Two exhibitions at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art track new lines of enquiry by Sydney artist Agatha Gothe-Snape and Melbourne-based Nicholas Mangan with surprising results.
♦ Agatha Gothe-Snape and Nicholas Mangan at PICA. Photo Lyn DiCiero.
Alternate logics are at play in Trying to Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair by Sydney-based artist Agatha Gothe-Snape and Termite Economies (Phase One) by Melbourne-based artist Nicholas Mangan, on show at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. Linked by their examination of the factual, the two have very different, but fascinating outcomes.
Celebrating PICA’s 30th year, Gothe-Snape was commissioned to produce Trying to Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair, drawing on works in the Cruthers Collections of Women’s Art, Australia’s only collection of women’s art, gifted to the University of WA in 2007. The exhibition responds to the 1995 exhibition, In the Company of Women, marking the first time the Cruthers family collection was exhibited publicly. Curated by PICA Curator Charlotte Hickson and Gemma Weston, Curator of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, Gothe-Snape was invited to undertake research and present a response to the Collection. Her own work, acquired by the Collection in 2013, sets the scene on entering the exhibition. It’s a simple construction of a partial wall with a threshold, or entrance, hung with fabric printed at the Sydney College of the Arts in 1979, the artist found for sale, strangely, in New Zealand.
Gothe-Snape says she had no real idea about the Collection before the exhibition. “I started from a sense of slight discomfort, feeling ‘is my work good enough for this formal collection?’” She also wanted to reinstate the bodies of the artists within the Collection. “I noticed their bodies were very absent when I went to the storage facility housing the Collection, so I invited a number of them, via letter, to contribute a chair.” The result is an interesting mix of worn, torn, basic, humble and elegant chairs, each with its own sentimental or historical meaning to participating artists. Weston says it’s interesting how the chair, being a familiar object in our lives, can have so many connections. “Everyone had something they could immediately relate to, or had a story about.”
An empty frame in the show, which once housed a 1937 self-portrait of Elise Bluman, is curious by the inclusion of circular holes on its backing. Weston says the holes were a now outmoded conservation technique. “The idea was to keep a microclimate from forming between the back of the painting and the frame.” Gothe-Snape saw them as breathing holes. “It was like she was trapped in the frame, but had ventilation. In fact now she’s escaped from this frame to a more suited frame.” In an interesting cross-gallery thread, the original reframed work can be seen at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at UWA for the duration of the PICA show.
Among the selection of works from the Collection included in the show, a portrait of Eveline Kotai by husband Giles Hohnen has particular resonance for Gothe-Snape. Her partner, Mitch Cairns won the Archibald Prize in 2017 with a portrait of her in repose. “I felt it was a beautiful gesture of love,” she says.
Upstairs at PICA, the industrious termite is the focus of Mangan’s enquiry. His starting point of reference is CSIRO research into termite activity in the hope their behaviour would assist in the identification of gold deposits and lead to increased efficiency and expansion of gold production. Apparently when termites bring soil up to build their mounds, traces of gold and other precious minerals can be found in the structures.
♦ Trying to Find Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair, installation view, 2019, Agatha Gothe-Snape with The Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. Photo Bo Wong. Courtesy Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA).
♦ Termite Economies (Phase One), 2018, 3D printed plaster, dirt, synthetic polymer paint, bronze, plywood, mild steel, fluorescent bay lights, Sony Trinitron PVM 9042QM monitors, archival and recorded footage (continuous loop), surround sound of termite warning signals by Nicholas Mangan. Installation view Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). Photo Bo Wong.
PICA Curator Charlotte Hickson says the artist departs from this research quite quickly. “He then expands on all the connotations which could be related to the subject.” Indeed the exhibition space is awash with 3D reproduc
tions of cross sections of termite mounds. “To have the works printed on a 3D printer, rather than being hand sculpted, was important to the artist’s process.”
Mangan says the schism between the digital and natural was crucial. “Three-dimensional printing builds up a form and is the opposite of mining which removes strata layers.” He says there’s a perverse loop between the natural world and what we understand is the digital world. “A lot of things we take for granted, such as algorithms, networks, the early development of modems, software and traffic control, were really developed by looking at the way social insects behave.”
The soundscape of the exhibition, a low hum, is in fact a composition of the sound termites make when sending a warning signal. This final touch, bringing the exhibition together, is at once interesting and repulsive. Mangan sourced the sound from pest control companies. “It’s an exaggerated version of the original,” he assures me.