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DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH THE BARBED MAZE

SURYA BAJRACHARYA OCEANS BETWEEN, OCEANS APART

LIAM O’BRIEN SELECTED WORKS


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH THE BARBED MAZE

SURYA BAJRACHARYA OCEANS BETWEEN, OCEANS APART

LIAM O’BRIEN SELECTED WORKS


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH THE BARBED MAZE While Denise Higgins and Gary Smith have established personal practices in installation and painting they occasionally work in collaboration, producing massive projects that are technically and conceptually ambitious in the extreme. The barbed maze is a site-specific installation that consists of panels of barbed wire suspended in a gallery of mirrors. 140 square meters of gallery is transformed into a “maze-scape” that is perceptually 4,000 square meters. The maze is a mixed metaphor that explores the darker labyrinthine recesses of the human mind. It opens a puzzling path upon which the individual might reckon with belief systems, conscience and consider alternative answers to life’s big questions. Along with many Australians, Higgins and Smith have witnessed year after year of passionate debate in which notions of national identity are periodically derailed by outbursts of racism, sexism and homophobia. A period of divisive government obsessed with stopping refugee boats, death cults, climate change denial and challenged by family violence, has left the country somewhat bruised. Together, these issues create a rich conceptual backdrop against which the barbed maze operates. Via infinite reflections through wall-to-wall mirrors, Higgins and Smith create a space in which their audience is herded through spikey corridors and paradoxically trapped by its lack of borders, boundaries, or landmarks. In the chambers scattered throughout the maze, audiences are confronted with glimpses of confinement, surveillance and interrogation through the use of sound, video, tableaux and objects. Higgins notes that this show focuses on the idea of audience being participants in the overall project where entering into the space of the maze they embark on a personal journey. Reflected in a “hall of mirrors” and framed by the barbed wire, they are confronted with a 360° distorted view of the self and it’s sinister shadow, the generator of self-criticism and loathing that might then be projected onto others. It is expected that visitors immersed in this installation have a visceral experience of a carceral landscape that amplifies their sense of displacement. It is not the artists’ intent to


be overtly political, threatening or to construct a sense of terror, but rather to transform the gallery into an alien environment where audience might experience a state of not being entirely in control. At each turn or cul-de-sac they must make decisions that will impact upon their next move or encounter, where both wit and luck determine the end game. Higgins and Smith liken the experience of their barbed maze to a modern day pilgrimage. The traveller navigates an unfamiliar environment with dead-ends and distractions, where the journey continually causes the traveller to reconsider a path to freedom that is complicated by complex social and environmental factors. The exhibition can also be seen as an exploration of carceral environments and how such places influence the balances of power in human behaviour and relationships. In order to explore the mindset of “staff and inmates” Higgins and Smith bring together two potent symbolic forces; barbed wire and the maze. While barbed wire might be among the most familiar of everyday materials, it’s been an effective means for control of unmanageable creatures since the 1940s and in art it is loaded with resonances of brutality. The faces of Jewish prisoners through barbed wire fences in Germany’s WWII concentration camps and more recently Bosnian men in Serbia have left indelible stains on the very idea of humanity. Be it on outback farms, around prison walls, or Manus Island, barbed wire has significant symbolic currency in modern Australia. In history the maze is a puzzle, to test the visitor’s orientation in a space where markers are removed and replaced by a complex series of confusing pathways. Seemingly innocuous in its sense of play the maze also has a sinister side that has made it a popular thematic in the horror, thriller, suspense and sci-fi genres of popular culture. In the dystopian worlds of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner (2014), the maze is featured as a site of dread that offers a way out, however, there are many obstacles and unknowns along the way. Interestingly the protagonists of maze melodrama are almost always outsiders on the run from some horror


or other, be it war, domestic violence or The Maze Runner’s “world in catastrophe”. The barbed maze situates everyone who enters into this vicarious arrangement on equal footing where each individual undertakes an inward journey, to be confronted by the scariest demons of all, the self. David Broker 2015

DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH The Barbed Maze, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable, photography: Rob Little RDLI


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH The Barbed Maze, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable, photography: Rob Little RDLI


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH The Barbed Maze, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable, photography: Rob Little RDLI


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH The Barbed Maze, 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable, photography: Rob Little RDLI


