Cover image of the review
Sidney Sprague, Because of Her, We Can! (Video Still), 2018.

  • David Wlazlo

13 Apr 2019
Warrnambool Art Gallery 7 Dec 2018 - 29 Jun 2019

The Warrnambool Art Gallery

Craftivism. Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms 2 March - 5 May 2019

Penny Byrne: HIGH VIS: Protest, People and Power in a time of Fake News 2 March - 19 May 2019

Damon Kowarsky: Sans Frontières 8 December 2018 - 5 May 2019

On Country: Stories of Gunditjmara Elders 8 December 2018 - 30 June 2019

“Compromised” was the adjective staff used to describe the experience at Warrnambool Art Gallery (The WAG) when I went to visit it last week. Across the five gallery spaces, what seemed like an invasive species of gallery goer—a swarm of school aged children—were sitting on the floor, working at desks, speaking with instructors, sometimes engaging with the art. The students were busy with hands-on projects, developing girls’ involvement with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics), something sorely lacking in broader society. The presence of ‘GIRL STEAM’ was total, and as I shuffled around the edges of this throng I tried to do the job I came for, but it was not easy. The concerns of future and current students reverberated and obstructed, in a way that I came to actually prefer to the usual bubble of the art gallery experience.

To be ‘compromised’ requires a middle ground or agreement to be reached between two ideal situations. On the one hand, a specific gallery experience is culturally ideal for writing a review or ‘general’ viewing, while other competing ideals exist, such as those of the many students that inhabited The Wag. The concerns of school children rarely make it past the barrier of good cafés silently defending the aesthetic sensibility, but thinking of the future outside this barrier—in which these concerns reach a compromise—seems an instructive approach to the many diverse exhibitions currently on show in Warrnambool’s main gallery.

Installation detail of Craftivism. Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms; a Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) curated exhibition, touring nationally by NETS Victoria featuring Catherine Bell, Karen Black, Penny Byrne, Erub Arts, Debris Facility, Starlie Geikie, Michelle Hamer, Kate Just, Deborah Kelly, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Raquel Ormella, Slow Art Collective, Tai Snaith, Hiromi Tango, James Tylor, Jemima Wyman and Paul Yore.

Craftivism. Dissident Objects and Subversive Forms, a touring exhibition from Shepparton Art Museum, dominates one of WAG’s larger rooms. It is a large group show of colourful mixed-media objects and approaches reflecting on a relationship between object production and activism. Object production is here given to the categories usually called ‘craft’: ceramics, printed fabric patterns, weaving and traditional object arranging. Activism is described by the curators as a concern with the ecological, environmental and political concerns of today, when we all have too many objects that mean too little. Catherine Bell’s carved Oasis floral foam Crematorium Vessels (2012-13) and James Tylor’s Un-resettling (2018) are quite sombre amid the more colourful and intense works of Paul Yore and Kate Just. The latter’s knitted picture of Pussy Riot protesting in front of a Russian orthodox church, Feminist Fan #3 (Pussy Riot at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, 2012) (2015) and Deborah Kelly’s video Lying Women (2016) draw attention to the gendering of craft activity in the European mindset over the last few hundred years. Overall, Craftivism shows a broad, colourful and at times frenetic take on the connections between practices labelled craft and social and political activism. In the end, though, it is craft from a fine art perspective. Much more interesting in the current political climate would be to ask what the CWA—that conservative bastion of knitting and needlecraft—would take as activism.

Crematorium vessels, 2012–13, floral foam vessels, installation: 19 x 93 x 17 cm. © the artist, courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis.

Penny Byrne—an artist included in Craftivism—also has her own solo exhibition in a smaller room next door. HIGH VIS: Protest, People and Power in a time of Fake News demonstrates the artist’s ongoing interest in modified kitsch ceramics. Mass-produced blue and white porcelain figures are sourced through the community and altered to reflect critical and political concerns: in this case, the ceramic figurines are adorned with the high-vis yellow vests of the predominately French activist campaign gilets jaunes, initiated in the last year or so to protest against socio-economic inequality. The brightly coloured vests are a unifying symbol in France: licenced drivers are legally required to have one in their vehicle in case of roadside emergency and the protests were initially sparked in response to a fuel price hike. The miniature face-off between porcelain painted protesters and their equally ‘cute’ riot police unifies both sides in their hollow, fragile humanity; a gesture of compromise familiar in representations of protest from the 1960s ‘flowers in gun-barrels’ to Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (2001).

Installation detail of HIGH VIS: Protest, People and Power in a time of Fake News; an immersive sculptural and multimedia exhibition by Penny Byrne.

Byrne’s work in Craftivism, #EuropaEuropa (2015), uses the same kind of figures but wearing life-vests, presumably to make safe the voyage to the titular continent. The twin themes of fragile ceramics and travel/transport loom large in these beautiful and compelling works. The genteel and kitschly civilised sense of the figures is linked to the romanticism of protest, especially in the embracing figures wearing gas-masks. While the silence of the gallery lends an atmosphere of caution and OHS rather than violent protest, the video projection of violent street confrontation off-sets this.

Image credit: Penny Byrne, HIGH VIS (series), 2019. Photo by Matthew Stanton.

What is missing for me though in this largely European affair is a more local, class-based reflection on the high-vis: the fleecy jumper or filthy shirt of the ‘fluorescent-collared worker’, presumably just as fragile and common underneath their clothes as the refugee or the French protester. Byrne invites us to put on our own high-vis vest upon entering the gallery—which I dutifully did, to the amusement of the high-school students through the door—but obviously this is but one aspect of the global and intersectional use of fluorescent coloured fabric. Perhaps while the French adopt the clothing tactically, there are other associations more dyed in the wool.

