Art & Economics

Art and Economics is a series of ongoing art projects attracted to hard data analysis and the stories it can tell. We are interested in the intersections of art, culture, industry, governmentality, economics, hydrology, infrastructure, land use and stewardship.  wollarUnder investigation – Wollar house and paddock, formally two houses?

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alex wisser

The blue. That mad blue of the post in the midst of faded grey-green rural suburbia.  The colour of elsewhere quietly imploding its surrounds.  Wisser has an eye for detail, for honing in on small absurdities of place, each photograph feigning that look of not particularly paying attention, the camera’s nonchalance played off against each carefully composed rupture of the scene.

So first, it’s the post so maddeningly out of kilter, holding the foreground against the faded tones of the peeling cream paint of the corrugated shed, the likewise faded sandy path and faded blue of the sky. The upright stroke of the blue post garners to itself a mismatched intensity, like someone dipped a brush direct into the pigment tube and erroneously marked a palette mixed to the washed out tones of a Kandos autumn.

It recalls that scene in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, in which an abstract painter sets up his easel in the midst of a spectacular American Fall, the leaves red russet in Nature’s full glory, to then daub away with fierce, swift abstract strokes.  The painting bears no relation to the scene, another in the long series of Hitchcock’s visual jokes.  Likewise Wisser has snuck up on this scene of  Modernist transgression, transforming the post into an abstract mark which questions the scene it interrupts.

More follows this cue to the unnaturalness of an ordinary scene.  Against the grey-green of the native gums on the right-hand side, an imported poplar is twisting itself in a muscular torsion of acidish yellow, spiralling upright in contest with the erect trunk of a tall dead tree on the left hand side.  Your eye cannot but be drawn inwards to this series of vertical strokes, the dead tree and the poplar now looking equally put of place.

Overall, the image is a brash and subtle work: brash in the first encounter of a blue that is unnatural, out of place, but subtle in the contagion of strangeness that begins to effect the other elements.  The native and natural seem startled by the impudent imports.  Also why is the tree dead? Why hasn’t someone cut it down?  Was it a local or foreigner? Surrepticiously, this scene which had seemed so ordinary is full of questions and mismatched elements.

We’re taken to the heart of the aesthetics of contact history, much more noticeable in a suburban enclave at the heart of the rural.  Wisser was particularly interested in the ongoing frisson of two aesthetic systems – the original landscape of sky and bush – as it continued to rub against imposter elements.  The madness of incompatible systems.  In this sense his photographs recall those strange ‘no-place’ landscape of John Glover and other colonials unable to let go of what landscapes should look like.  Glover’s ‘gums’ or whatever they were certainly did not exist in the Australian landscape and neither did his colours.  Australia had to wait for the Heidelberg school in the 1880s to get those right in their own hazy Impressionistic way, but at least they got the fadedness of the bush which Wisser certainly lets be to reveal itself against the often absurd and seemingly partial systems of taste imposed by the suburbanists.  Perhaps you could call Wisser’s outdoor shots ‘contact landscapes’, as the two aesthetic systems continue to slug it out in an ongoing contest that has now been going at it for some two hundred years.

It’s a battle that some Australians never see, never engage with – hugging the city, never venturing to the liminal zones where bush meets the town.  The nineteenth century contact was less pronounced; materials were more natural, more wood, iron and stone, colour less brash.  No plastic.  Much of the nineteenth century contact history has been so romanticised, so naturalised, as in the European tradition, that ironically it is the more recent contact history of the twentieth century that is more pronounced.  This contest in the landscape is snapped by Wisser in a line of orange roadworks plastic gone feral and ragged across a paddock, screaming that it doesn’t belong there, whilst at the same time adding a Modernist dash of colour to an otherwise drab scene. Wisser is interrogating the paradox that the colour enhancing the aesthetics is also a pollutant of the natural order, this time pitting aesthetics against the health of the landscape in this ongoing battle of contact.

