January 2014

200 White Cubes / Plasticus

Tom Borgas / Carolyn Hanna and Vanessa White

I always get a funny feeling when I enter a space where I know a performance is about to happen. There’s a sense of unease and expectation, wondering what will happen next. Be it a theatre, stage or gallery, this slight disquiet is always there, just as it was on Wednesday 15 January when I arrived at FELTspace ARI. The sweltering heat only added to the nervous tension in the air. My first instinct is to search for clues. Backdrop; white cube gallery, roll of paper taped to one wall. Props; trays of paint, brushes still sitting in them, did these guys just run out of time? What did I read before coming here; Plasticus is a collaborative piece, one visual and one performance artist. And I’m left wondering about what is about to happen.

Exhibiting in the back gallery is local artist Tom Borgas’ 200 white cubes (striped), an installation formed of exactly what the title promises: 200 white cardboard boxes, individually screen printed by hand with thick fluorescent green stripes. They have been heaped/thrown in the back corner of the gallery, falling on top of each other in a not so perfect pile. They are larger than I expected and almost fill the space, tumbling over each other to the floor of the gallery. Each one reflects a dull green glow and this slightly eerie light fills the small space, the artwork expanding into every corner of the gallery.

Through this installation Borgas attempts to reconcile two worlds: the digital and the analogue. Growing up in the Riverland he is somewhat between generations. He did not discover the internet until he was 8 years old, and, when many of his peers are now so familiar with digital technologies that they are almost second nature, he maintains a love for analogue forms. From this position, the artist researches the impact that the digital has had on his practice, and begins to explore it through this work. The way in which we search in one area only to be led off on a tangent, digital technologies parcel up information in ever increasingly smaller bites and the calming effect that this has on the way our minds work. The repetitive aesthetic not only serves to diminish the individual box’s worth through multiples, but also reflects the sleek digital world of pixels and bits. Despite his interest in these new technologies, it is the analogue that still seduces this artist. Each component has been printed by hand, the artist’s marked barely visible upon the surface, though certainly there. And yet, the work is not finished. To complete this piece Borgas invites his audience to handle the elements of the sculpture; move the boxes, throw them, destroy them. Through this interaction the piece becomes activated and complete. With each move it becomes a new manifestation, more than simply a sculpture or installation but reflecting, in some small way, the viewers who have come before. This invitation is in direct opposition with the way in which we are taught to behave within galleries and around artworks. Lucky for Borgas there were numerous willing participants and I heard the first soft thump of cardboard box knocking cardboards box within seconds of the end of his artist talk.

Now back to that performance. At the core of Plasticus, the 45-minute interdisciplinary performance by Melbourne artists Vanessa White and Carolyn Hanna, is the over 30 year friendship that exists between the two women. Each one has dressed in a white boiler suit and, set to a soundtrack of pulsing electronic sounds and almost yoga-studio-relaxation-like music, they begin to move: jumping, twisting and bending in the space. They are not quite in time with each other. With a slight head turn they check each other’s movements and often someone lags behind a change in direction.

Projected onto the back wall are video portraits of the ladies. Crossing the gallery, they approach these moving images and begin to outline their faces with black paint, creating abstract portraits on the wall. And here they break apart. Carolyn, who predominantly works in performance, begins to move through the space, between and underneath the viewers while Vanessa, the trained visual artist, takes a paint brush to the wall creating thick black lines, increasing in size. The performance moves outside and sees Vanessa painting on the window while gazing at the movements of Carolyn on the other side. Ending the piece, both the artists finally start to work together again, tearing paper from the walls and wrapping it around themselves, holding and taping it to each other’s bodies.

This is a nuanced performance that speaks volumes about the ups and downs, the small rivalries and the way in which friends work together. Vanessa throws a sly, furtive glance over her shoulder to check on Carolyn’s movements. Noticing that she has started to interact with the crowd, Vanessa tries to outdo her, reaching for larger and larger paint brushes to create thicker lines. The final tool is a set of ten thick brushes, held together as a single apparatus, leaving thick black marks in parallel on the wall. As they go on they become more separated in their movements, coming together again and then moving apart. It is obvious that these two have known each other for decades and they understand the way in which friends and colleagues work together. This is translated beautifully through their rich collaboration.

There was an interesting dynamic created between these two works of art on opening night. Borgas, inviting us to touch and play with 200 white boxes (striped), taken up immediately and enthusiastically by his audience. When the performance started an interesting thing happened, people began to move away from the performers trying so hard to interact with their audience, real people compelling them to become emotionally involved. It was slightly unnerving to see the audience back away, giving this performance an increased sense of apprehension, and almost fear. This beautiful dynamic, showing the extent to which we have behaviour drummed into us, was a piece of serendipitous planning by the FELTspace commitee.