If only just for a moment
Nick Garner

The objects in the house were another form of silence. Clocks, vases, end-tables, cabinets, figurines, cruet sets, cranberry glasses, china plates. They were considered important because they had once belonged to someone else. They were both overpowering and frail: overpowering because threatening. What they threatened you with was their frailty; they were always on the verge of breaking. These objects had to be cleaned and polished once a week by my grandmother when she was still well enough and afterwards by my mother. It was understood that you could never sell these objects or give them away. The only way you could ever get rid of them was to will them to someone else and then die.

—Margaret Atwood, Bodily Harm, 1981.
Nick Garner
Ferry Piece 2012

The copy of the Margaret Atwood that I’m reading was on a shelf in the house that used to be my grandmother’s. I’ve been staying there, surrounded by her things – the ashtrays, the musty hats, the piles and piles of yellow letters. Coming across this passage in one of her books, I wondered whether she knew, whether this was her little joke.

228 Paintings of the Night Sky-01

Paintings of the Night Sky 2014

In early 2014 I made a work called Paintings of the Night Sky, a series of paintings made to the dimensions of the Modernist paintings in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection. The collection was rendered as 228 pine and canvas silhouettes, propped against the long wall of Kudos Gallery in Sydney. Over the first few days the black paintings gathered, accumulated, grew. On the fourth day an illuminated sign reading “PLEASE HELP YOURSELF TO A PAINTING” was introduced. Over the final week of the exhibition, the silhouettes evaporated like night-time shadows in bright light. Each one was removed from the gallery and taken to a new home, where I like to imagine them leaning against unknown walls, absorbing all light like a black-hole, a window into a dispassionate vacuum of meaning.

By taking the quantity and proportions of the collection, putting energy into making them and then inviting people to take them, I think I was looking for catharsis. I wanted to somehow erase and exhale the structures of our social and cultural existence. I was also interested in the pull between the corresponding works in the collection that the all-black paintings claimed to represent. Their subjecthood – title, author, date, connotations and supposed histories – and the individual objecthood of the paintings leaning against each other – their size and proportions, their shifts in texture and tone.

228 Paintings of the Night Sky-7

Paintings of the Night Sky 2014

Lately, there’s been a lot of crap written about how there’s a lot of crap written lately. We are wading ever-deeper, Macbeth-like, into a muddy bloody surplus of words about the surplus of words. Even worse, as artists and curators, we’re over-producing work about the sad state of over-production in the world. It’s enough to make you stop, put down your pen and go back to first principles.

For the past 400 years, ‘first principles’ has meant Descartes. What can we know, assuming we know nothing? What should we produce, assuming that nothing is inherently worth producing?

Archimedes used to demand just one firm and immovable point in order to shift the entire earth; so I too can hope for great things if I manage to find just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshakable.

René Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation II: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than the Body, 1641

Later in 2014 I produced a project called Acid/Gothic. It was developed both as an exhibition and as an issue of the magazine Das Superpaper. Aware of what I saw as the inherent problems with curating (and production in general), I think I was trying to rationalise or situate a kind of existential curatorial mode.

With Descartes’ Archimedean point in mind, my thoughts went something like this: The world is a vast meaningless oyster shell. Our experiences are all we have to serve as the grit around which meaning and value (the oyster) can form. They are the best fulcrum we can hope for in the absence of an Archimedean point. We start in a vacuum, and from a set of experiences, observations and responses we create meaning and an appropriate narrative for what we’ve seen.

And of curating, I wondered: What was this kind of authorship, this kind of story-telling born from arranging others’ works? I sent the following text to artists:

While Das Superpaper has been closely engaged in the process of curating, with the upcoming project at Galerie pompom it has been important to restate the ideological parameters – philosophical, historical, social, cultural – that we are prepared to work within when considering the physical presentation of works in a space.

On first principles we are looking at art as philosophy and curating as the assemblage and presentation of works and ideas in a defined space – in this case a gallery. The role of the curator, in this instance, is to at first observe and then assemble. With this, while not wanting to add any more romanticism to the role of the curator, I feel it is important for the curator to work with the philosophical language or system of logic that comes most naturally.

I personally enjoy a philosophical worldview that is built on a set of axioms that, while not immovable, gently vibrate around a core:

  • that in the beginning there is no beginning, there is nothingness, the universe is for the most part dispassionate
  • we make meaning from experience and take meaning from repetition
  • from our experiences we generate a reality with inherent systems of logic
  • in subscribing to and navigating this albeit arbitrary reality we develop a set of more flexible positions to help us address the problems and tasks of day-to-day existence
  • these more flexible positions are then articulated through actions and these, like the wobbly end of a pendulum swinging on its axis (read axioms), oscillate even more freely and feel more powerfully the effects of external forces.

Perhaps a final note would be to add that artists are involved in this last step of ‘making actions’, but that’s too prescriptive. While not being necessarily their main objective, in responding to their world, in part and in entirety, an artist can respond to and have agency in all areas – on axioms, positions held and actions taken.

The linguistic and associative process of assemblage, and engaging with the assembled, reveals shared systems of logic – shared between the works, the artists, the curator and the viewer. The exhibition acts, in this way, as a statement of curatorial intent and as a philosophical proposition. As a strategy, albeit obvious, this simple process of placing one thing next to another and working with the overlap of association forms the basis for this project – its naming, research, presentation and reading.

