When I was studying tavernology at UWA back in the 80s the place didn’t have a fine arts department. No, sirree. UWA was where MEN went to do engineering or chemistry, or perhaps medicine if they were a bit effeminate. It was a blokes’ uni back then, sharply evidenced by the controversy that ensued when a woman had the temerity to enroll to do engineering.
With no art student chicks around, things at UWA were pretty dire for a young man on the make. Luckily for me, however, my sister was doing fine arts at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) at the time, so I hung out with her crowd who were a hell of a lot groovier than the UWA squares. Actually, “edgier” may be a better description of that bunch; substance abuse and mental health problems being two of their defining characteristics.
And the art? Back in those days, for fine art to really be fine art, it had to include nudity, dead animals, bodily fluids, an element of self-harm – or preferably, all four together.
Little wonder then that I was ready to put on my rain-coat for the recent UWA fine arts graduate exhibition. But as it turned out, such protective clothing was unnecessary, as edginess was completely absent from this show.
The first sign that the zeitgeist of fine arts study had changed irrevocably over the last twenty years was that the (free) bar still had booze to serve a FULL HOUR after the show opened (even more incredibly, they STILL had booze left when I departed TWO hours later!)! Not only was booze consumption shockingly down, there was no smell of cannabis in the air. And even more incredibly, it looked like the students had washed their hair and none of them were smoking roll-up Champion Ruby cigarettes. No one was vomiting! What had happened to the proud and noble (and some would say vitally important) tradition of the fucked-up artist?
With such a tame bunch, it was pretty hard to find any element of danger in the show, but thanks to the innovative placement of her metal rod sculptures, Jenna Sanders’ pieces were inflicting some nice scrapes and rips on the legs of unsuspecting visitors. No doubt the med students over the road were doing a brisk trade in tetanus boosters.
The only other hint of menace I managed to identify was in Patrick Quick’s interactive video pieces. The danger coming not from the works themselves (which involved doing some tricky video processing stuff with perspective), but from the headache-inducing explanatory notes that accompanied them. “Is it art if it takes three pages of notes and diagrams to explain it?” I asked a woman who was gawking alongside me. “Maybe the notes ARE the art,” she replied. Touche, madam!
Easier on the brain were Jenii Scott’s two pieces made out of old VHS video tape. She had knitted a sweater which I would venture was the only piece of clothing made from non-fabric that I ever wanted to put on. It left me with the nagging question of what was on those tapes that she had used to construct the jumper.
I wasn’t crazy about the train of video reels attached to the jumper but I’m not sure such fickle fashion questions are relevant in the context of such a beautiful analogue media garment.
The night also featured live music from a couple of bands, most notably five guys who call themselves Apricot Rail. These fellows churned out a fine blend of instrumental post-rock in the mold of Mogwai with the lovely lilting nuances that The Dirty Three are renowned for. Delightful stuff and well worth checking out.
While the band noodled away with their glockenspiels on the outside lawn, Jane Kagi noodled away next to them with some liquid-mixing that was projected onto one of the building’s walls. Aha! This was more like it. Finally, some fine art that feels like fine art; a vaguely hallucinogenic lava-lamp bubble type of colour effect accompanied by the melodious sonic meanderings of Apricot Rail. Fack, who’s got the acid, man?
Projection also featured in Anna Cocks’ piece “Earth Installation,” the most interesting work in the show. Anna covered the four walls of a room with a single heavily processed and posterized girly pin-up image which was printed on a multitude of A4 sheets and then wallpapered around the room. The floor was covered with leaves and worm castings (no idea, sorry) and broken glass was arranged in the center.
There was also a performance element to the piece where Anna sprinkled some powder and liquid on an overhead projector to variously illuminate the imagery on the walls. I hit Anna with some probing questions after the ecstatic applause from the audience had died down. “Was there a feminist motif in her choice of imagery?” “No,” she said. “What were all the leaves on the floor about?” I asked. “They’re to provide a boundary,” Anna carefully explained. Right, well that’s cleared up that then.
Call me old-fashioned, but this, to me, is really what fine art is all about. It may not have had nudity, dead animals or bodily fluids, but it was high concept with a bafflingly incomprehensible aesthetic quality. Encouragingly for the future, Anna has teamed up with a couple of other UWA students to form the Inter collective. I thought collectives were passé in the art world but I guess such retro stuff is becoming cool again, or then again, maybe it’s a post-collective. Whatever, but bring it on anyway. We need ’em more than ever in this soulless town. Now, if they can just get their drug intake up and their pants down we may well have a genuine home-grown arts movement in this town.