Ted Snell: “Shapes of the Future”

May 9 2009

From: The Australian

A survey of graduates’ work highlights the key role art schools play in producing creative people, writes Ted Snell.

Hatched 09: National Graduate Show Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. Until June 7.

Several of the leading universities in the US recently published reports examining the role of the arts in education.

Last year Harvard and Stanford universities called for a greater presence for the arts on campus and in undergraduate and graduate programs. Earlier reports at the universities of Chicago, Princeton and Columbia appealed for similar far-reaching changes and reasserted, in the words of the Chicago report, that “art is a central activity of the life of the mind”.

All these reports acknowledge the centrality of the arts in human endeavour. They also reinforce the importance of the visual and performing arts in fostering the ability of students to think imaginatively, to be creative risk-takers and, as the Stanford report adds, “to move gracefully through a world of rapid change”. According to those who drafted the Harvard report, it is necessary, despite the grave economic environment, to “make the arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the university, for along with the sciences and thehumanities, the arts — as they are bothexperienced and practised — are ‘irreplaceable instruments of knowledge’ that allow innovation and imagination to thrive on our campus,to educate and empower creative minds across all disciplines and to help shape the 21st century.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and indisputably a man who shaped the last century, touched on this subject when he commented that: “Scientists and artists have a special gift for us; both groups live always at the edge of mystery and the boundary of the unknown.” But perhaps it’s the great skill of the artists to give form to their musings in this mysterious penumbra of intellectual engagement and communicate what might be in a world obsessed with what is. If our future depends on innovation, imagination and the ability to work across disciplines, then the role of the arts will indeed be central to our educational mission.

When 70 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 20 years don’t exist today, and when it is predicted that an individual typically will have five careers and at least 15 jobs, the arts are an essential foundation. They encourage agility, self-motivation and visual acuity. These are the characteristics that assist in problem-solving and enable quick responses to changing conditions with a range of new and traditional skills. It is how the 21st century will be shaped. And it this rich mix of expertise, combined with the ability to imaginatively project ideas into the world, that is on show once again in the annual Hatched National Graduate Show at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.

If there is one work that encapsulates this potential, it is the seductive and mystifying installation by Michael Prior and Lachlan Conn. In one of the upstairs rooms their time machine, called Chronox, transports us into a world of magical possibilities that is totally absorbing. In part the fascination of this strange group of illuminating forms set out in a grid on the floor is the seemingly inexplicable mechanics that has created such a diverse range of operations with a single data projector. But the trickery element is only peripheral to our enjoyment. As the cones, triangles, domes and other geometric forms illuminate, dissolve, apparently oscillate or flicker into life, the ambience of the room induces a strangely meditative response. Strange because the activity, the odd purple light and the strobing energy should induce the opposite reaction, but it doesn’t. The installation is beautiful, calming and suggests multiple interpretations. One suspects it also has the potential to be commercially viable.

Indeed, innovation and commercialisation are very much a part of the “cultural industries” rhetoric popular among state and federal governments. But while it’s possible, even likely, that some of the works in Hatched will go into institutional or private collections, there isn’t, apart from Prior and Conn, much commercially exploitable intellectual property. Clara Rolls and James Nau’s wonderful little film Winsome could be another, but most of the rest is not much concerned with any commercial applications. They play with ideas, explore visual possibilities with obsessive glee and project the results into the world for others to enjoy. Much of it is very amusing.

Danielle Leonello’s work, Masticate, and Then Part, is based on the archeology of chewing gum uncovered under desks and chairs at the University of Western Sydney. With the efficiency of a forensic scientist, she has collected, arranged and catalogued the hundreds of samples she uncovered, then submitted to DNA examination. They are then laid out in neat rows to form an exquisite grid of variously shaped and coloured specimens that chart the endless sculptural variations created by individual mastication of a similar product. Her rigorous examination of these discarded confections is wonderfully eccentric and draws our attention to the obsessive focus we bring to so many aspects of contemporary life.

All forms of art-making require an element of obsession. This is at the core of artistic practice, for without it individuals would not be able to generate the extraordinary effort required to bring ideas to resolution. Some artists explore the nature of obsession itself as the catalyst for their work. Leonello’s work is certainly obsessive, but it’s nothing like the activity undertaken by Kristina Sundstrom, who has fabricated with mind-boggling patience and commitment a series of paper ropes from 160 silk-screen prints on acid-free tissue. These prints then have been shredded into thin strips, which she has rolled into strings and wrapped and knotted into ropes. She explains in the catalogue notes: “My work aims to simultaneously embody the futility, accomplishment and potential of human endeavour”, and that seems to capture its intrinsic fascination for any viewer.

