Perth Arts Festival 2018

March 2, 2018
Up close & personal with Zadok Ben-David's 'The Other Side of Midnight' (detail)
Up close & personal with Zadok Ben-David's 'The Other Side of Midnight' (detail)

When it comes to rampant development Perth loses nothing in comparison with its eastern counterparts. Amid the new buildings and public works only one thing remains the same: the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which looks just as shabby year after year. Its every mention provokes Olympic-standard eye-rolling in other members of the local arts community.

In 2018 AGWA has opted not to take part in the Perth Festival, preferring to fall back on its own ‘blockbuster’, The Corsini Collection. As my brief is to write about the Festival exhibitions I’ll refrain from comment on this uneven display of Italian Old Masters and bric-a-brac accumulated by one noble Florentine family. I would, however, recommend it to conservators scouting for business, as there’s plenty of work to be done on these pictures.

For the second year the Festival’s visual arts program has been the responsibility of Sydney curators, Felicity Fenner and Anne Loxley. The highlights are Human Nature by Anglo-Israeli artist, Zadok Ben-David, at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery; Zone of Nowhere by South Korea’s Kimsooja, at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA); and Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries, at the John Curtin Gallery.

Ben-David is a practised crowd-pleaser, whose work has been shown all over the world, and many times in Sydney. Human Nature includes two of his greatest hits: Blackfield (2006-09) and The Other Side of Midnight (2013). In the latter we enter a pitch-dark room to find a floating globe made up of brightly-coloured butterflies and tiny humanoids. Moving to the other side we realise that what we imagined to be a sphere is really a very thin disc. On the verso it’s all cockroaches, beetles and ants in shades of silvery-blue. Think of it as a before-and-after scenario for when the Doomsday Clock ticks over to midnight.

A new video, Conversation Piece (2018), uses two silhouettes of the artist as receptacles for more moth-like humanoids who crash and burn, each one a miniscule Icarus.

Blackfield is a vast square of sand in which thousands of black, laser-cut plant silhouettes are embedded. It’s only as we walk around the installation that each plant bursts into colour. This element of surprise and delight ensures the popularity of Ben-David’s work. Although there may be a moral to his stories (in this case an ecological one) he allows viewers the pleasure of discovering it for themselves.

Kim Sooja's flags at PICA

Kim Sooja’s flags at PICA

Kim Sooja’s Zone of Nowhere continues a sequence of strong Festival shows at PICA, where curator, Eugenio Viola, has produced a survey of one of South Korea’s most celebrated artists.

Kim is known for her installations using traditional Korean wrapping cloths (bottari), reflecting the influence of Buddhism or Shamanism. The strength of so much of this work lies in its unforced simplicity. The major piece is To Breathe – The Flags (2012-2018), in which the flags of the world’s nations and territories have been combined in an alphabetical video sequence in which one banner slowly fades into another. What we see is a series of impossible combinations – South and North Korea united on a single flag; or, as the ultimate oxymoron, Switzerland joined with Syria.

Kim has created a series of these hybrid flags which hang from wires in PICA’s central gallery. Seven further images have been installed on buildings in Northbridge.

Among other pieces in this overview is Mandala: Zone of Zero (2004-10) in which a circular disc taken from a machine in Las Vegas is positioned on the wall like a meditation object. The makeshift mandala emits a surprisingly tuneful mixture of Gregorian chants, Islamic calls to prayer and Tibetan Buddhist singing, in another iteration of Kim’s trademark vision of global cultural harmony.

Christopher Charles has provided the truly weird moment of the Festival with his installation, Banjawarn, at Gallery Central. The title refers to a remote outback station where Shoko Asahara and members of his Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) sect went to test deadly sarin gas on sheep, in preparation for the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.

Charles documents this little-known episode with a video, photos and objects drawn from Banjawarn station and from Japanese popular culture. More archive than art, it’s nevertheless a display that stays lodged in one’s mind.
How many more cults are out there doing experiments in the desert?

A very small part of Lisa Reihana's monumental video installation, 'In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]'

A very small part of Lisa Reihana’s monumental video installation, ‘In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]‘

Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] (2015-17) was the highlight of the Arsenale display in last year’s Venice Biennale, and it was a pleasure to sit and watch the entire sequence at the John Curtin Gallery. Based loosely on the famous French wallpaper, Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique (1802), Reihana’s slow-scrolling video inserts costumed actors into the wallpaper’s stylised decorative landscape. We see a series of interactions between Polynesians and white explorers, both playful and hostile. Happily for Sydney readers one needn’t travel to Perth to see this work. It’s showing as part of Lisa Reihana: Cinemania, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre until 25 March.

The Festival’s art program finally dissolves in two aqueous exhibitions. The first is Pilar Mata Dupont’s Undesirable Bodies at Form, which features video and photo images of the artist and her colleagues gathering up invasive water plants in the Pilbara. It puts quite a different spin on Monet’s waterlillies, although the film feels more like a holiday activity than a lecture in conservation.

From Pilar Mata Dupont's 'Undesirable Bodies'

From Pilar Mata Dupont’s ‘Undesirable Bodies’

My final stop was the Fremantle Arts Centre, where one can view Latai Taumoepeau’s set of postcard-sized videos called Repatriate, which shows the artist dancing in a tank of water, supported by multiple floaties. If this feels a little obscure there is also the monumental, public project, Museum of Water, which has been running for over a year in Western Australia, accepting donations of water from anyone who wants to take part.

The Museum is the idea of British artist, Amy Sharrocks, who has started branches all over the world. Anyone can bring in some water in a jar, a bottle or even an elaborate piece of cut-glass. The only stipulation is that contributors are obliged to sit down and share their story with a curator who records it for an ever-expanding archive.

It’s a simple, congenial idea that raises awareness of water’s importance and brings together the most diverse groups of people. What’s not to like? If you want to produce work for the Museum it’s as easy as turning on a tap.

Zadok Ben-David: Human Nature, Lawrence Wilson Gallery, until 21 April; Kimsoojaa: Zone of Nowhere, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, until 25 April; Christopher Charles: Banjawarn, Gallery Central, until 3 March; Lisa Reihana: Emissaries, John Curtin Gallery, until 29 April; Pilar Mata Dupont: Undesirable Bodies, Form Gallery, until 6 April; Museum of Water/Latai Taumoepeau: Repatriate, Fremantle Arts Centre, until 23 March

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 March, 2018