Curated by: Laura Couttie
Artist: Shannon Lyons
At first, it’s easy to completely miss Shannon Lyons’ Dark Kitchen installation in Heide Museum of Modern Art’s project space. So streamlined is the constructed wall with the gallery, that I almost strolled right on past. The tell-tale sign is the doorways hung with coloured plastic strips, a nod to the milk bars of bygone days. Once inside, though, there’s no mistaking this for other than an artwork — sink, bench and cabinets, all painted an on-trend shade of grey, evoke a kitchen but there is something not quite domestic about it. A bright orange plastic juice squeezer is the only hint of colour. Turn around, and the wall that from the outside blended so seamlessly with the white walls of the gallery is, from inside, an unfinished construction of exposed beams. Suddenly, the performativity of the gallery as a site of display is exposed.
This performativity, exposing or exploring what was never intended for a prying public, is an ongoing feature of Lyons’ work, whether it be an installation in a decommissioned department store in Fremantle or an exhibition of postcards, each featuring a ‘painted rendition of a small, incidental or incongruous mark that I noticed while working in one of the galleries at Sydney Non Objective’. Coincidentally, this subversion of private/public is arguably a feature of Heide itself, originally a homestead for John and Sunday Reed before it ever became a public gallery. Another ongoing preoccupation in Lyons’ work that is also at play in Dark Kitchen is that of site specificity, of conceptualising installations as they relate to the environs in which they are be displayed and viewed. This use of situational art to interrogate the way we use spaces is a feature of her work that Lyons’ cleverly uses to critique the very space of the gallery — from A dead mouse and a broken coffee machine (2018) which placed a commercial enterprise complete with a barista who refused to serve visitors into various non-profit artist run galleries, to Shuffling slowly towards the exit (2016) where Lyons’ quite literally ‘pasted’ one gallery space onto another.
Indeed, reading the catalogue, it’s clear that the conceptualisation of Dark Kitchen was influenced by the singularity of Heide as a former home and artistic intellectual community, before it was ever a gallery. The aforementioned orange juice squeezer, for instance, is no doubt a nod to ‘John waking Sunday and any houseguests at seven o’clock with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.’ And yet ironically — perhaps intentionally so — Dark Kitchen is in the one building on the site that is a purpose-built gallery. And it is here, at the intersection of the private and the public, that the origins of the title come into play. The term ‘dark kitchen’ references the growing Uber-isation of food consumption, and the kitchens developed to service this food delivery industry. Kitchens that operate completely out of public view, without shopfronts or restaurants attached, ‘conveyer belts for production’ (again, an extension of Lyons’ interest in bringing ‘behind-the-scenes’ to the forefront). There is a juxtaposition at play here, between the completely utilitarian kitchen’s referenced by the title and the space of Dark Kitchen, which is both unused and unusable — a sink with no taps, cupboards that don’t open, benches too narrow for use.
The other juxtaposition at play is that between Dark Kitchen and dark kitchens, and the space of Heide itself. After spending some time in the project space with Dark Kitchen, Mum and I wandered over to Heide I, the former home of John and Sunday Reed. The hallway features black-and-white photos of the Reed’s with their visitors — Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester — in the grounds of Heide, the shelves of the library (behind plexiglass) showcase their intellectual curiosity and the kitchen, with its kitsch painted tiles and broad wooden benches, has floors worn smooth from use. There’s a sense here of the intersection of art and life that is hard to find in a regular white-cubed gallery space. Not merely bringing art into life via a commercial transaction — buying a painting to hang above your couch — but of the relationship between the two, and the way that the former immeasurably enriches the latter. An ongoing conversation between and among art and life, such as the community of Heide in the mid-twentieth century has come to represent. Dark Kitchen plays with and problematises this sense of intimacy evoked by the particularity of Heide by inviting us into that most domestic of space, the kitchen, and then subverting it. In doing so, it is a deft critique of the ways that all aspects of contemporary life in a capitalist society have been, and are able to be, turned into a consumer product.
Dark Kitchen is simultaneously an homage to the community of Heide and a critique of the commercialisation of modern society. From the kitchen to the gallery, it asks: in today's world, how can we distinguish the personal from the commercial, cultural from capital, anymore? Perhaps an answer lies in Lyons' practice itself — art that is adroit, thoughtful, engaged.
Sarah Gory is a writer and editor based in Naarm.