Driving the bleak stretches of highway to south-western Sydney to see “Pigeon Auction” at the Casula Powerhouse, an arts centre housed in a post-industrial relic between a polluted river and a railway line, I had time to reflect on the curatorial premise for the show. An examination of ‘suburban subcultures’ is fertile ground for contemporary art. I was intrigued to see how a coherent narrative could emerge from elements as diverse as graffiti and skateboarding, indigenous identity, the raising of chickens and silkworms, punk subculture, and gun clubs. “Pigeon Auction” celebrates the cultural diversity – and sheer eccentricity – of suburban Australia. Curator Toni Bailey saw a sign taped to a power pole which simply said “Pigeon Auction Today,” causing her to think about the substrata of suburbia: all the hobbies and interests, passions and desires which float below the surface; all the secrets behind fences and closed front doors.
Garry Trinh’s series of photographs, “Our Spot,” recalls a youthful obsession with his skateboard, travelling hours on public transport to get to skateboard parks in far flung suburbs. He shot images of long-abandoned skate parks on an old light-leaking camera using expired photographic film, giving the photographs a hallucinogenic, strangely romantic feeling. These are elegies to youth, to that intoxicating mixture of aimlessness and purpose that characterises adolescence. Melbourne artist Tony Garifalakis presents a series of ‘new age’ statements taken from sources such as positive affirmation cards, self-help books and bumper stickers, printed across paper shooting targets. The most memorable of these, printed in a hot pink cursive font across a black balaclava-clad male pointing an assault weapon, reads, “I am a beautiful being of light.” These photographs disrupt the connection between image and text, creating dissonant messages intended to expose deep anxiety and paranoia.
Melbourne-based indigenous photographer Bindi Cole writes an astonishingly confessional blog. Her time in prison, her relationships, her miscarriages, her heartaches and her spirituality; it’s all there, heart well and truly on sleeve. Her series “Not Really Aboriginal” was produced in 2008, the year that the Australian Prime Minister issued a formal apology to members of the ‘Stolen Generation,’ Aboriginal people who as children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in institutions. Cole’s own experiences as a light-skinned Aboriginal woman directly informed this series, in which she plays on the racist traditions of minstrel shows. She presents us with a series of seemingly banal vignettes – a group of people in their lounge room, a couple posed on the banks of a river. In each case they are wearing blackface. They have become the black ’other,’ now entirely defined by the colour of their skin, thus confronting our easy assumptions about other human beings and exposing a deep substratum of racism in Australian society.
Matthew Bradley’s sculptures are inherently interesting. His absurdist neo-classical observatory, designed to be used as a chicken coop, is part of a complex narrative work entitled “Space Chickens Help Me Make Apple Pie.” Bradley made a connection between his neighbour’s chickens and an interstellar constellation nicknamed ‘Space Chicken’ for its apparent resemblance to a chicken’s head. Funny in a kind of obscure neo-Beuysian manner, maybe. Unfortunately Bradley’s work suffers from the contemporary disease whereby artists think that lengthy tract-like texts are essential for their ideas to be understood.
The standout work is “Depart without Return” by Sydney artist Shoufay Derz. Her installation transports us to a very different world, a place removed from the banalities of daily life. A glowing blue glass sarcophagus with beautiful, flowing script inscribed on its side is lit by solar panels. Silk moths flutter across the mouth and eyelids of a blue painted face. A pregnant woman walks slowly across sand dunes, yards of indigo-dyed cloth trailing behind her. Derz scrutinises the encounters and occurrences of the everyday to search for deeper meanings buried deep within them. From Sufi poet Rumi to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Samuel Beckett to Christian, Buddhist, and Daoist texts, her work has at its heart her interest in writers, mystics, philosophers and artists who, like herself, are fascinated by the way that language and memory shapes us. Evoking presence and absence, silence and speech, stillness and journeying, her works are deceptively simple. For this particular work, which came over the course of its creation to be imbued with an ever greater sense of mourning due to events in the artist’s life, she has created an installation consisting of numerous connecting elements – still and moving images, panels of glass, pure indigo pigment, and the life cycles of silk moths.
With a similar level of obsessive patience to the ‘pigeon fanciers’ – a dying suburban subculture – who inspired the exhibition, Derz has raised generations of silk moths on mulberry leaves, learned how to spin silk, and made her own indigo, that most resonantly symbolic of substances. Like the silk filaments teased from the cocoon in this ancient process, Derz’s work is a continuing thread which emerges slowly, over time. The blind silk moths fluttering on her indigo painted face in “Depart Without Return” embody the cycles of transformation to which we are all subject. Whether her work can be neatly slotted into a curatorial narrative about suburbia and its secrets is debatable. It transcends any such limitation, and speaks a universal language of love and loss. The exhibition, however, is given far greater depth and significance through the inclusion of this body of work.