Gertrude Contemporary Art Space’s walled-up front window feels like a rebuff to my bad habit. When the traffic is quiet I sometimes idle my engine, forget the road and superficially consume the front space like a teenager cruising down Chapel Street on a Saturday night. I admit my drive-by window-shopping is not qualitatively dissimilar to browsing on Contemporary Art Daily or flicking through the ads of some art magazine. For me these experiences sit somewhere between a wall, an absence of an actual engagement with spatial practices and an image. The wall both intervenes in our experience of space and also offers a graphic ground to modes of photographic documentation that today dominate our consumption of art. When encountering photographic documentation of art that exposes seductive expanses of wall and little else, it is easy to treat this remediation as a mere reduction of experience, discounting the potential complexity that can be elucidated from the remapping of space. On the other hand, some spatial experiences of the gallery are too often reminiscent of a furniture show room — with or without the coloured feature walls. In light of historical precedence that resists an easy frontal relation to a gallery’s wall, such as Marcel Duchamp’s First Papers of Surrealism 1942, or exhibition design that carries with it an ideological experiment, such as one instigated by Jean-François Lyotard in Les Immatériaux 1985 at the Pompidou — I have begun to think about a number of discrete Melbourne practices — Fiona Macdonald, Bianca Hester, Pat Foster & Jen Berean and Fiona Abicare — that self-consciously utilise the wall as a boundary for experience and the production of meaning.
The walls of a gallery do more than sustain the architectural forces of the building. Walls also create a more complicated relational system than the one framed by an oppositional power dynamic. It would be simplistic to explore a dynamic that pits the so-called ‘institutional’ against the so-called ‘independent’ — this dynamic might figure the artist resisting the reduction of the authoritative wall that is driven by a curatorial rationale — newly painted and coloured, this wall offers a novel configuration of rooms but also corrals an artist’s freedom. The artist, on the other hand, builds their own support structure, controlling and facilitating the movement of the audience through the exhibition — they offer an alternative framing device to the white wall paradigm.
An analysis that resists a binary logic is in order; one such analysis would locate a gallery’s wall within a complex field of power and representation. Let’s imagine a wall as an agent within a dynamic. Firstly, a wall is a material and spatial force that demarcates, blocks, organises, encloses and supports relations that encompass the social, the experiential, the ideological and so forth. The wall also offers a graphic ground to modes of documentation that facilitate our consumption of art practice. The wall in this instance becomes a frame for representation and further mediation, creating the potential for ocular-driven reduction as well as further production that is generative of new meaning. And finally, a wall within an art context is understood (like any wall) from prior experience, history or knowledge. A wall is a space for mental projection not only due to its physical relationship to an artwork but in regards to its very own identity. A wall connotes other walls and even the idea of ‘wall-ness’ itself.1
In new12, the curator, Jeff Khan, made an interesting decision regarding Australian Centre of Contemporary Arts’ main exhibition hall. He left the space unencumbered by any additional walls and partitions and in doing so made his own practice more refreshingly explicit, especially from the dominant vantage point of the foyer. He resisted a recent historical precedent to reconfigure the design of the space anew with every exhibition. One consequence of this decision was that it allowed the four artists’ projects to relate to one another within the singular phrasing of the hall. The artworks’ austere and polite proportions did not dictate any particular passage for an audience through the hall. However their respective artworks could not help but intermingle. This curatorial strategy probably means that the artists will be unable to photograph their projects as singular works — a trope that is essential to perpetuating the image of artistic autonomy. However, it allowed a more differentiated conversation to emerge outside of the individual social context explored by each work.
In her solo exhibition Still Gratuitous 2011 at Light Projects, Fiona Macdonald built on existing ideological structures that constitute her practice within an exhibition that took on a curatorial framework. In this work, Macdonald built partitions to demarcate the different activities curated within the exhibition program. These provisional and somewhat roughly hewn structures appropriated modes of exhibition design as a type of production that was made manifest during the show. This construction process could partly be seen as a critique of overcrowded corrals built for group exhibitions. More importantly, the walls reflect the divisions that split, separate and conceal social practices within an autonomous art field. This dynamic was complicated further by Macdonald’s decision to change the audience entry, not through the usual front door, but through the side door belonging to the adjoining psychoanalyst’s consultation room. A platform, performatively addressing the street front of the gallery, was built for invited writers to work on and, during the exhibition, walls were built around the writers, awkwardly separating them from displayed outcomes in other parts of this small gallery. The writers thus became engaged with the political space of the subject and its difference. This walled separation questioned the relationship between the space of the street and the social practices within the gallery. It created a complex community framework that required the audience to engage with the density and difference explored in the writer’s work and not through politically expedient images illustrating difference. In one of the final stages of the exhibition an all-male feedback session was convened in a back room, whilst a sassy drag queen prepared cool summer cocktails out on a platformed front space. This scenario was marked off from another floor space scattered with the post-colonial, feminist and psychoanalytic theory of Gayatri Spivak, Juliet Mitchell and Luce Irigaray. The separation between these discursive forces challenged the audience to synthesise the complex work — as fraught or aspirational as that might seem.
