Footloose & fancy free

Published in Australian Art Collector, Issue 58, October – December 2011

For the first time, this year’s annual Primavera exhibition has broken free of the gallery, presenting curator Anna Davis with the chance to showcase young artists working in performance and public art, reports Jane O’Sullivan.

This year Primavera, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s young artist exhibition, is something of a homeless beast. The museum’s own gallery spaces were off limits because of the construction work for the new MCA wing. One option could have been to find a host gallery – as was the case with the MCA’s Tell me tell me exhibition earlier this year, staged at the National Art School – but curator Anna Davis thought there were more interesting avenues to explore.

She had been seeing an “upswell of practices that are site-responsive, performance based [and] quite makeshift provisional works outside of the gallery,” prompting her to consider taking Primavera outside. “The thought of actually being able to go into your own neighbourhood and to actually break free of the museum walls, that was something that really interested me.”

The result is gleefully inchoate. Artworks are scattered throughout The Rocks, all one or two blocks from the MCA’s George Street entrance. Some of the works are hidden above eyeline, tucked on top of phone booths or shop awnings. Others are a little more eye-catching, like Keg de Souza’s giant inflatable geodesic dome, scrappily sewn together out of discarded umbrella skins, which holds court in a George Street shopfront. “It’s a diverse selection of artists,” concedes Davis, “but they can be linked by the way they have created work in and for the public sphere. They’ve all got these practices where they take their works out onto the streets, or interact with the public in different ways.”

There are several collaborations so while there are eight names there are actually 14 artists involved in this year’s Primavera. They have responded to The Rocks in different ways, and perhaps most humorously by Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward. Working with their team of helpers, who they call the Parachutes for Ladies, they have looked at a previously unacknowledged displaced community in The Rocks – the MCA gallery attendant. One video work sees an army of black-clad helpers march up and down the old gallery stairwell. Another sees attendants broadcast announcements that Olivieri and Forward have written, the PA system eerily crackling into life inside the empty gallery spaces. “They’re talking about all these things that are no longer going on – ‘tours will not be happening at this time’ for instance. It’s quite evocative of emptiness and nothingness,” says Davis.

The collaborative group Brown Council (Kelly Doley, Frances Barrett, Diana Smith and Kate Blackmore) has picked up on the touristy character of The Rocks and its busking culture. For $5 you can have your photo taken with the artists, who are dressed in berets and crisp white shirts in a riff on Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Cindy Sherman. Another work that takes into account the odd mix of audiences in The Rocks is the restaging of Rebecca Baumann’s crowd-pleasing Confetti International. Accompanied by the hum of a portable generator, this low-tech confetti cannon spews sparkly foil into the air against a backdrop of boutique shops (and gallery attendants hovering with brooms).

Baumann has also contributed a more formal response to The Rocks. While other artists looked at time in terms of history, her Automated Monochrome looks at temporality and how we experience time. She has taken 96 flip-clocks and pasted over the numbers with craft paper in various shades of blue. “A lot of her work is about the relationship between colour and emotion,” explains Davis. “This one draws you into a hypnotic anticipation of when the next flip will be, while it’s also this constantly changing field of blue which I think is really reminiscent of all the ocean that surrounds us.”

Other inclusions have less obvious ties to performance. The Tasmanian artist Tom O’Hern is mainly known for his works on paper, so it’s a surprise to learn he’s also a street artist. “He often does street murals, both sanctioned and unsanctioned,” says Davis. “I’ve seen numerous of his street murals and was really struck by their bold dynamism. His works on paper are so fine, exquisite drawings, but really darkly humorous and then his works out on the street are even more so.” While the City of Sydney wasn’t about to sanction any of O’Hern’s murals, they did let him install some temporary ones on board. They are full of wild and woolly bearded men. “For him they represent a particular kind of defiance and individuality, and by putting these kind of overly hairy bearded men in public spaces, they’re sort of reminiscent of people who are often not welcome in public space,” she says.

Brisbane’s Eric Bridgeman is another to offer up a slightly darker response to The Rocks. “His new work Joey / Baby (don’t get crazy) is a satirical investigation of interracial conflict in rugby league football and broader Australian culture,” says Davis. “The Rocks has actually been the site for some highly publicised incidents between rugby league players and the public. He’s been quite inspired by that history [and] he’s made multiples that he’s going to be postering around The Rocks dressed as a very camp, football-loving builder’s labourer.” Bridgeman will be postering on Globe Street and on the MCA hoardings.

There is a traditional element to Primavera too, with a number of two-dimensional and video works on display in the historic Cleland Bond building – though cynics might see this part of the exhibition as just a nod to logistics. As Davis says, “one of the challenges for this kind of exhibition was to create something that is very ephemeral and perfomance-based but also that there’s something there for people to see all the time.”