Review: Sign Of The Times

The international yellow and black radiation trefoil symbol on the gallery doors is a heads up for what’s to come.

The international yellow and black radiation trefoil symbol on the gallery doors is a heads up for what’s to come. In the lobby are some unsettling images of a woman’s tors with breasts exposed and another woman having her head shaved. This is not the kind of imagery associated with James Darling and Lesley Forwood, best known for their sculptural installations incorporating mallee stump units as basic building blocks. Stumps do play a prominent role in this exhibition but in unexpected ways and towards uncertain ends. At one end of the gallery proper is a very large radiation trefoil composed entirely of stumps, standing on a footing of rice grains. At the other end is a stainless steel, laboratory type slab mounted on a mallee plinth. On the nearby walls, thrusting out like liquid robots, are brain cancer masks composed of a meshlike material. One of these masks is on the slab, face up. Periodic sound bursts of a radiotherapy machine at work breaks the silence. This is a somber installation, the more so because it is dedicated to Rhonda Kellock, known not only to the artists but prominent in the Keith district as a person who had contributed so much to her local community. Kellock recently died of cancer. Her spirit permeates the exhibition in a manner not easily explained by the usual artspeak of confected problematics that provide alibis for artwork getting made. This component of the exhibition has the hallmark of a shrine or memorial. But so in a way does the other half, which consists not only of the outsized mallee stump trefoil but a wall panel of images depicting aspects of the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster. Collectively this is a stretch for the viewer, asked to respond on one hand to the tragedy of an individual life taken early and on the other to be reminded of the magnitude of a nuclear disaster, which has ongoing consequences. But then Darling and Forwood have been working this kind of territory for a long time, viewing large-scale environmental degradation through the filter of the local. In this process the artists have developed remarkable skills in working with mallee stump units to create uniform curvature, flatness and edges as required. While the overt agenda of mallee-mediated works remained conservation, it was relatively easy to join the dots and read tree stump units as symbolic of resilient nature or ghosts of vanished bushland. In the context of radiation, however, as something that kills or cures, this reading is unstable. The plinth, for example, that supports the stainless steel slab has character of an ossuary, as if each stump unit represents skeletal remains. So there is a contradiction, a shrine or memorial to an individual human life and a reminder of the mass destruction that accompanies nuclear chaos. In this contradiction, the wall-mounted masks play a linking role. Kellock’s mask is among them. The haunting presence of these objects, which simultaneously convey senses of subjugation and streamlined, spiritual release, skews this exhibition into challenging territory. It may be that there are too many ideas at work here and that the mallee as metaphor has found itself too far from home. Making socially critical art is a risky business. But so is living with radiation. Hugo Michell Gallery Continues until Saturday, October 11

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