While Macdonald uses the wall within a logic established by existing museological contexts, other artists are building walls within sculptural practices that have a critical relation to the field of design. Both Bianca Hester and Jen Berean & Pat Foster have used the Besser blocks to stage a jail-yard production, only played in and out in two distinct performative registers. By making the brick a central actor, Hester and Berean & Foster appropriate embedded conventions of power that connote an everyday context. Perhaps these works replace one institutional code for another — a space of modernist display displaces designed spaces of regulation (municipal sports yards, disciplinary and education precincts).
In A Monument to Progress 2010, Berean & Foster create a series of blockages that speak of the difficulty of relating to another human subject. At times it seems impossible to engage with both the spatial experience of their sculpture and public space. The precariously placed panes of glass, the drop sheets, municipal crowd-control barriers and the buckets of Jim Beam consumed the previous night suggest that communal interaction will be fraught to say the least. In The Doing and the Undoing of it All 2009, windows cease being vantage points to fairer worlds, becoming walls of transparency but also bureaucratic mechanisms for surveillance. A graphic line of masking tape on each windowpane flattens the spatial intervention and any affirmative bodily participation. This flattening is echoed in Double Negatives 2011, exhibited at the Centre for Contemporary Photography — images of inebriated figures are made into patterns, utilitarian surfaces are disrupted and blankness is austerely framed — the work resisting community at the same time as it incisively adopts its architectural conventions.
Bianca Hester, on the other hand, regulates community engagement within the actual spaces of her projects. In Please leave these windows open overnight to enable the fans to draw in cool air during the early hours of the morning 2010 at ACCA, Hester produced a highly orchestrated presentation of sociability and materiality, perpetually in states of transition and yet simultaneously reflexive of its role in the stasis of the photographic image. The technology used to document the work becomes another actor amongst the staged flux of bodies, castings and construction. The wall sits somewhere across this scene. It is like a constraint that enables the expansion of vernacular actions. The limit of the image is continually challenged. An image made for one project will invariably find its way into another more spatial framework: as part of a pixelated blur of the video still; a tangle of decisions that are made into a diagram; and the rampant sequence of images across the ACCA catalogue. The intersection of the wall and an image is no more important than in a current series of performances where Hester holds a cast meteorite aloft against a series of walls across Melbourne and Glasgow. The span of geological and astronomical time between meteorite and the processed rock-turned-brick is almost unfathomable, but here Hester butts up against the wall like a sculpted relief and gets a snap taken. The wall is a boundary that makes (and grounds) almost every action, transforming a sit-in, collecting sticks, kicking a ball, riding a bike and growing weeds into a something.
While the exhibition design in ACCA’s NEW12 used a barely-there approach, NEW11 was busy with intersecting passageways and narratives driven on the most part, by the spatial conditions instigated by the artists. Fiona Abicare’s screen for Act None 2011 asserted itself against the scale of the building but also as type of conceptual intersection for a number of neighbouring works. Her bespoke tiled screen (a collaboration with Minifie van Schaik Architects) reminded us of how omnipresent the veil of fashion can be. Abicare’s walls act out a force even when composed of a fine georgette curtain as evidenced in COVERS 2008, an installation hosted by Heide Musuem of Art. Abicare’s practice, while impeccably styled, is not a diffusion of high fashion for an art context. Nor is it an illustration of how that cerulean in a couture gown can somehow trickle down to the lumpy sweater found in a clearance bin and then onto the palette used for a painting.2 Abicare’s method is, however, analogous to how fashion creates a bodily awareness of the temporal and at the same time re-mediates the condition of time in an ideal image. The object of clothing is constantly translated across different material conditions. The most basic of these is possibly the sensorial experience of wearing a piece of clothing — trying it on, taking it off and moving with it on the body. The market mediates this most basic human function by proliferating an ideal via the image, sending out dictums declaring that last season’s product is now obsolete due only to the passage of time. However, this is not some formal and material reduction of fashion’s concerns as it also encompasses a critical perspective on the social. An audience’s passage around Abicare’s screens, walls and movable partitions implicates us in our parallel passage of a world that does not escape this image culture. Like the backdrops in a photo studio, a catwalk, a showroom or even a dressing room, our physical and psychological experience of the mise-en-scène is bound up in a projection of ourselves as ideal or as compared to an ideal.
The critique of the white cube is well-trodden territory.3 The walled spatial conditions enacted by Fiona Abicare, Fiona Macdonald, Bianca Hester, and Pat Foster & Jen Berean are not concerned with a futile struggle with art’s authority. Their walls create relations with bodies and discursive fields, embedding an understanding of power that consists of multiple and intersecting institutional bodies. Walls that are a constituent element of any built structure do not need to be white, rectilinear or even materially existent to assert the ideological framework of the institution at-large.4 However, regardless of the varied post-1960s artistic and theoretical precedents that sought to evade the ‘white cube’ and rendered it a figure of speech — the white cube remains a pervasive architectural default of gallery design. This is no more evident than in Denton Corker Marshall’s impending creation of a very literal white cube for Australia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In some ways, this is perpetuation of a tired status quo that is slavish to its devotion of what contemporary art is meant to look like in a magazine reproduction, rather than what might be an engaging spatial context. I guess that leaves the more interesting spatial relations to the artists and curators to build, on or off a wall.
Spiros Panigirakis is an artist and lecturer in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University. In the past, he has worked closely with several of the practitioners mentioned in this text.