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September 4, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Shadows and Whispers – 2×2 Contempory Projects.

This is the second time that I’ve written about an artist’s relationship to David Lynch this year. The first was a show at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, which included artist Terry Urbahn’s piece Twin Peaks (revisited). This work paid homage to David Lynch’s twisted sense of humour and his pastiche of sincerity and hokey mysticism. Similarly, artist Sriwhana Spong references Lynch’s sense of mystery, his acceptance of the unknown, and his rejection of conventional plot in her work Twin Oak Drive – which is now on show downstairs at the City Gallery.

In this video piece the camera drifts, seemingly without purpose, around a darkened back yard. Occasionally, the camera will fall upon assemblages of objects, collected and arranged in careful patterns on the ground. These are the most prosaic and familiar of objects. Bones, flowers, coke bottles, bananas, and a cut pineapple, are all systematically sorted and laid out in symmetrical, flowering shapes. In their patterning they made me think back to the amazing installation of Yuk King Tan’s at the City Gallery a couple of months ago. In this case, the camera chances upon them, as if by accident, and they are eerily illuminated from an outside light source.

A ghostly soundtrack backs this whole scene, adding an air of foreboding and unease. There is the sense that we are watching part of an old horror movie. Indeed, Spong utilizes many of the techniques and traditions that characterize this genre. Dark, moody lighting, unsettling music, confusing boundaries, and unknown space, all work to disconcert the viewer. In this video, space is limitless as the dark stretches off into the distance. But it is at the same time also very intimate; as each collection of objects is highlighted our focus becomes very specific. Each assemblage is disconnected and dissociated from any other; it is its own little world. The work then is a continued struggle between what we know and what we don’t know, or can’t know, as we are only drip fed tiny snippets of information and given no wider context in which to place them.

The information that we are given, the small collections of objects, seem to be bestowed with far greater significance than their utilitarian nature would at first allow. They take on a spiritual nature; they are like small remembrances, selected and arranged with care. These objects reference the Balinese tradition of Banten, offering up objects to the gods in that hope of lives filled with happiness and health.

Spong’s Balinese heritage is something that the artist only began to explore later in life, and once described it as “a glimmer of something fed to me through shadows and whispers”. This work examines the two different cultures that make up the background of this artist, and their differing approaches to spirituality. For while these objects, fruit and bones, may appear to the Western eye as entirely mundane, they are extended outwards beyond their dayto- day existence, they take on a mystical quality and, when inserted into this Balinese religious practice, their significance is only heightened.

‘2 x 2 Contemporary Projects’ is a series of two exhibitions, each of which displays two contemporary artists alongside each other. In this case, Sriwhana Spong is joined by Lonnie Hutchinson, an established artist of Ngai Tahu and Samoan descent. Hutchinson has exhibited extensively in New Zealand over the years. Her solo project ‘This show is what I do’ was exhibited at the IMA in Brisbane in 2005.

Hutchinson’s work over recent years has been largely characterized by her cut out designs. These involve careful manipulation of paper (in this case it is acrylic plastic), cut into detailed patterns. In the works on display at the City Gallery, Shading 1 – 4, these are exhibited in glass cases. They are held up, almost like ethnographic specimens, complete with tags containing series of numbers; catalogued and encased. They highlight the often ethnographic approach to Pacific art, as something timeless and in a form of stasis. Therefore it is easy to categorise, label and contain within glass cases.

However, the more I looked at the patterns cut out by Hutchinson in the acrylic, the more they looked something other than Pacific designs. They could just as easily be Victorian motifs, the fleur de lis of ornately patterned wall paper, or Celtic swirls. These symbols are by no means exclusive to Pacific culture, and Hutchinson is perhaps here hinting at the global nature of signs and symbols; an international language system.

The sculptural works are accompanied by large paintings on the walls of the gallery. These are of woman at work, crouching and in motion, created by large black swooping lines. They immediately made me think of Japanese art with its simplicity of line, form and fascination with the colour black. Emma Bugden writes in the catalogue essay for these works: “Sometimes configured as a void or hollow, the blackness in Hutchinson’s works in conceived as the colour of power and potential.” There is certainly a power in these women, found in the thickness and confidence of the brushstrokes and in the monumental size of their figures.

Hutchinson’s work in the past has examined the abysmal treatment of women, of their oppression and subjugation. Her work ‘Black Pearl’, which used images similar to these, looked at the practice of ‘black birding’ which involved the capturing of Polynesian workers into slave labour during the 1800s. However, the women in this work, Ladies, bite back at this history. Even the title suggested a powerful proclamation of worth and achievement, and pokes fun at the class system. These ladies beam down from the gallery wall with pride and passion, comfortable and unashamed in their space.

Both of these artists speak to issues of cultural identity and the construction of cultures. And their work is very much informed by their multicultural backgrounds. Spong however, seems hesitant about her heritage; it is like a mystery which she seeks to solve. Her work is a subtle and delicate examination of contrasting belief systems. Hutchinson works with more assertion and power; her women dominate the room and shout out their story from the gallery walls.

Lonnie Hutchinson and Sriwhana Spong
5th August – 24 August

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