For the most part, Wisser’s camera tour of Kandos’ liminal zones has focused less on such accidental, undetermined aesthetic processes than on the strangeness of everyday aesthetic decisions.

Wisser has been photographing personal aesthetic decisions for some time now.  In part, this was opportune, given his job of photographing homes for sale, looking their very best, for real estate ads in the local papers.  This is aesthetics as played out in real life by real life people, often with no formal connection to art.  Still it’s a good enough place from which to interrogate aesthetics as a function of life and everyday experience, and it takes a talent, such as Wisser’s to extract, through framing, the many aesthetic decisions which compose suburbia.

In this context, his works can be juxtaposed to that of early Tony Schwenson, whose installations were uniquely composed of store bought elements from the like of Bunnings’ gardening stores – fencing, plastic pools, hose, tubs – you name it, all the accoutrements of the average suburban garden.  Further, he had hailed from Sydney’s west where the evidently proud owners of riverfront homes have made many an aesthetic decision on the elaborate tiling of their sweeping driveways.  The difference is that in respect of suburban aesthetics, Schwensen composed his own more hyperbolic version, creating readymades which would never actually live anywhere outside an installation space.

Wisser is more quietly appreciative, more in Heidegger’s school of  “letting be”, leaving the elements alone to explain themselves from within Wisser’s interrogating frames.  It is as if Wisser cannot help himself: look at this.  Why?  Why this?

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Jenny Brown’s Wink

Jenny Brown’s Wink was a low-key installation of a series of portrait photographs installed on a retro pegboard stand at the front of one of our windows.  There was nothing remarkable about them, a number of snaps or headshots, but then something caught your eye.  They were all winking.

It’s that wink that catches your eye, addressing you, automatically making a connection in a flash of recognition.  It’s hard to wall past a wink without taking a second glance, without wondering whom the wink is addressing.  Who or what is being winked at? Me?  Some object beyond me?  Something addressed outside of the photograph’s frame?  And why are they all winking together?

A wink is simple, and yet complex.  We all think we know what a wink is.  A signal.

A kind of secret accord. Directed, discreet.  Something you do if you don’t want to draw too much attention.  You might wink at somebody across a room, not wishing to disturb the conversations you or they might already be in.  You might wink at someone in the street, when, after making eye contact, you want to acknowledge her or him, without drawing attention.  In some cultures it’s a kind of flirting, the furtive wink of a guy addressing a girl on the street, the wink so fast, delivered just as she is passing, and disappearing as quickly.  It maybe the wink of a friend across the room, a kind of hello, or a signal for an in-joke, sign that some other third person’s leg is being pulled and not to give the game away.  The wink covers all of these things.

Even if you’re not sure it’s directed at you, you know what a wink is, a kind of complicity or understanding, an anticipated mutuality.

So you’re not sure of that person winking was winking at you? Or the person behind?  Do you even know the winker?  Nonetheless, you acknowledge the laws of the wink, in that it, like a letter, has an addressee.  Winking is a kind of messaging.  It may be So, you’re walking down the street of the little country town of Kandos, and there’s a wink in the window.  A whole series of winking people.  You have to ask who or what they are winking at, and guess at what is behind the wink, what complicity.

Who are these winkers and why have they been set up to address those who pass down the street?  The images themselves offer no obvious clues.  Just a bunch of headshots, of males and females winking, of a range of ages from around thirty to fifty.  In a recent exhibition of this series at a Sydney gallery, Jenny Brown attached an explanatory note: indigenous curator, Djon Mundine, had approached Cockatoo Island with the idea of an indigenous arts festival.  Privately he had joked it could just be him, alone on the island, winking at the passers-by.

Sending himself with this gentle irony, he imagines himself as the exhibit, winking to draw attention to himself as an artwork, a minimalist performance intervention.  He’s saying that you don’t have to do much to set up the conditions of the performative; a single gesture will suffice to mark a difference between nothing and something, between something happening, an event, and nothing happening at all.  It is as if hje is suggesting that the minimal condition of difference, of distinction, between just standing there and performing/exhibiting is the exchange with an audience, the passing of minimal meaning, I am addressing you.

