After attending Welcome to Bob, I found I was perplexed by a variety of issues; from my staid perception of what an exhibition ‘should’ be, to whether contemporary art should be accountable for the statements it inadvertently makes about society.
The exhibition was a refreshing change from the usual severe, regimented exhibitions we get in Perth; serious art presented with an expectation of awed appreciation. Welcome to Bob is more of a mini festival, a grab bag of quirky cool fun.
The first artwork to greet us was Sally Stewart’s installation of a giant gaudy aquarium, complete with the artist as a mermaid. A subtle departure from Stewart’s giant kitsch snow-domes from the recent Ummm... the Articulate Practitioner exhibition, Stewart had encapsulated herself within the glass prison cell. The artwork is a visual spectacle indeed, a striking blonde mermaid with the manner of a rather haughty socialite, obviously intrigued by the odd creatures who gape into her faux marine wonderland. For me the success of Sally Stewart’s installation lays not simply in the grand scale and visual immediacy of the work, but in the discomfort I felt when I realised that we the audience were obviously the specimens under scrutiny by the inhabitant of the tank, and not the other way around. I do not know whether it was the artist’s intention but Stewart’s artwork spoke strongly to me about social hierarchies and the perceptual contexts we inadvertently find ourselves in. Stewart’s mermaid unquestioningly knows her place and is only distressed when the world outside her biosphere comes too close for comfort; a clever analogy for many contemporary Australian attitudes to the modern world.
Next was Nathan Steven’s installation, an old blue hatchback car with Astroturf in the boot. The car looked as though it had been freshly abandoned in the centre of the gallery floor, its doors slung open and the crackling car radio still hissing away inside. Once again a work of art that challenges with its ambiguity and its immediacy. I didn’t understand it, but unlike many other exhibitions I’ve attended, this time I wanted to. It was only after the radio in the car started talking to me and referring to me by name that I realised that the artist was in a booth behind me, inside what was ostensibly a Pirate Radio studio. His car abandoned, he had stolen the airwaves and was blasting out an eclectic mix of opinion, conversation and musical requests. The engaging part of Steven’s pirate radio work is that ironically when the deed is done and the airways are stolen... what does one say?! In a culture where everything has been offered to us on a platter by mass media and consumerism, the difficulty lays not in the ‘crime’ of communicating illegally, but finding anything vitally new or relevant to communicate at all.
Further into the gallery I found the world of the Joneses, the artwork of Anna and Korin Gath, this dynamic married pair of artists are well known on the Perth art scene and for good reason. Their montage of domestic life is thoroughly engaging and familiar. Perhaps too familiar. I found myself surrounded by images of family and domestic detritus. The warm beige and burnt orange nostalgia of the seventies mixed with framed crisp posed photos we recognise when visiting someone’s grandmother. There were images of Seventies Joneses, Eighties Joneses, even Bogan flannelette Joneses replete with a mullet sporting baby. On top of all these visual signifiers was the unmistakable aroma of the good old Aussie Lamb on a spit wafting in from outside where Mr. Jones clad in singlet and shorts manned his Barbeque. Meanwhile, inside, the impeccably dressed Mrs. Jones served aperitifs to the gathered guests. The Gath’s invitation to wander through their world of chintz duvets and anodised sugar containers is initially comforting and may well conjure memories of a bygone era. But I definitely got the feeling that under this chiffon veil of surburban nostalgia the artists were having a laugh at the audience’s expense. There was a not so gentle ridiculing of the sort of people portrayed in the photos, each of them caricatured by the Gaths themselves. A tongue in cheek, faux portrait of Australian life that seems to whisper “Oh, thank god this isn’t our life!” Anna and Korin Gath have presented us with a cracked mirror into which we can uncomfortably gaze upon our uncool lives and examine our own innate suburban prejudices. This is a successful work on the part of the artists as it is not easily consumed, it is a bitter little sugar coated pill indeed.
I highly recommend that Gallery goers take the time to visit Welcome to Bob, if only to see how an exhibition can be developed to engage with the audience rather than delegating them their rightful place. The work on show is at once grand, exciting, visually pleasing and at the same time confronting, unsettling and pertinent.
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