Jan Nelson and Stephen Bush

South face: A collaborative project
Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra

South Face is a conversation piece which plays on our internal archive of structuring principles and memories. That these memories are distorting and downright unreliable becomes apparent only gradually. In this installation Jan Nelson and Stephen Bush have constructed an installation which flirts with the gap between expectation of reality and inevitable deception.

The most striking element of this installation is the panoramic painting of a romantic mountain beauty spot, which fills the whole of one wall of the Contemporary Art Space. The name of the site seems to be just on the tip of the tongue; surely we have all seen this scene illustrated in some calendar or holiday brochure. In fact we remember only the type of landscape-somewhere we have classified those brochures under 'generic scenic-mountains'. Nelson and Bush have exploited this faulty archive to reproduce for us an apparently fulfilling mountain landscape which is composite, produced by folding an illustration from a mountaineering manual in upon itself, a repetition of reversals. The scene is at first comforting in its familiarity and yet having discovered its deliberate exploitation of our fallible visual memory, it is profoundly disturbing. Can the fake satisfy? In our common lexicon a mountain is a place where one restores ones sense of unity with nature and oneself, where one retreats to a more authentic plane of existence. By playing- off romantic expectation against deception it seems Nelson and Bush have little faith in the possibility of our desires being fulfilled.

Similarly the title of the installation, South Face is a play on expectations and received ideas. In most mountaineering manuals the south face is the one which catches the sun, the north is ominous, the introspective other, the dark unknown, while the south is the friendly, open face of the mountain. But most mountaineering manuals are written for sites in the northern hemisphere, on this continent to climb the south face, as we do here, means to climb in darkness. It appears that our faulty archive of half remembered associations and representations has again been lured into a false sense of security.

Lurking behind this installation is a perverse expose of the cruel gap between expectation, promise and delivery. Scattered across the panorama are little birdhouses, surely an ultimate signifier for comfort, security and rest. Yet these dysfunctional houses could never offer rest, perspective has played a trick on us and these chalets are far to narrow and confining to fulfil their promise.

Included in the exhibition are two works which have been exhibited before; Barbar in the Mall (black and white photograph) and Conversation between Freud and Darwin 1994 (suite of plaster trinket boxes). Barbar is our fantasy emblem of the civilised beast who learns from (French) civilisation to take culture back to the jungle and thereby create a new Utopia. In a reversal of Rousseau the authentic original can be altered and improved. These days of course Barbar has put his colonial heritage behind him and has emerged as a true multinational, made in China and reproduced by the billions for those anxious to touch the innocent aspirations of the original. Mirroring this interest in the original and authentic is the Conversation between Freud and Darwin. These Wedgewood lookalikes decoratively represent the two solid men of science, discoursing across botanical evidences brought back from the 'untouched' new world. Where the vessels might seem to hold some treasure or trinket of interest however, they reveal themselves to be solid plaster. Freud and Darwin, those twin patriarchs who have threatened our personal autonomy, authentic identity and our ability to choose how we behave are depicted as trapped in a circular conversation from which there is no exit and no cache of meaning. These two works operate as an historical touchstone reminding us of the philosophic foundations for the trap which is sprung for us in the larger piece.

The third element breaking the south face is a curious construction of 'authentic birch logs' of the type commonly 'burnt' in gas fires, reproduced in cool white plaster and neatly shelved. Should we need to get in touch with nature they seem ready to offer themselves at our convenience. Like the mountain scenery, like the birdhouses, the birch logs are multiples which proffer themselves as less than adequate alternatives to the 'real thing'. Nelson and Bush remind us of our expectations and reveal our loss of ability to distinguish between the real and the fake. Our internal archive of structuring principles and memories is revealed in this installation to be an inadequate tool for satisfying our still active desire for authentic and original experience. While we yearn for romantic union with an 'authentic' experience in front of an open fire or before the untamed mountain, and can be satisfied with reproduction birch logs, we are unlikely to find a place of rest which is any more satisfying than the foreshortened birdhouses.