Jenny Brown has implicitly run with this idea as the minimum condition of photography, as of art.  As Lacan remarked in respect of what we recognize as amongst the earliest art, the religious icon, its gaze was to attract the attention of God.  The eyes of the icon, in simply looking out, were an act of solicitation – one regard seeking to meet the regard of another, in this case the highest of others, in the form of the diety. The icon could also, however, have been seeking the returning gaze of the worshipper.  It could be said of all painting that they solicit the gaze- they are there to be looked at – but that the portrait, more than a landscape or a still live, explicitly solicits a return gaze.

More so the wink.  It’s out to catch your attention, if only to foreground the function of art, of the photograph, to solicit your gaze, to make you stop and look.  Brown then multiplies her solicitors.  All winking, and why?  You look for differences and similarity, for what links these winkers.

Borrowing from Djon Mundine’s story Brown went to a signifcant opening at Blacktown Regional Gallery celebrating Blacktown’s indigenous heritage.  It used to be called Blackstown.  She set about asking the indigenous artists she knew to wink for her at the camera.  There you had it, a portrait of contemporary indigenous Australia.  You might not recognise everyone, but Djon Mundine with his dreadlocks was instantly identifiable, as was Adam Hill in his pork pie hat.  After scanning the faces you began to surmise that maybe this was the premise – letting you in on the secret, that, yes, we are all indigenous, thought we all might not present as particularly indigenous, but are indigenous by association.

In that collective wink, Brown was assembling a portrait of contemporary indigenous Australia, giving them a shared mutuality, and a status of being in the know.  We might not be sure about what exactly, exactly what this status or this thing is, except that they all share it, and that they are open to sharing.  To giving us the nod, in the wink, so to speak.

What’s important is the return of their gaze, their collective acknowledgement of us.  Initially, they were performing for Brown, giving her a wink of acknowledgement, or acceptance.  Now they are winking at us, the average, everyday passer-by.

In terms of indigenous-Australian relations, it’s a significant gesture.  Like Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Day, it’s about indigenous Australians calling the shots, giving whitey a place, acknowleging back.  After the pain and damage of the assimilationist policy, after the shame of the Stolen Generations, after’s Rudd’s long overdue apology, an apology globally distributed through the opening sequences of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, Perkin’s Bran Nue Day with its message of everyone becoming-Aboriginal signalled a major shift.  An apology from whitey is but half the equation.  An apology has need of acceptance and return, and this is what Bran Nue Dae did, it offered regular, ordinary, average Australians of all kinds to be accepted, and implicitly forgiven, by the Aboriginal community.

Wink, even though it is photographed by Brown, of non-indigenous heritage, recreates a similar gesture, one which, even though it is fantasmatic, imagined by her as from the point of view of psychoanalysis’s ‘other’, in this case Indigenous Australia, it is giving her, and us passers-by, a place of acceptance.

In accepting the wink, as being directed at me, there’s a kind of implicit acceptance by me of the other, and of the other’s acceptance of me.  Like Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae it’s a healing and sustaining fantasy.  Zizek, as a Lacanian theorist of politics, might read it as a fantasy of national healing.

The installation of Wink at Kandos took on a particular historical significance.  Kandos sits at the cusp of the Capertee and Cudgedong valleys.  Glen Davis, deep in the Capertee Valley where the escarpment rises up to form a steep natural enclosure was one of worst of Australia’s shameful massacre sites of indigenous Australians.  The entire valley area, including the Wollemi forest, is rich in indigenous cultural remains, but in that particular valley the massacre was so terrible that very few indigenous Australians survived.  Given that dreadful history, Wink was displayed in a town with very little indigenous presence, compared to nearby Mudgee or Lithgow.  The exhibition, though a staged fantasy, was a way of returning a very real indigenous presence of many of Australia’s most significant artists.

