Place original face down to copy

Curators: Erica Seccombe & Alison Munro
Canberra School of Art Gallery, Canberra
1 - 24 April 2004

The humble photocopier has perhaps five faculties that define its soul, its relationship to the world and its utility to human beings. Most obviously, there is its capacity to multiply the number of copies of something; secondly, its capacity to enlarge or reduce, with consequent losses of resolution; thirdly, its enslavement to entropy and the inevitable decay of an image through repeated copying; fourthly, its capacity to be used as a kind of camera, an idea that gets a regular outing as an office prank but is otherwise rarely appreciated; and fifthly, its own brute, stupid existence, as an object that is often both hulking and beige (an unsettling combination), and whose frailties include paper jams, lack of toner, and an incapacity to interpret simple instructions.

The exhibition Place original face down to copy was conceived as a tribute to the photocopier as an artistic medium and as an art-making tool. Bringing together twenty-four artists from a range of media-painting, photography, sculpture, performance, print media and drawing-curators Erica Seccombe and Alison Munro required each of the participating artists to use photocopy technology at some stage in the creative process. The point of the exercise was not to strike a claim for the photocopier's legitimacy as tool or medium (this was taken as a given), but to use it to explore issues such as the nature of the multiple, the proliferation and consumption of information, the problem of distortion in the communication process, and the instability and mutability of meaning.

Bernie Slater's The Consumer Sedation Committee's Colouring-In Competition gave gallery visitors an opportunity to unleash their creativity, providing a table, chairs, dozens of coloured pencils and felt markers, and a selection of sarcastic posters to colour in. The posters featured ditzy consumers exclaiming 'Let's Go to the Mall!', CIA spooks warning 'Be Alert!' and George Bush proclaiming 'I Love Free Speech'. Short-listed entries were displayed on the wall, while a box in the corner hilariously contained 'Rejected Entries' which were, predictably, better than the official entries, rejected not only on the basis of inappropriate anatomical enhancements, but also on seemingly arbitrary criteria relating to the use of colour or the cardinal sin of colouring outside the lines.

Nigel Lendon similarly invited creativity from his viewers, providing posters framed by hazardous yellow and black diagonals and bearing the title WARNING!, with a blank white space bearing texts beginning 'you may': 'you may create a work of art', 'you may think your way towards the viewer', 'you may imagine yourself your own audience'. Respondents replied with slogans of their own, scatological drawings, delicate constructions of small plastic objects, and semi-dried morsels of pizza topping. With both Lendon and Slater, the photocopier's role was conceived both as a reproduction of authority and a kind of democratizing release of potential.

The photocopier's serial repetition was comically exploited in Alison Munro's Now Your Pet Can Live Forever, an assortment of cat's tails pointed at both ends and prosthetically extended to various lengths by seamlessly overlapping their photocopied sections.

Peter Maloney's powerful Head, from 1996, explored the photocopier as an agent of decay, featuring a row of men's faces distorted almost beyond recognition, with a kind of Baconesque intensity, by a range of photocopier-assisted degradations: smudges and blurs, abrasive scratches, clotted clumps and trails of bleeding toner. A sound component replayed answering-machine messages concerning the death and funeral arrangements of a friend.

Martyn Jolly employed photocopier-as-camera in a work dating from 1981, featuring two photocopies of a watch lying next to a slice of bread, the bite out of the bread in second photocopy confirmed by the elapse of 48 seconds on the watch, with the title announcing and explaining the work: to link myself with that of a Xerox machine as I digest the bread the machine digests the image the product is shit. Meanwhile the photocopier's physicality as object was rendered with weighty literalness in Nick Stranks' B.A. T., a bronze casting of a now-ancient photocopier model.

One of the most engaging works was Rose Montebello's Sunrise in the Dolomites, a construction from multiple colour photocopies of a chocolate-box painting of an alpine scene, the kind of image found in old jigsaw puzzles. Elements of the picture, such as mountains and trees, were reproduced in cut-out multiple layers projecting into space, producing a quaint illusion of depth, while the whole construction was lit from behind like a kitsch restaurant decoration. The piece had an uncanny capacity to draw the viewer in to view and review it from a variety of angles and distances.