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‘Making It Real’ is an exhibition that surveys the work of an artist dedicated to the revelation of objects and technology physically unknown to us. Things like GPS satellites and lunar rovers; ejector seats and Google Street View cameras. Peter Hennessey’s art is concerned with converting inaccessible things into tangible forms. His practice of the last decade is summarised well by this tightly and well-curated exhibition by the University of Queensland Art Museum’s (UQAM’s) Samantha Littley. It is also rare to see exhibition opportunities for mid-career artists like Peter Hennessey—something for which the Museum should be congratulated. Hennessey’s work is big, in most cases to scale with its real world counterpart—it must be hard to find a public space able to comfortably accommodate it. The size of these works challenges the parameters of the UQAM’s galleries and their inherent restrictions. This is by no means a negative—their weight and sheer presence is felt through their proximity. The question that the work fails to account for, however, is what it actively achieves by existing, beyond its admirable technical quality and intricate detailing. Hennessey’s work of the last decade appears, in hindsight, with the help of this survey exhibition, to be an altar dedicated to aesthetics.
The main push and pull at the heart of Hennessey’s project is the absence of objects due to the digital world, scientific/political secrecy or environmental restrictions. Within these parameters, images stand in for the actual—we all recognise the distinctive shape of Sputnik, but who among us have stood next to it? Hennessey seems determined to be the man who can provide the common punter with this opportunity. He wants us to join him in prioritising the big and physical over the small, subtle, temporal and ephemeral. In some ways, it reminds me of what I imagine the experience is like of visiting the Smithsonian, seeing objects of technical precision and awe, jets and space shuttles brought to your eyeline. This return to objecthood and craft is an approach consistent with a school of Melbourne artists like Ricky Swallow, Callum Morton and Patricia Piccinini, who emerged in the 1990s. That this style is still being pursued today is somewhat telling.
Situated in the ground floor galleries of the UQAM, ‘Making It Real’ also elaborates on Hennessey’s ongoing fascination with space. This lies, presumably, in its status as the epitome of the unknown—repeatedly Hennessey has returned to machines dedicated to space exploration. In My Mission Control (2005) he recreates a control terminal from within NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, complete with a two channel video built into the space the original monitors occupied. In My Voyager (2004), he reconstructs the Voyager 2 probe, launched in 1977 and currently transiting through the Heliosheath outside of our solar system. Personally, I feel a pull with this object, perhaps because its existence is the most distant—it left our world a decade prior to my birth, left our solar system when I was two and continues to remove itself from the parameters of my imagination. There is a romance to its lonely mission. Its objective is, in its own distinct way, both sad and heroic. It is here that Hennessey’s practice touches upon a genuine feeling of wonder and awe. Voyager 2 was also famously accompanied by a ‘golden record’, a vinyl disc that included samples of music, sounds and spoken languages from across human history. In an attempt to recreate the content of the vinyl, Hennessey rerecorded as much of the content as he could from the neighbourhoods surrounding his Melbourne studio, asking native speakers of the various languages represented to contribute. There is something touching about this approach, and one that says a lot more than what Hennessey’s chosen medium of plywood actually does. Perhaps appropriately, when Hennessey returns to subject matter similar to that of My Voyager (2004), in, for example, My Hubble (2010), a 1:1 of the Hubble Space Telescope, the scale and folly feels decadent.
At this point Hennessey starts to play with what I imagine he considers to be ‘abstraction’, inverting, reorientating or rescaling his objects, as if to challenge us to recognise them. In My Ejector Seat (2006), he recreates an ejector seat replete with engaged chute, spilling across the gallery floor. Based on the pilot’s seat of a B-52 bomber, he talks of the upside down chair as a throne upended, of might brought to its knees.
In some of his most recent work, Hennessey encourages more dialogue between the different pieces. Drawn directly from his latest exhibition at Tolarno Galleries, in the first gallery space of the UQAM competing GPS satellite technologies are pitted against each other, specifically the European Union’s Galileo, Russia’s Glonass and the United States of America’s Navstar. The Galileo, reproduced in waxed birch and gaboon plywood, is wall mounted and becomes more a picture than seventy-two repeated antennae. Glonass, refashioned with pigment-coated aluminium, and also wall mounted, gives the appearance of a complex, sci-fi torture device. The USA’s Navstar is flipped on its back and placed on a table top; its various devices become buildings and spires, populated by those little plastic people you see in dioramas. Here, Hennessey comments on the pointlessness of three competing systems for a technology (GPS) bound for inevitable obsolescence. The issue is that he seems, in general, to put too much faith in the allusion of the temporary or provisional that his chosen mediums partially encourage. He seems to want his work to engage in a critique about our experience of reality. Overall, however, to me it is more like the satellites he admires, cold and distant.
Peter Hennessey, Where we are now (Navstar Block II-F satellite, USA), 2014. Plywood, ABS plastic, wax. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2014. Photograph Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.
Peter Hennessey, Where we are now (Navstar Block II-F satellite, USA), 2014. Detail. Plywood, ABS plastic, wax. Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2014. Photograph Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.
Peter Hennessey, My Lunar Rover (you had to be there), 2005. Plywood, steel, canvas and Velcro, 298 x 206 x 396cm. Private collection, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.
Peter Hennessey, My Voyager, 2004. Installation view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.