In late December 2013 I was able to make a research trip to Sydney. My aim was to see two spaces that I had viewed from a far for too long- Edge of Trees and Paddington Reservoir Gardens. I also took advantage of my temporary location by visiting a few other art sites.
I visited the amazing collection of contemporary Chinese art at White Rabbit Gallery in Central Sydney http://www.whiterabbitcollection.org/ , I was impressed by the way many of the works really grappled with the social, political and spiritual turbulence spurred by globalisation’s rapid pace. Gonkar Gyasto is the artist who has most stayed with me- his works deals with place and placelessness and identity.
After lunch I made the trek to Brett Whitley’s Studio in Surry Hills, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/brett-whiteley-studio/ where I spent time with epic self-portrait as a landscape, Alchemy. I had seen this work on an ABC Documentary http://www.abc.net.au/arts/artofaustralia/ and felt that Whiteley’s process of making an immense landscape as self-portrait and autobiographical narrative illustrated my notion of aesthetic subjectivity perfectly. I crawled over this painting for almost an hour.
Walking back into Sydney Central I made my way to the Art Gallery of NSW. Here I was most keen to see the work Illuminate. The product of a community arts collaboration between paper makers and Euraba artists from Northern NSW. I found this work mesmerizing. A corrugated box hut made of paper and illuminated from the inside out by four video projectors which animate each of the four walls with documentary style footage- it became this glowing aesthetic object, what you imagine the intersection between memory and place, our memory and home may be.
On my second day I sought out Fiona Foley’s and Janet Laurence’s Edge of Trees and the Museum of Sydney Forecourt. I first saw this work on a documentary about Laurence on the ABC (God bless aunty) back in 2007 I think. At the time I was really impressed by her approached and just really “got it”. In this work trees originally felled from the area (that had taken seed pre-colonisation) were returned to the site as greyed, noble logs. Laurence and Foley have used a number of materials to convey and capture the memory of this site, Latin and indigenous names are inscribed on the poles and heard echoing through this relic site. This was one of those sites which visiting only enhanced my appreciation of it, I felt it as a really powerful memorial and as a place in which to come to terms with history. Sitting there on a Sunday morning with the noises of buses, cars and pedestrians I imagined what it would feel like in the quiet of 3am, in the dark would the speaker’s aboriginal voice echo in the urban still?
I took a punt and figured out how to use Sydney public transport just enough to get myself to Paddington. I bought myself a coffee, crossed the road and walked down the stairs into the Paddington Reservoir Gardens. A young lady sat taking flute lessons, a family picnicked on a section of grass. I looked around the space, beautiful- what I had expected, an eclectic intersection of ruins and landscape gardening that embodied that contemporary eco-aesthetic. But I was a little underwhelmed too, and that is not a bad thing, I really had to query why I was underwhelmed. My research has led me to look at our relationship to the environment and this has in turn revealed the many ways in which this relationship is constructed. This construction process is not always one in which we can exert our own agency however, it is not uncommon for the constructed spaces in which we find ourselves to be forces themselves in fact shaping our agency.
I had stayed in Western Sydney and caught the train to and from that infamous urban landscape. Making my way into the Sydney CBD that morning it was impossible to ignore the way money concentrates itself as witnessed in the buildings of the area, their commercial occupants and their proximity to the harbor, the memory of that Edge of Trees nestled into this Western, globalized space. Sitting here in Paddington it was hard to detach from the awareness that this beautiful, ethical space was entwined in the circumstances of privilege that keep its nearby property prices so high. Another dimension to my underwhelming was to do with the difference between a space made using aesthetics to create a more neutral common area and a space made using aesthetics as a language to engage its visitors and its socio-historical contexts in order to push into a questioning of that relationship between subject and world.
These are questions and currents that keep pushing through my research and will be developed as I go. In two fast approaching weeks I will take flight for overseas field research in America and Japan. Questioning the processes of aesthetically made spaces will be a core task of this research. Stay tuned…