In a scene from The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her entourage are put to sleep by The Wicked Witch of the West in a field of poppies, and whilst unconscious they begin to be snowed upon. The material used to depict snow in this movie (and other movies of its era) is in fact chrysotile asbestos fibre. This discovery is the basis of a work by Connie Anthes, a delicate snowball-esque object made from the stitching of a Tyvek suit (a disposable coverall made from synthetic fabric that is used as a protective garment against hazardous substances, such as dry particles and aerosols, made popular by Devo in the 1970s, who wore a custom-made two-piece variety embroidered with their logo). Titled Untitled (Whitewash/Snowball), this ‘snowball’sits on a plinth and is encased within a glass vitrine, its support reminiscent of a Larry Bell sculpture. Indeed, the aesthetic simplicity of the piece is quite alluring, and as the first artwork you encounter in this exhibition of new work at DNA Projects curated by Gilbert Grace titled Super Six, it begins to establish an important dialogue on the relationship between aesthetics and health.
The companion piece to Untitled (Whitewash/Snowball) is the ‘cloud’ from which the ‘snowball’derives: the Tyvek suit itself. Hanging from the ceiling in a delightfully lo-fi manner, the exhausts of a PC fan acts as a mechanism that keeps the Tyvek suit (also hanging front the ceiling) inflated, distorting and subverting the Tyvek suit into a cloud-like form, titled Untitled (Tyvek®Suit/Cloud). The hum of the PC fan is slightly audible from the entrance of the gallery, its white-noise just skimming the surface of the voice from a 1959 asbestos advertisement that narrates Sarah Breen Lovett’s Times Dark Captain video, which features a scrolling visualisation of asbestos fibres in microscopic view at various scales. Like Anthes’pieces, the graphics of Lovett’s video are visually striking, reminding me of Len Lye’s experimental film of 1979 consisting of black-and-white abstract graphics called Free Radical. Like the use of the word ‘whitewash’as a supposed pun in the title of Anthes’installation, Lovett presents a rather shocking dichotomy between something of aesthetic pleasure and the frightening historical uses of asbestos that range far beyond Hollywood props to things like asbestos tiling (so easy that even a housewife is able to lay them herself, we learn) and baby clothing (used for its anti-flammable properties).
Next to Lovett’s video is Alex Wisser’s The Aesthetics of Breathing, which is, in the words of the artist, an attempt to visualise the difficulty in breathing he experienced as a smoker who was in the early stages of emphysema, thus making parallels with the condition of mesothelioma (a cancer that develops as a result of contact with asbestos). Throughout the video we are presented with various scenes of the artist, who’s head is covered in semi-transparent plastic, breathing within activities of his domestic life (the mis-en-scene, intentional or not, is superb). Whilst witnessing Wisser experiencing a shortness of breath, which seems to progressively grow shorter as each scene progresses, my own pattern of breathing follows, and this makes for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience, highly successful thus as a result of its ability to physically transmit this experience so that audiences can know (or at least taste) this for themselves.
Indeed, breathing is a thematic concern that is echoed throughout many of the works in the exhibition. Anthes’‘cloud’form is dependent on the PC fan's exhaust, just as we are dependent on breathing for our own lives. The intrusion of fibreglass thread in Peter Williamson’s pressed and woven palm inflorescence in the form of a pair of lungs (simple titled Lung) is slightly unsettling, almost as if the organic materials Williams’employ are spoilt by its presence, much to same effect as spotting rubbish in natural environments, and I have a sudden urge to yank it out.
