Black Mountain / aXolotl’s Happiness / This Fruit is for Eating - March 2015
Artist - Rohan Fraser (Black Mountain), Diego Ramirez (aXolotl’s Happiness) & Genevieve Dawson-Scott (This Fruit Is For Eating)
Author - Caitlin Eyre
The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary has always provided fertile ground for artists to generate meaningful responses to the human condition. This month at FELTspace, artists Rohan Fraser, Diego Ramirez and Genevieve Dawson-Scott examine how clashes between the mundane routine of everyday life and the unexpected magic of the extraordinary and the surreal can be used to liberate the imagination, explore complex emotions and create a sense of wonder. In the front gallery, Rohan Fraser's Black Mountain series captures the artist's profound shift from referencing scenes observed from life to depicting scenes sourced from the more mysterious and intangible realm of his own imagination. Forming the culmination of a year's work, the series clearly documents the artist's artistic development from a chaotic, claustrophobic realistic style to a strikingly controlled, minimalist and surrealist aesthetic.
The works from the earlier series feature scenes and subjects from the artist's everyday life: a group of young male gamers at a LAN party, power points, circuit boards, cardboard boxes, a simple table setting, an old television set surrounded by cushions and the odd landscape setting. These ordinary and largely unremarkable everyday scenes are rendered in a thick and heavy painterly style that deftly grounds the viewer firmly in reality. The colour palette of these works is muted and subdued, the boards bearing a strangely quiet and removed quality as though the volume has been turned down on the unfolding scenes. While the scenes and subjects are familiar and recognisable, they are simultaneously oddly discomforting and unsettling. Their familiarity, silence and stillness are almost claustrophobic and draining, creating the disquieting sense that reality is far too stifling and limiting for the human spirit, psyche and imagination.
The surreal, dreamlike qualities of Rohan's most recent works are strikingly minimalist, restrained and psychologically liberating in contrast to his earlier body of works. Instead of painting observations of his surroundings, the artist has instead focused his attentions inwards to the infinite worlds that can be created within his own mind. Harnessing the power of his own imagination for his practice, Rohan has sourced a great deal of potent visual material through his nightly ritual of performing visualisations to relax and encourage sleep. The scenes depicted have largely been drawn from the artist's meditations on the idyllic silence and stillness of the earth before the proliferation of life. The works feature silent and serene expanses of desert accompanied by reoccurring elements such as great rocky mounds, large skulls, lone black panthers and tiny communities dwarfed by their surroundings. The emptiness of these barren rock fields evokes a sense of peace and serenity rather than the chaotic claustrophobia of the previous body of work. The empty silence and barren spaces depicted in these works is pregnant with possibility, transformation and growth. By paring back and discarding the exterior world of reality and delving into the hidden depths of the interior, the artist has found a boundless new well of inspiration and creativity from which to develop his practice.
The aesthetic of these mysterious scenes reflect the minimalist look of pixelated video games from the 1980s, including elements such as flattened picture planes, two-dimensionality, simplified forms and highly stylised motifs. While continuing to work with a muted colour palette, the artist's boards are now sparingly punctuated with dynamic bursts of colour in the form of carefully rendered dashes and daubs. These markings, somewhat akin to colourful television static, reflect the fleeting nature of these visualisations as they found their way from the artist's mind to his work surfaces. The works in this series bear wonderfully enigmatic titles such as Mystical Doom-Laden Reverie on Blasted Plains rather than the largely self-descriptive titles of the earlier series, further impressing the widening gulf between the depiction of real and imagined worlds.
In the back gallery, Diego Ramirez's single video channel work aXolotl's Happiness depicts the wonderfully bizarre surrealist scene of an anthropomorphic axolotl performing mundane domestic chores. The video work is one component of a much larger mixed media installation that observes and interprets the iconography and anthropomorphic qualities of the axolotl in post-colonial culture. The Mexican-born artist found inspiration for his work in Julio Cortazar's short story Axolotl (1952), a magic realist tale of the Kafkaesque persuasion concerning a man who transforms into an axolotl. The axolotl is a water fish native to Mexico and is notable a number of curious biological traits, including its habitation of both land and water, its ability to regrow limbs and its permanently juvenile state. Axolotls are salamanders frozen in their larva stage and reach sexual maturity while they are still juvenile, meaning that they are, in essence, eternal teenagers. The rich symbolism of these qualities has lead to the axolotl being used as a potent, multifaceted and cross-cultural motif in literature, art and pop culture to express aspects of the human condition, particularly in Latin America.
