FEATURE STORY NOV/DEC 2019: Perth Festival 2020 Visual Arts Program

In the hands of local curator Gemma Weston, the 2020 Visual Arts Program balances the spectacular with the intimate and tender, while examining place and identity.  

♦ Perth Festival Visual Arts Program Associate Gemma Weston at The University of WA’s Sunken Garden. Photo Lyn DiCiero. 

In her first year as Visual Arts Program Associate for the Perth Festival, Gemma Weston is upbeat, excited and enthusiastic about her new role. The writer and former curator of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, couldn’t be happier to fully immerse herself in the new challenge – a distinct contrast to regimented gallery planning. “Working at the Festival is a very different pace,” she says. “There’s a speed, agility, and level of experimentation which is really interesting. I started in March this year, so at the moment I’m learning to do the job while I’m doing the job, which is an exciting challenge.” 

With Iain Grandage in his first year as Artistic Director of the Festival, Weston says there’s a stimulating sense of newness across the board in the organisation. “There’s a real excitement with Iain at the helm, and because he’s from Perth, and he knows the place so well, he really connects to it. He’s an absolute ball of energy, a force for good, and very respected by the communities he’s worked with previously. He also comes to programming from a practical understanding of being a musician and performer, so it’s a different atmosphere to previous directors in that sense.” 

Grandage has taken steps to consult closely with Noongar communities, bringing together an Indigenous advisory committee for the Festival. Indeed, the next four Festivals are thematically focused on a new Noongar word each year. The word karla, meaning fire, but also a gathering place, is the first for 2020. Weston says the word conjures a sense of home and the idea of fire being transformative, alluring, but dangerous, yet playing a vital role in land management. “I think fire has a role in everyone’s life, from campfire stories to hearths, and there’s moments in the Festival which take that as their beginning point, ”she says. 

So, how does it translate in the visual arts program? Weston says the program looks at a broad interpretation of the idea, re-examining Western Australian art and its connection to other places. As part of the Festival, Weston is curating The Long Kiss Goodbye at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, featuring six artists with a distinct relationship to WA, but who have left, returned or continued to work in WA at a distance. Sarah Contos, Penny Coss, Iain Dean, Brent Harris, Clare Peake and Michele Elliott create work around the notion of building from fragments and assemblage. “Their work is not so much concerned with the idea of home, but with a relationship to Perth which I think informs their work,” says Weston. “Sarah Contos, based in NSW, for instance, has won major prizes as well as major commissions with the National Gallery of Australia, and is represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. She studied costume design at WAPA, and became an artist when she moved to Sydney, but has never exhibited in Perth, which I find quite fascinating.”

At Fremantle Arts Centre (FAC), John Prince Siddon has been commissioned to produce a new body of work. Working from Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, Siddon is considered a maverick among his peers. His work draws on contemporary politics, social issues, television, traditional knowledge and personal experiences reflecting a Walmajarri man in West Kimberley today. Weston says she thinks of his works as a Dreamtime/Hieronymus Bosch-type Marvel Universe combination. “The exhibition challenges the notion of art in WA being centred in Perth, revealing how a critical practice can exist in regional Australia.”

The exhibition includes large-scale paintings, a series of works on shaved kangaroo skins, and sculpture. The exhibition is complemented by a selection of paintings from the 1990s by Butcher Cherel Janangoo (circa 1920-2009), named a State Living Treasure in 2004, the pairing with Siddon offering a glimpse of the richness of culture in the Fitzroy Crossing area.

Also at FAC is Bricolage by Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary, and Sebastian Diecke with acclaimed WA writer Josephine Wilson. Art meets science in this installation, where blood, silk and heart muscle are bio-engineered to create individual cellular units who self-assemble into living sculptural and kinetic forms.  

Two major virtual reality works in the program, at the Art Gallery of WA and PICA, explore relationships between new technologies and stories. Lynette Wallworth’s Awavena, on show at AGWA, is a VR/mixed-reality documentary featuring the Amazonian Yawanawa people. Included in the official selection of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival New Frontier program, Awavena matches cutting-edge technology with the creative instincts of Sydney-based Wallworth, relating the story of the first female shaman of the Yawanawa, a people ascending from the edge of extinction. A collaboration between artist and community, the immersive film is a gift from the Yawanawa to experience their forest and culture. 

♦From Awavena, Virtual Reality by Lynette Wallworth at the Art Gallery of WA.

At PICA, Chalkroom by pioneering US artist and musician Laurie Anderson and Taiwanese new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang won the Best VR Experience at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival. The interactive installation takes participants through a dark structure punctuated by words, letters, drawings, and stories, forming and reforming. Enter, and you’re free to fly and roam a multi-chambered pseudo world. Weston says Anderson is an experimental musician and a peer of Lou Reed. “It’s a major work which has been presented around the world, so it’s exciting to bring it to Perth. Both VR works at AGWA and PICA, present stories about the human condition, but continue a story telling tradition in new media.”

