Facts and figures

Looking at me through you, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 27 May – 23 July 2017

I attended the opening of looking at me through you at Campbelltown Arts Centre with my 15-year-old niece, Raz. Raz lives in the Campbelltown area; she is the ‘me’ of the title, seeing herself ‘through you’, the artists. She found it strange, but not unpleasant to see her local area the subject of scrutiny from a range of local and external perspectives. 

Raz isn’t overly aware of the media and political rhetoric surrounding Western Sydney at the moment. From the rampant development of high-rise apartment blocks for ever-expanding populations, to nascent plans for a new airport at Badgerys Creek, to the WestConnex saga and the controversy of its proposed M4 toll, there is no doubt that Western Sydney is a dominant topic in the Australian media and socio-political landscape. Where there is development, there are statistics, and Campbelltown Arts Centre worked in partnership with Deloitte’s in the development of this exhibition, curated by Megan Monte.

 It seems like an odd relationship at first: a multinational consulting and auditing firm, and a local council-funded art centre. However, the population data gathered by Deloitte’s is used by councils, developers and other organisations to assist with economic, social and political planning. Depersonalised, but location-specific, the information is accessible to anyone who cares to undertake the online trawling required to source relevant files and data sets. In looking at me through you, we see what happens when this data is placed in the hands of twelve artists and groups, commissioned to create new work in response.

As Raz and I moved through the exhibition, she was presented with new perspectives on familiar sights from her world. She saw herself reflected as a tiny human in Andrew Christie’s wallpaper, printed with thousands of identical, almost indiscernible human icons: one for each resident of the greater Campbelltown area. Perhaps less so in his 3D-printed busts, representing the statistically ‘average’ male and female Campbelltown resident; Ms Campbelltown is more than twice Raz’s age. She eventually recognised the shapes that made up Tom Polo’s wall painting and neon work, STILL JUST HERE (2017), as signage from Queen Street strip mall, and enjoyed seeing something so familiar re-presented to her anew.

 We chatted to Dan Bourke, Andrew Varano and Gemma Weston of Pet Projects, who travelled from Perth in January to undertake a residency at the Quest Serviced Apartments in Campbelltown. When Gemma mentioned a dead tree in the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan, that is famously painted blue, Raz’s eyes lit up in recognition. One of her neighbours had done the same with a dead tree in his suburban yard, no doubt inspired by the original. The skeletal snag appeared in Pet Projects’ multi-channel video installation, through which they observed and catalogued with interest and care the sites and non-sites, motorways and landscapes, hidden details and secrets that they encountered.

The lack of didactic wall plaques throughout looking at me through you was refreshing, but with such specific research informing each work, many came to life through the room sheet, and better yet in conversation with the artists. It took Raz and me a while to ascertain whether a textual intervention on the floor of the galleries was a feature of exhibition design or an artwork in itself. Words and numbers in black vinyl snaked around the perimeters of the exhibition spaces, quietly colonising the space between wall and acceptable viewing distance. We made out suburb names, percentages, injuries and codes; Raz found her suburb and its odd correlate in the form of an injury: Pelvic Fractures.

Eventually we discovered that this was Shevaun Wright’s Songline (After Felix Gonzalez-Torres) (2017). Working from LA, Wright responded directly to the SEIFA Index of Relative Social and Economic Data. She deftly and cleverly drew together Aboriginal notions of time and principles of compensation law to interpret and interrogate this data, revealing the prejudices and value systems inherent in the compilation of this sort of index.(1) Wright correlated the percentage level of relative ‘disadvantage’ ascribed to each Campbelltown suburb to an injury that represents the same percentage of impairment to an individual body according to compensation law. The injuries are graphic and personal – facial disfigurement, erectile dysfunction – and provide a novel, relatable way into otherwise inscrutable data.

Where some artists, like Wright and Christie, worked essentially to visualise the data provided them, other artists responded more obliquely, personally or in opposition to the figures. Abdul Abdullah created a pair of painted portraits that combine facial features of students he worked with at a local high school. They are all exposed teeth and gums, shiny and fleshy; slightly warped, larger-than-life versions of Christie’s ‘average’ citizens. Keren Ruki’s installation of large woven mat, cushions and flowers was an invitation for communion; at the opening, she invited the audience to sit and stitch with her. Unfold the mat to allow us to talk (2017) was Ruki’s response to statistics regarding rates of youth suicide, and saw her enact traditions drawn from her Maori heritage to turn the unspeakable into a space for openness and conversation. If she had been situated further from the opening night bar, under gentler light, it might have felt more like a space for this sort of quiet communion.  