What proved most interesting, and gratifying, were the responses from passers by who felt they just had to make an enquiry at the gallery.  Were they indigenous Australians?  Was that so and so?  People began to recognise friends or friends and relatives or relatives, indigenous Australia standing strong, and winking back from their own ground.  Brown’s reconciliation gesture resonates with Bindi Cole’s “I Forgive You”, recently spelled out large in emu feathers on the walls of Brisbane’s GOMA.

Brown’s work might be a construct, set up from the perspective of the other, according to the Lacanian insight that what we most want is recognition from the other.  But isn’t it something that we all, as a nation, want?  To be forgiven, to be accepted, to be on the inside of that knowing wink, one of them, as they of us.


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virginia hilyard and sue pedley – home garden

The leaves say it all.  Brown by daylight, swept and composed by the formal contours of the shopfront windows, they lie in a heap of ordinariness; by night transformed green in a topsy-turvy recomposition of garden elements.  Night is green and day is brown. It is as if the colour green has been peeled lamella-thin from the garden’s constituent elements, from photosynthesis and other daylight roles, itself becoming a component in a composition.

Home Garden is what it says it is – a home garden – only one that is fractured, displaced and broken down to elemental parts which are then reassembled across the storefront windows.  Leaves, rose petals, mirrors and the colour green make up its composite parts,  as do space and volume.  Like a series of crazy puns or a commentary on the extremes of landscape architecture, the home garden is shaped, pummeled, transformed in gestures of radical excess, matched only by the vapour cooking of the famed Spanish restaurant, El Bulli, all infusions and intensifications of the original matter of foodstuffs.

If El Bulli could seemingly distill a cocktail into its essence, by infusing it into sticks of sugar cane, or encase intense olive tasting liquid inside oval gelatin spheres to create olives more intense than the real thing (doing a similar thing with peanuts, replacing what is interior to its shell with an intensified peanut filling), then something akin to this culinary transference of ethers and essences is taking place in the green glow of Home Garden’s night sky, achieved by covering the window fluoros with vivid green transparencies.  It is as if green, the colour, an attribute of things, had itself materialized as a kind of molecular suffusion, become a gas. A cheap trick, for sure, but working all the better for the lack of pretension.

Home Garden also takes architectural space and volume and submits them to the equally ethereal carnival tricks of mirror play.   A corner of the world borrowed from over the other side of the street protrudes into the wall, extending the space into where there is none.  In a pair of facing windows one part of the viewer’s body is cut off at the knees only for ‘below-the-knees’ to appear reflected in the opposite window.  Teenagers and entire families have been spotted engaging.

It’s the kind of play encountered in Luna Park’s Coney Island, in the closed circuits of an entertainment park, not mixing it up in the street.  This is why it usually takes a while for the average passer by to figure it out.  I’ve seen teenagers sitting on our front step, eating their take-aways, then begin to horse around with the mirrors in the way that teenagers are not too self-conscious to do. Encouraged by their mates they play around more and then they begin to see that the mirrors are not just randomly placed, that tricks have been designed to happen, and then only at certain angles.  In an art gallery patrons would experiment, trying to figure out why this prosaic looking stuff was a work, but in the street habits are a little different and it takes a more curious idler to work out how to engage.

You don’t expect this in the main street, and not all the mirrors work a ‘magic’.  Only by trial and error in exploring the work do you twig (excuse pun) that more is going on here than filling  the storefront windows with petals and leaves.  Indeed the work only really activates at night when you realise that that crazy green light is a peel, part of the overall decomposition of what makes up a regular garden.  The leaves, prosaically brown, and everyday, themselves begin to look torn apart and decomposed through the conversation with the rose petals, which are none other than torn up flowers.  As if  by the contagion of analogy, the leaves begin to resignify like torn up trees, and the colour green ripped from the leaves by autumn, resignifies, suffused as an atmosphere by night.

