Uncanny Nature

‘Uncanny Nature’ was a timely compendium of work. While it was an unsettled grouping of artists, this is apt. The essential theme of the show was that of a world in flux, which the artists had either knowingly or intuitively responded to. On socio-political terms the works tended to avoid overt commentary, but it was in the subtlety of the selection that they had potency.

The exhibition’s curator, Rebecca Coates, stated in her premise for the show that ‘For generations nature and the landscape have been extolled in their unfettered state, whilst equally, they have been subverted, mutated and transformed’. Her show, she tells us, presents works ‘depicting the natural world beyond the topographical or geographical’. It was a giddy premise and got off to a rollicking start with Richard Giblett’s pine-wood escalator at the entrance. But turning the corner the escalator became a hollowed out hothouse, the plants threatening to break through the structure. It was a wonderful piece of science fiction that reminds one of the power of nature.

Opposite Giblett’s fantastical installation was a work of even greater potency, Nick Mangan’s Untitled (Nest) in which an aluminum ladder was being overwhelmed by diseased timber. The metal frame was subsumed by this creeping growth and, given its title, one shuddered to imagine what would swarm from the nest when its metallic meal was completed. Between these two installations was Noël Skrzypczak’s stunning plasticated-paint wall installation, Monsoon, a giant hallucinogenic splash, a multi-hued mold that threatened to join Magnan’s work to totally mutate the pristine gallery space.

But Hany Armanious had certainly done his best to beat them to it. His massive floor installation—Bubble Jet Earth Works—is a strange and delirious machine using glycerine and worm castings to creating poetic drawings—think Gutenberg’s printing press gone psychotic. It hunkered in the centre of the main gallery space like a malicious growth, bubbling away to itself. Coates gets it right when she describes Armanious as ‘part shaman, part 21st century alchemist. He turns every-day plastic to gold: a contemporary witch-doctor in a Western world he presents what shouldn’t be there, what lies out of sight and out of mind…’.

This riotous cacophony of mutation unfortunately calmed down fractionally in the balance of work on show. Anne Ooms’ strange toxic-green miniaturised mountains sat on elegant white plinths suggestive of the lush green mountains that protrude from the sea off the coast of Vietnam. One almost expected tiny little hikers to be spotted struggling through the undergrowth. The title of the work, The Journey of Unspoken Things, is lifted from a text by the 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau, On Sauntering. With its hints of traveling to exotic locales the title is an apt and poetic addendum to a decidedly evocative series of works.

Ooms works sat before an elegant wall installation by Neil Emmerson. This was an awkward placement; given that both Ooms and Emmerson used vivid greens in their work, from a distance the first impression one had was that these works were by the same artist. Emmerson’s title is also taken from a writer, but one of a very different ilk to Thoreau; (I was his…) is taken from the Jean Genet homo-erotic novel Our Lady of the Flowers. Emmerson had shaved text into these green blankets, which were immediately suggestive of military bedding and hints of buggery and sodomy.

Alex Pittendrigh had a strong suite of one-dimensional works created from plasticine and blu-tak with the marvelous title Chinoiserie Atomique which sat on the wall alongside a selection of Tony Clark’s Myriorama paintings, deliberately crude landscapes in muted colours. There was also powerful work by the unofficial godfather of conceptual art, Robert MacPherson with his witty Green Pisser: 18 Frog Poems, 18 Constructions—a series of hardware-bought plywood budgerigar bird-boxes

As is ACCA’s wont ‘Uncanny Nature’ was an international show, with inclusions of work by Paul Sietsema (USA), Christine Borland (UK) and Michael Landy (UK), but curiously their work seemed less rigorous than that of the Australian contingent.

 ‘Uncanny Nature’ captured an intriguing trend in contemporary art, arguably a reflection of the planets’ environmental degradation. Other Australian artists tackling similar themes in recent years include Mikala Dwyer with her strange installations of plasticated trees, Brie Trenerry with her photo-shop drawings of fly-ridden ivy and the tempestuous zund prints of Irene Hanenberg. Even Dale Frank has described his abstractions as ‘landscapes’. If these artists are depicting the future it is a dark and mutated place indeed.

With works as powerful as those of Skrzypczak, Armanious and Mangan, ‘Uncanny Nature’ could not fail. In her introduction, Coates notes that, ‘Nature has, and always will be, mediated by culture’. That may be so, but I think it safe to say, with Coates’ selection, it has never been mediated the way it was here.

Hany Armanious, Bubble Jet earth work, 2006. Glycerine, worm castings, air, 159 x 80 x 140cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.