SURYA BAJRACHARYA OCEANS BETWEEN, OCEANS APART Political commentary can be a precarious undertaking for artists. Originally focusing on elements of the Abbott Government’s immigration policies and questions of leadership, the currency of Surya Bajracharya’s Oceans Apart, Oceans Between was all but lost as the tides of change swept through Australia’s Liberal Party. A week is indeed a long time in politics. As it turned out policy remained the same, however, the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull generated the possibility of new directions and a rapid mood swing across the country. Fortunately the concept of leadership was always central to this series of screen prints and the change of Prime Ministers ultimately provided more grist for the mill. Like all Australians Bajracharya has listened to years of over-heated discussion on the status of refugees and sifted through arguments on the human rights implications of mandatory detention. The debate, often described as “a race to the bottom”, has taken many an ugly turn as both the Labour and Liberal parties scrambled to out do each other with ever more misanthropic abuses for people fleeing tyranny on boats. With polls indicating that 77% of Australians supported the bi-partisan refusal to allow asylum seekers into Australia, governments spiraled into a vortex of reverse-leadership where they followed the electorate. Hands down winners in this dubious contest and armed with their repetitive chant “stop the boats”, the Abbott Government appeared to have bottomed out with deterrence as a convenient excuse for increasing draconian policy and secrecy. Although Bajrachayra’s concerns are clear from his work he adeptly avoids reductive partisan views by framing many of his works in the form of (rhetorical) questions. Asking the audience to think through the issues he raises is of greater importance than gaining political points in a game that is also risky for politicians. The views of the electorate, like leaders, can change overnight. Seeing politics in the terms of a “life and death” struggle between politicians and people Bajracharya seized the opportunity of changed leadership to focus not only on the role of a leader but also on the degree to which politicians are actually in touch with their constituency. A Good Hand? (2015), in which we see an image


of Malcolm Turnbull removing a Tony Abbott mask asks, where to from here? The slightly dishevelled more casual Turnbull appears to hold all the cards; popular, perhaps even in touch with the electorate, he remains an unknown quantity. In any effective political commentary humour sharpens the message. Bajracharya holds the ground of artist by posing broad yet pertinent questions and while his prints are 100% visual he does employ some of the satirical conventions of the cartoonist. Welcome to the Great Australian Abyss (2015) depicts a boat-load of asylum seekers heading straight into a black chasm that is Tony Abbott’s open mouth. Like Dante’s vestibule of hell, its seems to say “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Dramatic: but less so than Don’t hold your breath (2015), where a sole hand reaches from a turbulent ocean. Resonant of the

SURYA BAJRACHARYA Don’t Hold Your Breath, 2015, screen print on paper, 76 x 168cm


protracted immigration debate and referencing the many hundreds drowned en route this work captures the sense of tragic desperation of asylum seekers literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Swimming for us (2015) is another work that shares some of its effectiveness with political cartoons while requiring that the audience is aware of the story to understand its subtle satirical humour. Speedo clad, Tony Abbott rises Godzilla-like from the sea over a flotilla of naval vessels, at once like toys in a child’s bath and a formidable military force, this print makes light of a tendency toward major military solutions for relatively minor civilian issues and responsibilities. As this works raises the thorny spectre of a protector who is trusted by the people - Bajracharya’s Ever Vigilant Defending Our Oasis of endless Time, Space and Unbridled Freedoms (2015) addresses what there is to protect in terms that could be described as skeptical. A woman in a g-string who stands on the beach carrying a giant sailfish surrounded 4 wheel drives engulfed by waves appears to be greeting an incoming promotional XXXX boat. While the image itself is absurd and somewhat surreal, it mocks the mythologies of Australia’s eminently enviable lifestyle; so important to protect and maintain against waves of “illegal boat people”, it is well worthy of decades of national hysteria. As Yolande Norris says in her concise summary of Oceans Apart, Oceans Between, “Somewhere between satire and sobering reality, these screen prints combine potent symbols of distance and displacement with political iconography. Can Australians and their government of the day have greater morality and more understanding toward asylum seekers? Can we come together to present a unified view? This series encourages the viewer to stand in another’s shoes, reflecting on what we have and what they do not. By valuing humanity over selfish preoccupation it might just be possible to bridge chasms of difference wherever they are found.” David Broker 2015