Also at PICA is Thunderhead by Sydney-based performance artist Tina Havelock Stevens, and Hudson Valley Ruins by US artist Jacky Connolly, who makes the leap to traditional narrative cinema while creating a work entirely in the life simulation computer game The Sims 3. The work tracks the fractured lives of characters in the form of avatars in middle-class Upstate New York, in scenes either familiar or brutally unfamiliar. Thunderhead is set in the wide vistas of Texas where a dramatic thunderstorm brews to the backdrop of Stevens’ drumming. Influenced by her background as a documentary filmmaker and as a drummer in post-punk band, Plug Uglies, Stevens was also the winner of the prestigious Blake Prize in 2018, and was commissioned to perform Thunderhead at Dark Mofo, Hobart in 2016.   

DADAA in Fremantle joins the Perth Festival program with its new gallery space now operational, and features Cheeky Dogs by Tennant Creek artist Dion Beasley whose unconventional journey into contemporary art is via a fascination for cheeky dogs. 

Thin Veneer, 2015, oil on board by Sandra Hill on show at John Curtin Gallery. Image courtesy the artist and Mossenson Galleries. 

At John Curtin Gallery, a sense of home is keenly felt in Ian Strange: Suburban Interventions 2008-2020, and Mia Kurrum Maun (Far from Home) by Aboriginal artist Sandra Hill. WA-born Strange has forged an international career with his hauntingly beautiful transformations of suburban homes into large-scale sculptural interventions. The works rely on collaboration with local communities, and essentially subvert the archetypal image of the suburban home. The ten-year survey of his work features images typically devoid of people, evoking an eerie sense of trauma and calamity. Sandra Hill’s concurrent exhibition is anything but devoid of people in the suburbs. Hill investigates the suburban housewife and the place of Indigenous women in it, drawing on her own experience as one of the Stolen Generation of children. Weston says the concept of home and suburbia is quite often discussed in an abstract, globalised language. “Sandra’s work connects that with place and history, and a political reality shifting the discussion into quite interesting territory. It’s a really exciting pairing with Ian, which I think will bring new conversations to both their work in positive ways.” 

Weston’s predecessors at the Festival for the past few years were based in Sydney. While her contract is set for 2020, she hopes to stay longer, bringing the advantage of local knowledge to the role. She sees a level of confidence in the arts rising in WA following the closure of numerous commercial galleries in Perth in 2012. “I think there’s been a bit of a recalibration, and a renewed sense of optimism, particularly with the younger generation of artists at places like Cool Change Contemporary, and Paper Mountain. There’s some great activity happening at Heathcote at the moment too. In the small to medium sector of the arts, there’s an energy I don’t think I’ve seen for a while, and this optimism puts the arts in a great position going forward. There’s a sense of a change of guard which can be destabilising, but I think it can be a sense of opportunity as well. It is still quite difficult in terms of funding, but there is a new atmosphere of possibility in the arts.”

Weston sees possibilities in forming relationships with galleries currently not included in the Festival, and activating projects, including public art, which speak in dialogue with the rest of the program. She cites the Festival’s Highway to Hell in 2020, where ten kilometres of Canning Highway will be closed as a tribute to Bon Scott’s connection to the area with an eight-truck musical parade, as a beginning to this philosophy. “It will have a visual arts component,” she says, “with artists dressing trucks, so it will be a multi-media, multi-genre moving spectacular. In the future I’m interested in art in the public realm which is a different experience than placing an object in a location and people coming to look at it. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to think about that for 2021.” 


Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Exhibition 9 Feb – 19 April: CHALKROOM, Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang. THUNDERHEAD, Tina Havelock Stevens. HUDSON VALLEY RUINS, Jacky Connolly

Art Gallery of WA. Exhibition 7 Feb – 2 March: AWAVENA, Lynette Wallworth

John Curtin Gallery. Exhibition 7 Feb – 24 April: IAN STRANGE: SUBURBAN INTERVENTIONS 2008 – 2020. MIA KURRUM MAUN (FAR FROM HOME), Sandra Hill

Fremantle Arts Centre. Exhibition 6 Feb – 22 March: JOHN PRINCE SIDDON: ALL MIXED UP with JANANGOO, Butcher Cherel Janangoo. BRICOLAGE, Nathan Thompson, Guy Ben-Ary and Sebastian Diecke with Josephine Wilson

DADAA. Exhibition 7 Feb – 18 April: CHEEKY DOGS, Dion Beasley

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Exhibition 8 Feb – 9 May: THE LONG KISS GOODBYE, Sarah Contos, Penny Coss, Iain Dean, Brent Harris, Clare Peake and Michele Elliott


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