The film features the artist as a man who has been transformed into an axolotl, his clean-shaven head now adorned with thick raised ridges of skin ending with a series of hot pink frills that fan from his temples like a halo. Dressed in a black and white tracksuit, the axolotl wanders around his suburban home completing mundane household chores, seemingly ambivalent to his unusual appearance and remarkable circumstances. He dons plastic gloves to wash the dishes as he gazes nonchalantly out the window of his kitchen; ties a bag of rubbish and takes it outside to the household bin; loads clothes into the washing machine and starts the cycle. In awe of his appearance, the viewer is perplexed by the axolotl's routine of normalcy despite the profound transformation he has undergone. He works at a slow pace to replicate the mundane and immobile life of the axolotl, frozen between childhood and true maturity. The juxtaposition of an extraordinary man undertaking banal everyday tasks in a familiar domestic setting is simultaneously comical and disturbing, creating an intriguingly hybrid experience that falls between reality and the surreal.
Waiting for the washing machine cycle to end, the axolotl finds himself in a moment of eerily calm reflection as he sits on the edge of his bathtub. Face set with ambivalent neutrality, the axolotl takes a large fish hook and places it in his mouth, hooking the corner of his cheek with the sharp blade. As the washing machine voices the end of its cycle, the axolotl tears the hook from his mouth and violently spits blood into the porcelain sink. Doubled over, the axolotl stares ambivalently at the mess of his blood splattered across the white sink. In the final scene, the axolotl returns to complete the remainder of his daily chores, expressionlessly hanging out the washing on a hills hoist in the backyard.
The most intriguing, albeit disturbing, aspect of the film is the axolotl's attempt to harm himself, an act that in this tale bears many complex readings. As a creature capable of regeneration, pain, injury and mutilation mean nothing to the axolotl, who lives in the knowledge that all hurts can be healed, all limbs regrown and all actions undone. Despite this incredible reality, however, the axolotl cannot help but play with its own mortality, pushing the boundaries of self-destruction in, perhaps, an attempt to feel alive despite his stunted growth. Although he has been bestowed the apparent blessing of eternal youth, a prize that has been sought throughout history and literature, the axolotl instead feels damned, doomed to live a half life straddling the worlds of childhood and maturity. He is trapped in a state that is typically temporary, a state of growth and development that he will never complete. The continual presence of the washing machine in the film seems to suggest the mundane routine or repetitive cycle of the axolotl's existence. The axolotl is frozen in his own life cycle, doomed to be forever young. Without continual change, transformation or development, the axolotl, like the monotonous household chores he undertakes, will continue each day as a matter of routine rather than as part of a life truly lived. Perhaps the act of self-harm is a means for the axolotl to gain back control over his body despite his transformation, an attempt to gain control of his existence, even momentarily. The wounds always fade and heal. The act of fearing harm to oneself is made obsolete and harm itself is rendered unremarkable in his eyes: it is routine to exist, to be harmed and to carry on.
The TREEspace installation This Fruit Is for Eating by Genevieve Dawson-Scott is a wonderfully light- hearted artistic intervention on the banal urban cityscape. Working with the aim of generating surprise, joy and laughter, Genevieve has lovingly adorned the branches with an unusual assortment of objects and small gifts to bemuse and delight the unsuspecting passerby. The branches are decorated with fluttering gold streamers, silver bells, old wooden-handled skipping ropes and an assortment of mandarins, figs and other fruit suspended from strings. Finally, the base of the tree is scattered with a thick dusting of cinnamon powder. The artist uses the combination of these different elements to tantalise, invigorate and engage the senses in a full body multi-sensory experience. Upon seeing the tree, the passerby is engulfed by the sound of tinkling bells, the touch of the dancing steamers' gentle caress, the taste of the fruit's flesh and the smell of phantom cinnamon scrolls wafting through the air. All the adornments are cast at varying heights within the passerby's grasp, a subtle invitation and assurance that that the work is intended for interaction and participation.
The most charming aspect of the piece is the artist's simple yet generous act of offering part of her work to the unknown passerby, who is warmly invited to take a piece of fruit as a gift. The tree bears fruit as a gift for those who have the desire to take it, perhaps suggesting that those who take the time to engage and interact with the work will yield the sweetest rewards. This installation draws art out of the gallery and into our streets, thereby engaging with viewers who might not typically frequent galleries. It asks the passerby, numb to their surrounding by their own thoughts or, worse still, their iPhones, to acknowledge, register and engage with the world around them. In this way, the viewer encounters art in the unexpected setting of their everyday lives and routine, heightening their sense of bewilderment and awe as they encounter the extraordinary in their otherwise ordinary day. This work does not demand anything of you; it simply asks, with a warm smile and a gentle hand, to accept its gifts and let a smile cross your lips before you pass by.
Caitlin is an emerging Adelaide-based writer and curator.