SURYA BAJRACHARYA Swimming for Us, 2015, screen print on paper, 76 x 56cm


LIAM O’BRIEN SELECTED WORKS In each of Liam O’Brien’s bleak, angst-ridden works he places body (and soul) on the line. His digital theatre of the absurd sails close to naturalistic horror of Grand Guignol in which fin de siècle Paris audiences shared the experience of strong feelings with the actor or artist. This is particularly prevalent in excruciating performance such as To Laugh In The Face Of Futility & I’m Too Drunk To Tell You (2012) which includes a series of injurious attempts to flee from a lamp post to which he is attached, followed by a public spectacle of binge drinking. These dangerous and seemingly pointless acts of defiant recklessness put the audience on notice with a Marxist critique of the individual’s access to freedom in a capitalist society and what O’Brien says is, “ … a fundamental disagreement between how I believe life should be lived and the social values promoted through capitalism.” What follows is the basis of a theme running through much of O’Brien’s work, futility and the selfconscious inability of his work to, “ … bring about any tangible change in the real world.” O’Brien’s standalone video works were never intended to be shown as components of a broad conceptual grouping, however, his CCAS exhibition has provided an opportunity to increase their characteristic angst threefold. The selection of I’m Too Drunk to Tell You (2011), Untitled (Cleanskin) (2012) and Whistling in the Dark (2013) not only covers three years of performance but also focuses on three different body parts, head, hands and feet. They represent a body of work that is touched by the irrational hand of absurdism and neo avant-garde conceptual performance of the 1960/70s in which the human body became a medium for artistic enquiry. Sound tracks from each work, while varying in intensity, generate a disquieting soundscape that heightens O’Brien’s all encompassing sense of existential malaise. The characters of absurdist theatre can find no inherent meaning in life and are often viewed in the context of nonsensical, chaotic actions presented through satire, dark humour and the abasement of reason. In Whistling in the Dark (2013) O’Brien’s hand becomes such a character as it attempts to drag a proportionally enormous sack across an arbitrary line


LIAM O’BRIEN Whistling in the Dark (video still) 2013, high definition single channel video, 4’50’’, Commissioned by Artbank 2013


(road marking) for no apparent reason. As he grunts and moans with heavy burden, rough photographic cut outs of the artist’s face reflect expressions appropriate to the task and build an extraordinary tension (given the absence of contextual signifiers). Along the way he “stands” on broken glass and sheds real blood, heightening the sense of agonizing struggle against backdrop of pointless exertion. The character (spoiler alert) does not make it over the line, collapsing before his meaningless goal in the throes of tragi/comical death. As the image changes from this bleak scenario we see O’Brien emerge from the sack and walk away, indicating that this, like so many of his works is self-referential and the hand is the artist. Untitled (Cleanskin) continues O’Brien’s journey of abjection with art that situates the body as object and subject, while rejecting notions of identity for a confrontation with “corporeal reality”. The work begins with a formal focus on the artist’s bare feet surrounded by cigarette butts on what could be an urban pavement. Again O’Brien builds tension by placing his body at risk, dropping beer bottles precariously close to flesh that create a cocktail of foam and broken glass - more threatening with each bottle. The references to alcohol abuse that run through O’Brien’s oeuvre are highlighted in I’m too drunk to tell you which adapts its title from Bas Jan Ader’s tearful performance I’m too sad to tell you (1971). Austerely dressed, O’Brien walks into a nondescript room, sits down, and apparently intent on obliteration, proceeds to drink shots of whiskey to the threshold of nausea. We somehow know this is not acting but rather an arduous act of self-harm. If there are oblique references to Gilbert and George’s Gordon’s Makes us Drunk (1972) in which the pair write themselves off in amusing British style with gin, there are important differences. O’Brien’s public spectacles of drunkenness offer no Land of Hope and Glory, no sense of fun or relief from life’s stark unrealities. On the contrary, as his ritualistic tests of raw endurance distress the body, the audience’s discomfort spreads exponentially. David Broker 2015

LIAM O’BRIEN Above Right: I’m too Drunk to Tell You (video still) 2011, high definition single channel video, 10’00’’ LIAM O’BRIEN Below Right: Untitled (Clean Skin) (video still) 2012, high definition single channel video, 2’03’’


DENISE HIGGINS & GARY SMITH THE BARBED MAZE SURYA BAJRACHARYA OCEANS BETWEEN, OCEANS APART LIAM O’BRIEN SELECTED WORKS

FRIDAY 23rd OCTOBER - SATURDAY 21st NOVEMBER 2015 CANBERRA CONTEMPORARY ART SPACE GORMAN ARTS CENTRE, 55 AINSLIE AVE. BRADDON Tues - Fri 11 - 5 & Sat 10 - 4 www.ccas.com.au

CCAS IS SUPPORTED BY THE ACT GOVERNMENT, AND THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNNENT THROUGH THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL, IT’S ARTS FUNDING AND ADVISORY BODY.

Higgins & Smith, Bajracharya, O'Brien @ CCAS (2015)  
Higgins & Smith, Bajracharya, O'Brien @ CCAS (2015)  

Denise Higgins & Gary Smith - 'The Barbed Maze' Surya Bajracharya - 'Oceans Between, Oceans Apart' Liam O'Brien - 'Selected Works'