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The exhibition, Strangely Familiar, was one component of the Melbourne-Glasgow-Edinburgh Cultural Exchange Project, titled morning star evening star. Working from the principle that an exchange of ideas is most valuable and meaningful as an ongoing series of exhibitions, studio residencies and events over a twelve month period, a team of curators selected work by a diverse group of contemporary Australian and Scottish artists for the project.
In the project catalogue, some interesting parallels were drawn between artistic lite in Melbourne, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Each city is characterised by a thriving network of contemporary art spaces, university galleries and artist-run initiatives. This has created a particular context for producing art: a self-awareness among the respective art communities and a tendency toward 'situationist, time-based and performative practices'. Historical similarities are also cited, from nineteenth century industrialism and grided urban plans to the peripheral status of each city in relationship to European centres and the impact of this relative positioning on artistic activity. By holding the exhibitions across a range of venues, including the Centre for Contemporary Photography which hosted Habitat, and the Museum of Modern Art at Heide which will show Strolling: the art of arcades, boulevards, barricades, publicity, the curators were able to highlight certain 'themes' without making sweeping generalisations.
Each of the exhibits in Strangely Familiar centred around natural and built environments, re-presenting various locations to the viewer in terms of patterns of human behaviour. The transformation of the visual material was subtle and the installation seamless, particularly in the case of Melbourne artists Nicola Loder, Leslie Eastman, Andy Thomson and Daniel van Sturmer.
A series of large ink jet photographs on vinyl by Scottish artists Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion filled the main gallery space at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). These images are from an ongoing project, The Way Stations, and were accompanied by an eerie, yet melodic recording of wind blowing across a rugged terrain. They depicted bizarre structures of human construction, ranging from solar receptors, domes and futuristic temples, which occupied scorching deserts, cliff-faces and snow covered mountains. One image in particular took on the appearance of a film-still from the X-files movie. I could just imagine two secret agents entering the experimental facility only to be swarmed by killer bees. Our daily saturation of images from popular culture, of humans controlling and conquering the forces of nature, conditions our viewing of works like The Way Stations. When we look at the digitised surfaces and wonder if they are real, we are inadvertently judging them by the possibilities of reality espoused by cult nconspiracy-theory films.
After the austere landscapes of Dalziel and Scullion it was invigorating to enter the Untitled gallery space of Nicola Loder. Here the viewer was required to move around transparent upright screens, placed at various angles to receive video projections. Different scenarios were created on each screen. From a beautiful black woman gazing out of a window to a man endlessly falling to the earth from the top of a buildin, a feeling of voyeurism pervaded the work. We were able to catch a glimpse of complex personal histories, a segment of a story you wanted to know more about. In the hallway adjacent to this space, Loder placed thirteen tiny LCD monitors, featuring people of all ages meditating. The subjects were completely consumed by their meditation, with only the barest sign of movement detectable in the youngest participant.
A site-specific installation titled Cube was created by Leslie Eastman, Andy Thomson and Daniel von Sturmer for the third gallery space at ACCA. Cube consisted of video and camera obscura images of the area immediately surrounding ACCA, which were projected onto the inner and outer surfaces of a large white cube. As the video camera moved past stationery cars in familiar local streets, the effect was more mesmerising than disorienting. This confusion of the boundaries which determine the interior gallery space and the exterior environment is a crucial concern of the artists. As was pointed out by curator Clare Williamson, by using the area around the gallery as their subject matter 'these artists remind us of the judgements that we constantly make when receiving visual information and our categorisations of it as either artistic and therefore to be noted, or not'. In a sense, however, Cube self-consciously maintained the boundaries it sought to collapse. The environs surrounding the gallery only became noteworthy as artistic subject matter from within the confines of ACCA.
Strangely Familiar contemplated the existence of humans in the late twentieth century from local perspectives. Technological change was not presented as overwhelming or alienating. The sensation of watching and being watched, executed through thoughtful, imaginative art objects, was one of the strengths of the show.