seven Light Bay, Primal Rhythm’, 2011. Video with sound; 5 minutes, 14 seconds. Sound by Ken Ikeda. © Faou Foundation, New York.

A more ambitious project is to place a series of sculptures in remote places across six continents. The first piece was Sun Pillar, Primal Rhythm (2011) – a 4.2 metre-high pillar made from layered acrylic that captures the light in a display of shifting colours. Her next project will be a ring made out of lucite, suspended over a waterfall in Brazil. Her stated aim is “to unite the celestial with the terrestrial”.

In these recent pieces Mori is stepping into territory occupied by James Turrell, whose retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia continues until 28 June. Her fundamental medium is light, with all of its metaphysical associations. This focus has produced works that are infinitely suggestive and formally beautiful. It has enabled her to deal with the themes of life, death and the universe in a way that draws the viewer into an intimate, contemplative relationship.

The only problem in Perth is the physical ugliness of the AGWA exhibition space, with its low ceilings, exposed concrete, and worn-out grey carpets. Such a setting threatens to bring even the most ethereal artworks back to earth.

Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976) came to global attention when he arranged for a Viking longboat with a group of musicians aboard, to float around the inlet near the Arsenale during the 2013 Venice Biennale. That piece, S.S.Hangover, was a strange, melancholy performance, repeated over and over – which might serve as a summary for most of Kjartansson’s work – an indefinable blend of art, music and theatre.

One can’t be in a hurry to appreciate Kjartansson’s films. In The Visitors at the John Curtin Gallery, one enters a darkened room with nine screens, on which Kjartansson and a group of friends each occupy a room in an old, rambling mansion in upstate New York. The artist sits in the bathtub strumming a guitar, while others play a range of instruments. For more than an hour they repeat the refrain, “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways”. Some viewers will be in and out in seconds, but for those who stay it becomes mesmeric.

In the room next door is a film shot from a fixed camera angle, of veteran bluesman, Pinetop Perkins, going through his routine on a piano placed in the middle of a field. This piece, The Man (2010), goes for a mere 49 minutes.

At the Fremantle Arts Centre there is more complete Kjartansson survey including a selection of watercolours, and a video in which his mother spits in his face, at five-year intervals. The title piece, The End (2009), is another repetitive anthem, played by the artist and a friend in the snow-covered wilderness of Canada.

Kjartansson’s most lengthy contribution is Song (2011), which features three blonde, Icelandic maidens (the artist’s nieces) perched on a platform in the middle of a museum in Pittsburgh, singing a folky number based on an Allen Ginsberg poem. This is a six-hour loop.

Although it may sound like an ordeal, there is something completely disarming about Kjartansson’s work. It feels as if the artists and his collaborators are enjoying themselves, and expecting the audience to feel the same way. As long as you’re not running late for an appointment it’s an irresistible invitation.

Perth Festival Art Exhibitions 2015

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th March, 2015