It is always a pleasure to venture out to look at exhibitions and come across an exhibit that holds both visual presence and conceptual rigour. I recently came across such an exhibition at The Moore’s Building in Fremantle.
The space is one for hire, so exhibitions don’t tend to be up for an extended viewing period and that was the case with this exhibition. However the exhibition was certainly one worth discussing and the artist thus a name to remember for future consideration. Some images from the show have been posted by Armitstead on line and any interested reader can access these through the link http://www.softnoise.net/stephenarmitstead/
Stephen Armitstead’s upstairs exhibit can best be described as two installations where the ideas within each assisted engagement with the ideas in the other. Each installation was interactive and brought into play questions about visual and physical language. I use “play” to indicate the agreeable experience enjoyed by the viewer when moving the objects used in Familiar - or the shared performance of space, light and objects experienced when moving within Intelligence - as well as the conceptual nuances and discovery created by these interactions. Both installations explored themes of communication, particularly the understandings established between human consciousness and objects. What intrigued me about Armitstead’s work was his use of minimal props to evoke another kind of understanding; suggested but held back. This implicit yet not directly communicated meaning, generated that enigmatic presence held by all mature art.
Armitstead has training in several disciplines and these all came into play. Reading his biography indicates that Armitstead has been regularly exhibiting experimental art works since his undergraduate years in Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in the early 1990’s. In 1992 he co-founded, with Denis Beaubos, a group of artists called “Art’s Underground” who, as part of the Festival of Sydney, made site specific installations and held live performances in the underground St James Station. As will be discussed later Armitstead’s use of The Moore’s Building site and the mute presence of the objects led poignancy to the exhibit. Similarly his background in authoring and teaching elective units for the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts in the area of Visual Documentation, as well as a technical and teaching background in Multi-media, informed the detail and conceptual resonances of his work.
If this sounds too clinical then it is worth adding that it was the marrying of technical ability with a humanist approach based on philosophical questions about memory, family and the influence of objects in time and space that made this exhibition an art experience of national standard.
Familiar consisted of eight calico bags of sand suspended from the ceiling of three rooms and interconnected via a pulley system so that movement of one resulted in the shifting of the remainder. The bags had been dusted in graphite and were suspended against or above white sheets of paper (four against walls and four above the floor). Thus shifts in the weight of a bag resulted in marks being made in several locations. Interestingly the weight of the sand was equal to the net weight of the artist’s family, however this connection (hinted at by the title) was not essential to the idea of bodies and actions being interconnected across space.
Intelligence consisted of three photographic images of screens (a television, computer and a mobile phone). These mute and de-activated screens were animated by reflections from the room and from the world outside the room brought into the space by mirrors tied to wooden tripod like structures. These projections, like the smudged drawings produced by the bags in Familiar, were like the shadows on Plato’s cave, the ghost appearances of thwarted actions and attractions, the interconnected resonances of our desires, or the projections and reverberations from a world beyond our consciousness. Such objects and their ideas echoed with the material and transcendent art histories of much of modernism – particularly minimalism and early abstractionism.
I couldn’t help walking around the suspended bags without thinking about the environmental issues and issues of war currently facing humanity. These suspended bags of sand, some like limp stretched bodies and others like slung Christmas gift sacks, had a mute dignity and suffering all their own. Yet what happened to one happened to all. Some of what happened was recorded on the paper beneath or behind the bag as a mark like a tidal pattern in sand. However the weight distribution meant that the movement of some of the bags went unrecorded on their own sheet; it appeared as an echo on a sheet elsewhere.
Eventually one realized that the interconnections of the bags and the actions of the viewer affected the whole. A clouded and distorted drag mark in one room produced a cleaner and more compact mark in another. However I could only see the full impact of my lifting and swinging of bags by remembering and reviewing what was recorded. I was left asking, was my impact one of fragmentation and a failure to be whole, or was the knowledge of my impact the discovery of shared identity, integrity and a harmony of supportive movements? All I can conclude is that I found a systematic exposure of associations with no such thing as a predictable response within the mark making. Thus life, however mechanical, is nevertheless a creative sharing of unpredictable energies. Given today’s play of affairs, perhaps a timely warning.
Similarly the flickering light of Intelligence, as one peered into the glossy de-activated screens of the photographs, was generally evocative of concepts and feelings about ones own fragmentation, delusions and distorted perceptions induced by the experiences of technology. One could only make out what was on the photographs via reflected light. It was ironic that screens which usually light themselves up could not be turned on and were rendered sightless. Looking into their blank faces to see my own face made me realize that turned on these technologies usually blindfolded me to the world beyond their immediacy. Amidst the atmospheric reflections of light the world of technology was thrown against the world of ordinary appearances. I was left thinking that however we look at it, we are all a product of our sense perceptions and thus all serve their inherent nature. Intelligence was a nuanced and beautiful elaboration of the illusions of the information age and our frequent failure in seeing the beauty of our ordinary world.
In summary the artist’s minimal means, matched with objects chosen and placed for their symbolic depth, made the possible readings of his exhibit more fruitful and more enjoyable. It was a pleasant surprise to find such a cogent and poetic sensibility being practiced and shared.
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