The more time you spend noticing, looking attentively while thinking, the more this odd collection of ordinary stuff with the weird green light begins to resemble a playful poetic assemblage in which everything, the space, light, location, colour, the trees, flowers, even the passers by who stop to engage,  have been cut up, displaced.

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fiona davies – blood on silk

Shrouds of hand-beaten tapa-like silk perform a funerary role in this homage to the artist’s late father

This proved to be one of our more unpopular but highly successful shows in terms of the strong negative reactions the work produced.  The comments of passers by were regularly peppered with expressions like “creeps me out” as people responded on a visceral level to what was intuitively a set of shrouds.  The hand-beaten silk tapa had an uneven ragged and even spidery texture, especially around the edges.  This was suggestive of age, of even a world weariness, a fraying, which, when coupled with the weblike association, called to mind the creepy crawlies which invade places of abandon and the tomb.

Given the shape of the windows, the hanging of the silk tapa cloths effectively created a set of draped coffins.  Also you couldn’t see through the tapa cloth, except at the bottom, and only the bare, wooden boards of floor were visible.  This created a spooky effect of dread, of an absent presence behind the shrouds, shockingly in the bright light of day.  Funereal trappings were thus, by suggestion, displaced from more venerable or hallowed settings like the cemetery or the funeral service, creating a psychic disjuncture, a sense that things were not where they should be, a suggestion of death ostensibly in broad daylight, in the middle of a shopping precinct between the bakers and the newsagents, even though nothing specific was there to be seen.

The texture of the cloth was sufficient to signal that what was covered up was an absence that was somehow obscene, that should belong elsewhere in another location, in another recess of the mind, not mixed in with the shopping, with a meat pie for lunch or a ticket in Powerball.

Yet, the frayed edges of the cloth were also wispy, cloudlike, suggestive of heaven against the framing of the blue tiles of the shops.  A lot of people walked fast, unusually not liking to linger but making a deliberate show of averting their eyes.  Maybe this was out of an intuitive, deep seated habit, produced by the unconscious not wanting to admit what it didn’t want to be reminded of – of passing, of stories of angelic choirs and hosts.  Only one window permitted a view into what was behind the cloth and that revealed a stainless steel hospital gurney on which was placed a rectangle the size of a 1960s laundry box, the kind that half a dozen pressed shirts used to be delivered in.  This rectangle was covered in white cloth on which fuschia-coloured blood cells had been enlarged.  This was effectively a lightbox which glowed more dramatically at night and recalled the hospital, the emergency room and even intensive care, the hovering of life.

This last window was most definitely on the side of life, however fragile.  The bright red blood was vivid, blooming like so many flowers, joyous even, like the pattern on a 1950s sundress, against the reminder of the coldness of hospital stainless steel.

The artists in the town and adjoining Rylstone reviewed this work most favourably, appreciating the artistry that went into the making of the cloth as a kind of dedication, a funereal offering from a daughter to a father.  The fine tanglings of the silk skeins are wild and unpredictable, in the tradition of abstract expressionist painting,  but released from the frame to hang freely and do double duty as installation, as shroud and curtain.  It takes a certain training to spot the art references, the layerings in this work of mourning.  The intervention of the hospital, mediating between life and death in the lives of many in our aging population, inserts a contemporary commentary on the metaphysical aspects of dying, and the triangulation of medical profession with the meeting of one’s maker.  Maybe it was the  reminder of the hospital gurney in conjunction with the clouds/shroud/curtains which spooked the passers by.

Representation of death doesn’t belong in the bustle of the street, nor does the hospital bed.  Even though the installation elements were pristine, the blood almost pretty, the textures of the silk tapas beautiful, aestheticized, the sense of what you don’t want to be reminded of, much less to know, still seeped out.  The unconscious was innocuously out in the street in a hue of wisps of whites and blue.  Borders not usually breached were suddenly permeable.