Damon Kowarsky, Dinan IV 2018.

In Sans Frontières, Damon Kowarsky’s medium to large scale etchings and aquatints are quite beautiful images. His dreamy French and Egyptian townscapes were produced over long periods of travel and various global residencies. There is a textural and spatial unity to all of these images, blending a naive treatment of complex building structures, gardens manicured by stippled grass, shrub and hedge and architectural forms clumped together in an organically haphazard way. The wistful and wishful title, Sans Frontières, suggests a francophilia or perhaps a simple love of the foreign and, while this would bother me usually, Kowarsky’s rendering of the various ‘elsewheres’ is so lush and fantastical that he seems to be recreating the north as a psychological condition. While the ‘without borders’ suggests a lack of boundary, there persists a division—an us and them perhaps—in the eurocentricity of the title and the foreignness of the beautifully executed prints. Europe, Egypt and the other places in these etchings are presented as a dreamscape, a psychological landscape unencumbered by surrealist demons.

Installation detail of Sans Frontières; prints, drawings and painting by Damon Kowarsky.

If the fetishisation of the non-Australian is allowed to sit calmly—and not become a tool to register that classic ‘Australian cultural inadequacy’—then Kowarsky’s prints seem to present ‘The North’ as Terra Borealis, a counter point to the mythical Terra Australis of the European imaginary. From 1959’s On the Beach to 1988’s Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em, Victoria is often presented as the end of the world (especially in crisis). However, in South Western Victoria it is easy to feel that cultural reference points are shifting and it is not so automatic to associate Australia with a European or North American end-game. This is especially so since the proposed UNESCO listing of the eel aquaculture site at Budj Bim National Park and Lake Condah, close to Warrnambool and the oldest example of water-based farming in the world.

The internationalism of Kowarsky’s and Byrne’s work is nicely countered by the two rooms of The WAG’s new Indigenous Gallery. On Country: Stories of Gunditjmara Elders is a group of works from The WAG’s collection chosen by local Aboriginal man Jordan Gould and presented with the support of the Koorie Heritage Trust and artist Sidney Sprague. Seventeen years old, Gould works with local elders to promote and extend Indigenous culture and knowledge in the area. His comments on the wall labels add direct and personal reflections to his choices: A painting by Jan Fieldsend, I do not celebrate 200 years of war against the Aboriginal peoples and the land (1987) (procured by the gallery in bicentennial year 1988), chosen by Gould because of the snake motif’s protective implications; a painting by Noela Stratford, Once Upon a Time (1991), makes him worry about the waning of Aboriginal culture. In a nearby vitrine a traditional eel trap by Aunty Bronwyn Razem, a familiar sight across Victoria in recent times, is here presented on home soil. In an adjoining room play a collection of videos by Sidney Sprague. These videos are documentaries about local elders and their lives growing up in and around Warrnambool and the nearby Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve. Standing out for me among these stories is the short film Because of Her, We can! This video—commissioned by WAG for NAIDOC Week 2018—features a local Peek Whurrong Elder Uncle Robert Lowe Senior’s recollections about his great-grandmother, who survived a massacre in the 19th century, his grandmother, who speared a drunk man in the behind after he repeatedly propositioned her (he never came back) and his mother, who kicked a drunk man in the groin when he pulled a .22 rifle on her. Among the discussions of various evictions and demolitions of houses his family lived in, these phenomenal tales of endurance and survival are local and real. Their intergenerational importance is made clear by Uncle Robert Lowe Senior, who believes that the stories of these amazing women need passing on to the next generation of future female leaders. This emphasis on the intergenerational is the strength of this beginning to the Indigenous Galleries. The active involvement of Jordan Gould with local Elders makes this agenda stronger.

Installation detail of On Country: Selected by Jordan Gould; an exhibition created in partnership with the Koorie Heritage Trust and artist, Sidney Sprague, WAG presents the stories of Gunditjmara Elders: Uncle Robbie Lowe, Aunty Christina Saunders, Uncle Andy Alberts and Aunty Bronwyn Razem.

Nearby Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve features as a backdrop in a number of Sprague’s videos. The extinct volcano—just west of Warrnambool—has a large lake and native wetland within its crater, and was famously restored in the 1960s using Eugene von Guérard’s Tower Hill (1855) as a guide for the revegetation program. Von Guérard’s accuracy was lauded, and botanic specimens were readily identifiable within his large painting. The use of painting as ‘documentary truth’ to restore the ‘fiction of nature’ was a goldmine for postmodern artists in the 1980s, as demonstrated in the 1985 exhibition Tower Hill and its Artists at The WAG, where the contradictions and paradoxes between art and nature were explored by Tony Clarke, Geoff Lowe and others.

The fate of von Guérard’s painting is a clear example of an artwork’s unforeseeable afterlife. The chronologies of ‘art following nature’ are rendered paradoxical, but consider then the way that Tower Hill goes on to form such a clear background to the Elder’s stories in On Country. The boundaries between nature and art are blurred, breached and compromised here; however, these distinctions are not universal. Blurriness and compromise are rules rather than exceptions. What is called for is a reassessment of European expectations of the Australian environment, of what constitutes ‘nature’ when encountering a heavily managed, yet quite unknown, country. In Bill Gammage’s argument, we can’t rely on the European scientific assumption that natural explanations for Australia’s environment should be presumed before active cultural management is considered. If Australia in 1788 was indeed a large, actively managed estate, then human intervention should be foregrounded in our examination of the ‘natural’ in this continent. In just this way Tower Hill’s relation to Von Guérard’s painting forces a compromise between categories and distinctions. This kind of compromise is surely the same treatment deserved for those that want to suggest that young women are not ‘naturally inclined’ toward science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.