Joe Felber’s atmosphere of immersion

At first glance, a new exhibition of work from Joe Felber might make you wonder where, or even how to look.

The challenge of contemporary art for the viewer is to keep personal feelings in check. By their very nature, unfamiliar, experimental forms of expression are not readily pigeonholed. In an age addicted to Siri-assist, the slow burn of realisation that comes from taking time out to engage with a work of art that refuses to deliver its secrets, right here and right now, is a rare thing.

Such may be the challenge of responding to an artist such as Joe Felber, whose practice has criss-crossed a diversity of formats and media. Within this, the place and role of the viewer has always been negotiable and the experience, immersive.

At times the ‘work’ is underfoot, high above or stacked in casual bundles in a corner. The end result is that the usual routines of ‘someone-looks-at-a-work-of-art’ are constantly being disrupted. Where to look? How to look? Felber always appears to be ahead of this kind of game. There are reasons for this. His formative years were enriched by exposure to the atonalities and serialisations of early contemporary musical composition.

In the 1970s, he became interested in expressionist dance performance, particularly the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal. In the 1980s, while residing in Germany, he investigated new perspectives offered by the musical avant-garde including the work of Mauricio Kagel, Luigi Nono and others. Such rich experiences confirmed for Felber the importance of everyday interaction as intensified through music in a shared space.

Joe Felber, Atmospheric pressure exceeds emotional turbulence

Cross-disciplinary forms inflect the performative undercurrents in Felber’s work to the present day. It is also evident in a 1999 25 Songs … collaboration with Australian music composer Elliott Cyger and dancer choreographer Lucy Guerin. The inspiration for this project was American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, a series of monochromes produced in the 1950s.

For Felber, Reinhardt’s strategy of encapsulating everything that art was not and seeking to free art from the bondage of rhetoric and explication, is a key influence on the way he sees his own creative journey.

The fact that this current exhibition is composed of seemingly disparate panels bearing abstract and figurative images, displayed informally within the exhibition space reinforces the idea of ‘the art’ being a construct or sum of fragmented experiences rather than a sequence of self-contained, open and shut events.

Writer Ken Bolton has said that relating to Felber’s work “as an occasion that calls for ‘reading’ is perhaps to take it the wrong way: the installation presents a situation rather than a text or palimpsest … spatiality more than composition, flux more than sequence”.

There are wider contexts in which to approach Felber’s consistent resistance to containment. Writer Bernice Murphy has contextualised Felber’s methodology within “an expanded, more mobile and transitory approach to art-making”. This idea of art functioning in a social space in which culture is a negotiated or transacted entity, rather than an inevitable expression of time-honoured traditions, resonates within Felber’s work, particularly in his characteristic strategy (as seen in Atmospheric Pressure) of creating and installing small-scale panels bearing a diversity of motifs. If one imagines that this could be a ‘suitcase show’, packed up, carried to another place and reconfigured, then that would be very close to the mark.

Joe Felber, Colours over time

The figure of the artist as some kind of peripatetic figure, travelling the world at will, carrying a demountable set of ideas in the head (or literally a suitcase) was very popular in the late 1980s. This notion was dominant in the thematics of the 1986 Biennale of Sydney, Origins Originality + Beyond, which boldly prompted the idea of Australia being the ultimate ‘post-modern culture’ on account of its geographical distance from perceived centres of culture, thus ability to construct new forms of culture, freed from the tyranny of the ‘original’ – and so on.

The 1993 Sydney Biennale’s adoption of the theme of The Boundary Rider, continued this idea of the artist being some kind of (d)roving free agent, creating propositions using installation, found objects and text-driven strategies to imply instability and constantly negotiable meanings. Yeehaw! Felber’s extensive and multi-layered practice deserves the scrutiny of a retrospective which would have the potential to revisit something that has never gone away – namely the push/pull factor of the unfinished modernist project and the disinterment of authentic art-based practice from the cold, dark clay of over-research and text obesity.

As evident in this exhibition, Felber, seen in a more recent, intimate guise, is an image-maker and materialist who bases his belief in the inescapable bond between art-making and inner emotion. It’s also based on the hard-won experience of going to a surface over and over and making marks, sometimes with the happy accidents that rain can provide, just following his instincts. It’s gesture, it’s dancing, it’s theatre by other means. And it deserves the long hard stare.

Joe Felber: Atmospheric Pressure
West Gallery Thebarton
29 August – 29 September

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