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main street – same spot – looking up

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liz day – weed vitrine

handmade paper thistles and shopbought plastics


Weed Vitrine Liz Day

This project plays on habits of shopping and display and consisted of a window jammed full of flowers of the plastic extruded variety and delicate hand-crafted paper replicas of Scottish thistles.  In an Australian context all were imported flora and, from an ecological standpoint, could be regarded as weeds.  Day had collected as many different kinds of flora as she could find replicated in plastic, rather than more up market replicas in silk.  Plastic has a certain industrial, mass market cheapness which says ‘buy me’ in a way that more up market replications do not.  The aim was for a riot of profusion and robustness, the cheaper plastic flowers literally proliferating like weeds in the broader social landscape of more refined décor.  The plastic flowers screamed commerce and exchange value while the contrast to the hand-made thistles drew attention to processes of making and craft, in the manner of Heidegger’s techne, smaller acts of making in contrast to mass production and mass spread.

An implicit low key gag running through the display was the tendency of thistles, the well-known weed and accidental import with the nasty spikes, to spread.  Mixing the thistles with flora ostensibly representing European cultivation – the various roses, daisies, orchids and other recognizable garden and florist shop flowers, in the absence of any natives – invariably signaled a shift in signification to weed. Roses might be prettier, and as thorny, and less contaminatory (less tendency to spread) but are, in the native context, a variety of import, or weed. As the saying goes, a flower in the wrong place is a weed.

As such Day was questioning history, provenance, colonization, ecology and the market economy through the Hallmark greeting card sentiment of the language of flowers.  Indeed what were her flowers saying?  Aesthetically gorgeous, a riot of abundance and colour, the project semi-mimicked the flower shop just sufficiently for people to hover until the shopfront door opened with the ambition to purchase, to appreciate, spread and proliferate the contagion of taste and style.  The flowers, as replicas, were both real and unreal, the real thing and a representation, in the way that plastic flowers as objects in themselves literally are as much their own thing as a natural flower.

Mixing it up with the nastier, through still pretty, purple flower of the thistle, Day was drawing attention to the power of circulation of the English style, and our various preferences for colonization through the imposition of style and taste, of unconscious, unthinking adherence to Englishness, a flicking the bird to the local.  Cheekily, the Scottish thistle, a bane to local gardeners and farmers in Kandos, was the only fine-craft object, carefully handmade and signifying ‘art object’, while the roses, though attractive, were rubbishy plastic knock-offs.  Day had inverted the style and taste hierarchies of value, making us question why we value what and where, and to reflect on contagions of place.

The work also drew on associations with local architectural imports, recalling the famous flower shop scene in Hitchcok’s Vertigo.  Kandos might not be as hilly as San Francisco but it does have considerable hills and a prominent museum in Spanish Mission style, complete with bell tower, that could have come straight out of Hitchock’s film.  What historical processes brought Californian Spanish Mission style, and its nuns, to the Mudgee region?  Through the metaphor of commerce, in the imaginary circulation of cut flowers, Day connects to the shops’ own history and that of the town as represented through its architecture.  Further, through making use of the shop as shop, in the jumble of a not quite florist’s installation, she is creating a permeable relationship with the town, in her flirtations with the desire to purchase.

One young man was wanting to buy some of the flowers for his girlfriend, as if recognizing some other quality to this display than the more readily available plastic flowers for sale in the nearby supermarket.  (Day had chosen anything more weedlike and unusual and added this to her mix.)  While the young man would never give supermarket plastic flowers to his girlfriend, but could give her the real thing, there was something very different in the status of Day’s display that signaled something giftworthy and beautiful.  There was thus a more permeable quality to this project, an ambiguity that placed it ostensibly in the everyday of shopping and more personal acts of gifting that were outside ‘art’ and yet pertained of its qualities.

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our gums – mistletoe

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main street – looking down

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