The title of Georgina Pollard’s sound-installation, in/out spoken, implies something about the content of her work, that being the language of the spoken breath (as opposed to the spoken word), although I initially overlooked this. I learn that Pollard has written a letter to her grandfather, a whilsteblower who informed the ABC that Hardies (an Australian company of industrial materials) was illegally dumping asbestos in driveways throughout Parramatta, who died of mesothelioma when she was eight. Although we are not to read the letter, it exists as a document and Pollard’s partner is the only other person who has read it. Sitting down in the chair (apparently Pollard’s grandfather’s and the same chair she sat in to write the letter), I was expecting to hear Pollard recite her letter, but instead I was presented with the sound of her pen on paper, the occasional sighs of emotional difficulty and some white-noise. The concealment of the content of the letter from the viewer’s expectations is powerful, as it implies how deeply personal Pollard’s process is. That the subject of Pollard’s work is her own grandfather show us that Pollard (and by extension, the exhibition) is not dealing with the consequences of asbestos as an abstraction, and remind us how close to home these issues really are.
Next to Pollard’s work is a print that consists of multiple screenshots of Wikipedia articles on asbestos and asbestos-related diseases and issues. The inclusion of this print in such close proximity to the sound installation is slightly confusing, and whilst the screen-grabs of information make for an interesting composition, there is no context given for the work, and no reference to it in the catalogue. Another kind of concealment is that which is intended in Warren Armstrong’s Work #3:Alveolus, consisting of two 3D printed models of enlarged alveoli (balloon-like air sacks found in the lung that perform gas exchange) before and after being in contact with things like asbestos fibres, which we are asked to touch—with eyes closed—throughout an audio tour of histological information. Armstrong’s piece is odd, because it is difficult to do what he asks and not to look at the forms that are quite nicely crafted. Perhaps if the pieces were enclosed and the only way to experience them were through touch, this could have been more successful in the way that the artist intended. Furthermore, the work is something I would expect to find in a scientific and education context—somewhere like the Powerhouse Museum—and whilst it would do exceedingly well in that environment, I find its inclusion in this exhibition peculiar.
The curator’s own two pieces included in the exhibition, Straw Men #1 and Straw Men #2 are paper approximations of body maps (amalgamations of five or six sets of skin, veins and arteries from corpses, developed for and used by microsurgery). These ‘body maps’are covered in materials such as plaster, chalk and glass fibre, and burnt in different ways. The ghostlike figures are quite different in some ways; the first is layered thickly with plaster, almost as if it has suffocated and hardened within that surface, whilst the second is hollowed out through the careful use of fire, appearing light and almost not-there, white against the white backdrop of the gallery. Indeed, many of the works are white (needless to say, as white is the colour of asbestos), and this commonality in colour is effective in bringing the work together.
The most curious inclusion in the exhibition are two very nice paintings by Anthes based on the form of asbestos fibres, which upon completion unintentionally appeared to the artist as anthropomorphic renditions of rock stars. They remain curious to me, for although I might be able to pick the David Bowie resemblance in the Untitled (Bowie/Asbestos Portrait #1), the Mick Jagger resemblance in Untitled (Jagger/Asbestos Portrait #2) is lost on me, and I am left gazing into the strange shape until I’m not really sure what I’m looking at.
The difficult (and interesting) thing about this exhibition is how visually appealing the work is, and how this almost negates the awareness it tries to foster in its audience about the dangers of asbestos. But this contradiction results in the exhibition being non-didactic, a rare find in the world of political art where good intentions are often confused with self-centred agendas. Rather, by celebrating the aesthetic beauty of asbestos whilst also exploring its inherent harmfulness, the exhibition is effective in opening up a dialogue, rather than immediately closing down on an single ideology. The exhibition sets out to raise awareness about a single material, but ultimately it brings us in contact with a much larger enquiry about the way we interact with the environment and our negotiations between construction, health and the economy. It makes me think of the uses of asbestos (and so many other things that are currently in production) that have been used by people aware and unaware of the effects to our health. (It also makes me think of the various ways we define —and often justify—the so-called ‘safety’of toxicity within our society.) Super Six, titled after the asbestos roofing produced by Hardies between 1950-1985, allows us to re-examine our relationship to materials and to pay attention to our collective health.
Super Six curated by Gilbert Grace
14 November - 06 December 2013
DNA Projects, Sydney