George Egerton-Warburton certainly would have sympathy for her project because his own, Road Trains Will Never Tear Us Apart, echoes a similar commitment to endurance, hope and a reassessment of values. He cycled 256km to his home town Kojonup, towing what he calls a “St Werburgh’s Boutique Fire Department” chariot and collecting every piece of road kill found along the way. Once home, he skinned, tanned and cured the hides and sewed them together to create a super-animal. Each stage of the project was carefully photographed, and in his audio commentary to accompany the images he relives the boredom, physical exertion and horror, interspersed with his philosophical musings on his theory of “life as art”.

Art schools are extraordinary places because they create a supportive environment where individuals are encouraged to interrogate the world they live in, to challenge their belief systems and to present their findings in a cogent visual form that is accessible and informative. For Leonello, Sundstrom and Egerton-Warburton, art school was clearly a process of self-discovery. They have embraced Socrates’s belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and emerged from the experience with a deeper understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. Fortunately we are now able to share their experiences.

Of course many people go to art school to learn the skills that will enable them to make things, to bring objects and forms into existence for their own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others. Some have ulterior motives and hope to engage us in philosophical issues, such as Tammy Whitworth, whose beautifully painted sheep in I Know You are designed to prompt a reconsideration of our treatment of animals, while others such as Tye McBride are content to make paintings that explore the aesthetic potential of line, colour and form.

In her work Typing ‘Giraffe Sex’ into Google Yields Ungodly Results, Belle Brooks developed a considerable skill base to enable her to construct copulating giraffes out of “Plasticine, fibreglass, artificial stimulants and steel”. That surprising list of raw materials goes some way to explaining the final product; two life-sized, luridly coloured giraffes engaged in sexual intercourse. The image apparently was found through a Google search but the resulting work,with its complex construction and strong visual effect, surpasses any explanation of intentand stands out as an intriguing, extraordinary object.

Much of the work on show in this year’s Hatched is the good, solid product you would expect to find in any art school across the country. But some assert their presence more than others, such as Richard Blackwell’s Stacks, or stacks of cardboard logs, and Hayley Bahr’s Remnant, a slowly decaying wheat environment in one of the downstairs galleries. Constructed from panels of cultivated wheat that is gradually dying, her room will slowly morph from a lush dank green to a dried brittle yellow during the course of the exhibition.

Another wonderful set of images that is amusing and poignant is Tanya Lee’s Moving House Wearing Everything I Own. Her absurdly difficult adventure was to pack all her possessions on a trolley, then wrap them around herself with a sheet and move house transporting them like an extension of her body through the streets to her new neighbourhood.

Bahr is a student from Edith Cowan University and Lee from Curtin University of Technology, but this fact is ascertained only from the catalogue.

While in previous years the exhibition has been more of a school-based educational fair, with the affiliation of exhibitors identified very stridently, this year it is more of a group show with a focus on the artists. Although a minor change to the format, this is a welcome re-orientation that allows a more judicious assessment of participating artists without the competitive rancour of previous shows.

It is also a sparer show, the reduced number of submissions allowing more room to enjoy the individual works thanks to a stricter selection process undertaken by judges Darren Knight, Viv Miller and Melissa Keys. More than 90 works from 20 art schools were submitted to the panel and the selection process whittled those down to only 44 graduates, though each of the schools is still represented. The curatorial overview is evident and the exhibition has a much more coherent presence that encourages a deeper, more focused engagement.

Faced with the challenge of creating an education system for the 21st century that is responsive to the needs of students while fulfilling the requirements of the wider community, many universities are embracing the arts. They are also acknowledging their role as irreplaceable instruments in the gaining of knowledge and its practical implementation.

In this sense, Hatched can be read as an annual report highlighting the success of the sector and sometimes pointing to inadequacies. Its importance, then, cannot be overestimated for those interested in the role of the arts in providing graduates, from any academic discipline, with the skills and intellectual rigour necessary to shape the future.

Ted Snell, cultural precinct director at the University of Western Australia, was until last year the dean of art and professor of contemporary art at Curtin University of Technology.