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troublemag | September 17, 2019

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Melburnin by Inga Walton

Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest public art gallery. Many of its significant and diverse holdings are due, in part, to the greatest benefactor in Australia’s visual arts history, Alfred Felton (1831-1904). The residue of his estate, £378,033 (a massive sum in today’s terms), was put into a trust that has allowed the Felton Bequest to purchase more than 15,000 artworks (1904-2013) for the NGV with a current value of approximately $2 billion.

The latest work acquired through the generosity and civic-mindedness of Alfred Felton went on display mid-last month, and will remain for a short duration throughout May. Situated in the foyer, PixCell-Red Deer (2012) by Kohei Nawa, is already attracting enthusiastic admirers. Its luminous surface has a compelling movement and energy as it twinkles and dances in the light, interacting with the motion of the famous waterwall. Nawa, one of Japan’s most significant young artists, is an Associate Professor at Kyoto University of Arts and Design. The Deer is one of his ‘Beads’ works (commenced in 2000), one of two groups in the ‘PixCell’ series (2002-), the other being ‘Prism’. Nawa uses technology to facilitate his artistic choices, “I use the internet to collect objects for both groups. I enter keywords into some auction sites on the internet, and receive many pictures by e-mail every morning that are automatically selected using the keyword Alert function. I set up this system of using keywords to receive pictures some years ago, I chose the objects for both the … works in the PixCell series from the pictures”. Nawa also uses the internet to source many of the taxidermied animals and other items which form the basis of his visual follies.

Nawa initially focussed on pale abstract shapes covered with transparent glass beads before expanding the concept to stuffed animals, faux fruit, toys, musical instruments and other common items, varying the size and variety of the beads as the works progressed. He uses easily identifiable shapes and images, iconic objects that are already in people’s consciousness, “My condition for the selection of objects, or motifs, is to choose something that is widely pervasive as information, or as a visual image, so that people can see what it is immediately”, Nawa says. “The most significant thing for me is rather how our brain will respond to the sense, texture, and impression we receive from the use of beads as a medium and the prism as a visual and optical effect”.

The outer layer formed by the glass beads suggests a molecular structure, and also references the pixel of the computer screen, or digital image. This barrier causes the surface of the object to be replaced with what Nawa refers to as a “husk of light”, a distancing of reality. The myriad beads magnify the object in some areas and distort it in others, shifting our perception and questioning how we come to understand and process what we see. “By covering the objects with beads, we are not able to see them directly, and only see them through lenses, like a camera, and we only see the surface of things through the lens. At the same time, we are not able to touch them, this means that there is always a distance because there are beads between our hands and the [object]”, Nawa explains. “I think it is easier for people to engage with my work when it has an object inside it. They can question whether the things people regard as images, or the things people use as products, are really images or materials. By raising such questions, I want to consider how human senses operate, as well as the nature of being human”.

• National Gallery of Victoria (International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, 3004
– www.ngv.vic.gov.au

• Artist site – www.kohei-nawa.net

A selection of thirty-three works from amongst the fifty-three finalists in the 61st Blake Prize: Exploring the Religious and Spiritual in Art 2012 is at the Jewish Museum of Australia (until 28 July, 2013). The Blake Prize was instigated in 1951 by Jesuit priest, Reverend Michael Scott, and Jewish immigrant, lawyer and artist, Richard Morley. Together, they hoped the establishment of the prize would encourage artists of disparate styles and religious allegiances to create significant works of art with religious content. Previous winners include the likes of Donald Friend (1955), John Coburn (1960, 1977), Leonard French (1963, 1980), Asher Bilu (1965), Ken Whisson (1974), John Davis (1993), and Euan Macleod (2006).

As a response to our increasingly secular and disillusioned culture, in the last decade the prize has shifted its focus in an attempt to appear more relevant to contemporary audiences, and receptive towards the issues artists are interested in. It has become more inclusive towards non-denominational religious expression, the somewhat nebulous areas of spirituality and mysticism, and works which deal more broadly with social justice and political issues. Some of these diversions are reflected in newer, subsidiary awards: the John Coburn Emerging Artist Award (introduced in 2007), the Poetry Prize (introduced in 2008) and the MUA Prize for Human Justice (introduced in 2009). In addition to the joint winners for 2012, four works were Highly Commended by the judging panel of three, including two new media works. Depart Without Return (2011) by Shoufay Derz (who won in 2003) uses the life cycle of silk moths to reflect on the transience of life and celebrate its mystery. Janet Laurence’s Grace (2012) projects close-up footage of elephants, viewed through gauze, to ponder the interconnection of all living things, and to call for respect and care for all life.