In other projects, the focus was narrowed to individual stories. Mona Ibrahim’s three-channel video represented a personal journey of her migration from Cairo to Western Sydney, whilst Damien Shen’s trio of portraits, completed with a wall painting by a Dharawal representative on opening night, depicted a local Dharawal elder and her family. Melbourne-based collaborators Sonia Leber and David Chesworth put current statistics aside to reflect on the aspirations of a 1970s Campbelltown resident who built an architectural folly initially intended to house his happiness cult.

Uses of land were explored, interrogating connections between people and place. James Nguyen’s The Good Earth (2017) was an incursion into shared space, informed by housing and real estate data. He transformed a long, narrow strip of lawn on the gallery forecourt into a garden bed, with soil from his parents’ farm and plants contributed by local residents. Nguyen drew attention to council land as a shared resource, whilst inviting us to consider the way land has been used and appropriated in Australia: from colonial theft through to Sydney’s current unbridled real estate obsession. 110% (Kieran Bryant, Beth Dillon and Lachlan Herd) focused on local sites of leisure – sports fields and parklands – and the labour of line marking, turf care and equipment maintenance required to sustain them. Their performance installation Fieldwork (2017) hinted at the oddly delicate balance of labour and leisure, and public and private space, represented by these spaces.

 Positioned in the art centre foyer, Salote Tawale’s A yali! A maroroi! Qai kune! (2017), made in collaboration with Donita Hulme and Sam Vatuinaruku, combined the personal with the communal. A tall rectangular cabinet was dressed up in frills of bright, tropical flower-print fabric, complete with threads of wooden beads – a friendly, domestic totem – into which three screens were embedded. The videos depicted communal rituals, without identifying the protagonists: deft hands gutting and scaling fish, pounding fibres, cutting thin slices of kumera; a family car trip and an outing to the footy. Hands, gestures, repetitive actions. Casualness, familiarity, closeness. Rituals raised from the quotidian by careful, gentle, loving attention. Tawale, Hulme and Vatuinaruku captured intimate, everyday moments that form portraits of community, finding a middle ground between the facelessness of data and the individualism of portraiture.

 Artists are known for noticing the things that others do not: for picking out the strange, the subtle and the overlooked. To hand them a package of Western Sydney population statistics seems, at face value, like an odd decision. This data is hardly under-examined; in fact it is a valuable source of information in political and economic spheres alike. Such a project risks becoming an anthropological study, and though there are traces of this approach, generally the responses are self-aware and critically engaged, or personal and poetic.

What artists can – and did – offer, is a totally different kind of engagement with faceless data. Rather than seeking to capitalise or project or plan, they responded creatively, personally and intuitively. For local residents like my niece, whose data sets were made objects of contemplation, this could be illuminating, challenging or downright obscure. Looking at me through you is a snapshot of a place and moment in time, and hints at the role that artists and art institutions may have in analysing, processing and humanising data in ongoing conversations around urban development.

(1) The sorts of things that are counted as disadvantages according to this index include blue collar workers, languages other than English spoken at home and single parent families—representative of specific value systems that are seen to universally correlate to advantage or disadvantage. 

Air Zoom Pegasus 35

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Mona Ibrahim,Je pense a toi, 2017, HD video, stereo, 9:25min. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

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Salote Tawale, A yali! A maroroi! Qai kune!, 2017, Various dimensions, Multi-channel video installation, Collaboration with Donita Hulme and Sam Vatuinaruku. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre. 

 

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Salote Tawale, A yali! A maroroi! Qai kune!, 2017, Various dimensions, Multi-channel video installation, Collaboration with Donita Hulme and Sam Vatuinaruku. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

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Tom Polo, STILL JUST HERE, 2017, Fluorescent neon on wall painting, Various dimensions, Courtesy of the artist. Tom Polo is represented by STATION, Melbourne. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

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Keren Ruki, Unfold the Mat to Allow us to Talk,  2017, Installation view. Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre. 

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James Nguyen, The Good Earth, 2017, Garden installation & video, Thanks to Louise, Chris, Geoff, Macarthur Centre for Sustalinable Living & WHOS (We Help Ourselves, Rozelle). Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

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Shevaun Wright, Songline (After Felix Gonzalez-Torres), 2017, Installation (vinyl). Courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

Rebecca Gallo is a writer, editor and artist, based in Western Sydney since 2017. She has written for publications including Sturgeon, Vault, Runway, Look, The Art Life and Art Guide Australia. Gallo was a director of Archive Space (2014-15) and collaborates with Connie Anthes as Make or Break.

 

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