Nick Garner-Acid:Gothic-Install-pompom-01-Photo Brett East

Acid Gothic 2014

Formally and conceptually the project was obsessed with pairing things, with saying ‘these things go together, if only just for a moment’. I saw this as central to the act of assemblage and I saw assemblage as the task curating and editing were primarily concerned with. The title of the project was itself an assemblage: a bringing-together of Acid (or psychedelia) and Gothic, two cultural strategies that have appeared repeatedly throughout Western history. In the discussions with artists and writers, the various stylistic, formal, theoretical concerns and conventions of Acid and Gothic were described as cultural responses, part of a cultural arsenal of sorts, through which the artist and the audience could see authoritarian systems begin to warp and fracture. In the lurid shadows of these systems, in the dream-logic of Acid and Gothic, we could exorcise our nightmares and gratify our fantasies. Or the other way around, perhaps.

The exhibition featured works by Gary Carsley, Pia van Gelder, Tracey Moffatt, Sarah Mosca, Tomislav Nikolic, Giselle Stanborough and Peter Weibel alongside two eight-second excerpts from the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1993) and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), and a hand-painted copy of Willem Claeszoon Heda’s Still Life with Ham (1635/2014). It was installed at Elizabeth Bay House, in May 2014, and filmed, then, the footage was presented at Galerie pompom, in August 2014.

The footage of the exhibition was shot from the perspective of a person moving through the house. This was choreographed and performed by artist Jess Olivieri; her performance responded to both the exhibition and the space. The eighteen-minute film loop was then exhibited at Galerie pompom, projected onto twin-sided screens stretched on aluminium frames, set at equidistant points in the room. While the footage could be viewed from both sides, a rug was placed in the space between the two frames where I imagined the audience would stand.

From this central viewing point, it was easy to work out that each channel was playing the same footage started at different points. With a little more time, it was apparent that one screen showed what the person on the other screen was seeing. The loops were playing out of sync so that one was always eye-distance ahead of the other. At one point the travellers, each on their own channel, locked eyes across the room and, standing between the screens on the rug, the viewer became the viewed.

Nick Garner-Acid:Gothic-Install-pompom-03-Photo Brett East

This generative version of curating began with an empty space. From there, I was able to layer and bounce ideas and connections on top of and off each other. I felt the formal qualities, geographical context and historical context of Elizabeth Bay House lent itself well to this ‘ground-up’ approach. When the work was complete, this ‘ground-up’ approach was also the ‘spiralling’ approach (double helixes, spiral stairs and weaving through the architecture in the Gothic tradition abound), the ‘layering’ approach (layers of distance from some original moment, the layering of one space on another and the collapsing of events) and, above all, the ‘pairing’ approach.

The pairs in this project, spiralling out from the initial connection of Acid and Gothic, aren’t absolute binaries; they don’t exert the guiding influence of north/south, the moral influence of right/wrong, or the scientific absolutism of true/false. Rather, the pairs exist in relationships that are ambivalent, unclear, distorted, at times romantic and often consciously uncertain. They have blurred edges, seep into each other, merge and shimmer. Sometimes they exist as iterations of themselves, like a shadow or an echo or a memory. Or a pendulum seen at opposite ends of its arc.

The idea of the pendulum became a vital component of Acid/Gothic; as a metaphor for creating meaning and as a strategy of connecting places, ideas and times to a pivot. In the foreword to Issue 32 of Das Superpaper the pendulum motif allowed for the geographical linking of two key historical and geographical sites. First, Elizabeth Bay House (1835-39) was linked to Grosvenor Place near Circular Quay (1988). Second, European Settlement in Australia (1788) was linked to Europe and other established centres of cultural production, with the Harbour, flowing in and out through the Heads, acting as the pivot.

Nick Garner_Ferry Piece_2012_Video Still-1

It’s appropriate then, that Feeling Sentimental, an exhibition conceived as a Romantic coda to Acid/Gothic, also sat within this pendulum’s swing, between Elizabeth Bay and the City, at Firstdraft Gallery in Woolloomooloo.

A 70-inch flat screen monitor lay face-up in the centre of the small, square, white room. The screen showed a silent 12-minute, single-take video I had filmed in 2012 of the wake of a ferry as it travelled between wharves. As the ferry starts and comes to rest between the different wharves the piece is broken into three main movements (something like Andante, Moderato and Allegro con brio). The water ripples for several minutes and then the frame begins to stutter. As the engine starts the water turns and is quickly churning, swelling and crashing. At its peak, in the third movement, the frame has turned to white. Universes appear in the suspended drops of water and then are gone, returned to the churning foam. The ferry arrives at the last wharf, the wake eddies and calms, the video cuts to black and plays again.

Paintings of the Night Sky was governed by a desire for catharsis, the urge for a burst of energy to expel the canon. Acid/Gothic was full of complicated strategies and decisions – pairs, spirals, layers, reflections and action. And Feeling Sentimental was defined by a pull between action and inaction, flow and inertia. The stillness of the camera and the weight of the screen frame the constantly moving water. It’s as if the only governing decision, apart from where to point the camera and when to pull focus, was to press record.

It felt necessary to present this work after Acid/Gothic, counterbalancing the latter’s overarching individualistic premise. Although it can be tempting to sink into the selfish waters of existential malaise, I’m ambivalent toward the notion that the only meaning in the world comes from what we create. While the decisions made in Acid/Gothic were active, Feeling Sentimental preferences observation. Both works are built on a single long take, but where the former loops, walks, pans and twists, the latter holds. The stillness of the frame lets the world in and then cuts to black.

Paintings of the Night Sky
March 04–March 15 2014
Kudos Gallery, Sydney

August 22–September 14 2014
Galerie pompom, Sydney

Feeling Sentimental
October 22–November 14 2014
Firstdraft Gallery, Sydney

Nick Garner is a co-founder and the producer of Das Platforms, an Australian-based contemporary art media project. He holds a BFA (2006) and MArt (2012) from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.