Also Highly Commended was Hope (2012), a joint work by Sue Saxon and Jane Becker. It uses a simple string of fairy lights housed within eggshells to spell the word out across the wall, which then tapers down to a tangle on the floor. This approach emphasises both the fragility of the concept, but also its capacity to illuminate darkness. Of the sculptural works, certainly the most unusual is Sherna Teperson’s At once both heaven and earth (2012) made from carved ciabatta bread. Atop a pillar, what appears to be the Lamb of God is prevented from making its ascent to heaven by a tethering rope, keeping it earth-bound; the medium a literal reference to the Last Supper and the Communion wafer. For Attendant (After Schongauer) (2012) Caroline Rothwell takes as her inspiration a Gothic-style engraving by Martin Schongauer (c. 1448-91) depicting the suffering of the ‘Father of Monasticism’ St. Anthony (c. 251–356) in the wilderness of the Libyan desert. This fierce bronze work depicts one of the nine demons who tormented the saint, and is by far the most visceral and uncompromising of the finalists. Rothwell engages not only with the traditions of Christian art, but with the hagiography of St. Anthony written by St. Athanasius I of Alexandria.

Danie Mellor’s Bulluru Storywater (2012) draws upon a Mamu/Ngagen creation story from the rainforest area of Northern Queensland. The ancestor Budaadji, in his role as a shell trader, is attacked by mythical birdmen on his journey from the ocean to the Atherton Tablelands, and his body is scattered in the bush. The central monochromatic work shows the skull of Budaadji dominating the forest with tiny flashes of colour for the birds and a snake in the trees. Mounted on the wall surrounding it, intricate arrangements of shells form words relating to the story. Positioned on the gallery floor, Fasces (2011) by Heather B. Swann shows twelve doves bearing olive branches, symbolic of the Apostles, with the intimidating presence of an axe resting against the wall. A fasces was a bound ceremonial bundle of rods with a projecting axe-blade, symbolising the power and jurisdiction of a consul or magistrate. In the Roman Republic the fasces lictoriae was borne by a lictor, a special class of office-bearer who accompanied those who held imperium, judicial powers that included capital punishment. Perhaps Swann is alluding to the fifth Prefect of Judæa, Pontius Pilatus, and his ambiguous role in the trial of Jesus: the axe stands apart from the doves, “I find in him no fault at all” (John; 18:38).

The exhibition continues to Cessnock Regional Gallery, NSW, 18 August – 29 September, 2013.

• Jewish Museum of Australia- Gandal Centre of Judaica, 26 Alma Road, St. Kilda, Victoria, 3182 –www.jewishmuseum.com.au

• Official site – www.blakeprize.com

> It’s the last chance to see over twenty new works, presented as a series of glass tableaux, in the touring exhibition Nick Mount- The Fabric of Work (until 12 May, 2013) at Geelong Gallery. Mount is one of Australia’s most accomplished and celebrated studio glass artists who has been at the forefront of innovation since the early 1970s. In 2012, he was named the seventh recipient of the Object Living Treasure Award. Since its inception in 2005, the Award celebrates the achievements of Australia’s most iconic and influential crafts practitioners and promotes the work of Australian artists whose exemplary artistic skills have been recognised by their peers.

Mount’s work references his fascination with the flamboyant and intricate Venetian style of glass making, which captivated Europe with its refinement and opulence from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. Master artisans, principally on the island of Murano, pioneered a type of de-colorised glass called cristallo, and another, calcedonio, which imitated the variegated semi-precious stone chalcedony (often used for intaglios or cameo portraits). Combined with their expert use of gilding and enamel work applied to the vessel, dip molds, the use of zanfirico, ballotini and laticcino canework (coloured glass rods used to create stripe patterns), diamond-point engraving and the technique of assembling vessels from separate components with thin wafers of molten glass,Venetian work was unsurpassed for its artistry and complexity for hundreds of years.

Venetian artisans use special tools including borselle (tongs to hand-form the red-hot glass); canna da soffio (a blowing pipe); pontello (an iron rod that helps with adding the finishing touches); tagianti (glass-cutting clippers), and scagno (a work bench). Mount employs variations on these implements in his own studio; his esteem for traditional practices and manual skills honed by experience is an important part of his artistic philosophy, a point underlined by the exhibition’s subtitle. “I identify as a maker and believe ‘work’ is fundamental in the development of identity. This principle extends well beyond those of us [who] call ourselves ‘craftspeople’ and, for me, the fabric of our community is, to a large extent, determined by the work we do with our hands”, he stresses.

Unusually for an exhibition of this nature, the works have been installed on plinths, or wall-mounted, completely unimpeded by distracting housings or reflective display cases. This allows the viewer the opportunity to fully engage with these fluted, filigreed and curvilinear vessels with their linked wood or metal components, and to appreciate the subtle nuances of surface polish, decoration and sculptural gesture Mount has achieved. In collaboration with the Gallery’s Director, Geoffrey Edwards, and Curator, Lisa Sullivan, Mount selected nine still-life paintings and prints from the permanent collection to complement the installation, including works by Jeffrey Smart, Agnes Goodsir (1864-1939), Harley C. Griffiths (1908-81) and A.D Colquhoun (1894-1983).

• Geelong Gallery, Little Mallop Street, Geelong, Victoria, 3220 – www.geelonggallery.org.au
• Artist site – www.nickmountglass.com.au

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