The dust of everyday life 

Frozen world features in a new show by Dust Art Collective by Eva Evguenieva May 27 2012
Te Waha Nui, An AUT University Journalism Publication

If you want to be transported to a frozen world, a new exhibition by the members of the Dust Art Collective, which opened its doors at a North Shore gallery this week, could be just for you.

Curator of the Northcote gallery Wendy Harsant says the 12 Auckland-based artists have been together for around five years practising individually, but have come together now and then for a joint exhibition. “There is one collaborative work in this show, but the rest are individual works.” Although nothing unites the artists stylistically, Harsant says some of them are united by ideas. “There are several in this particular exhibition who are interested in the idea of architecture, houses, containment and notions around that concept.” The exhibits include drawing, painting, sculpture, object art sculpture and photography.

One of the artists featured, Elaine Barry Conway, says her photography is inspired by weather phenomena and how these conditions can affect our lives. Her photographs capture a curtain of visually impenetrable mist, snow or rain over vast, murky Antarctic seascapes rippled by the wind. “There is a dense mist, and suddenly you can’t see anything, and in the whole environment there is a feel of change. “Suddenly you don’t feel so comfortable, you don’t know where you are any more,” says Conway. She says the sense of darkness in her works was inspired by the vast openness and huge scale of the White Continent which she visited recently. I wanted to get these shots with the fog and the sea, the feeling of aloneness and the hugeness that is Antarctica. “It’s a very vast continent that we only touched on, but you still got the feeling there of merely being at the end of the world, and really being a tiny little insignificant speck in the Universe.”



DUST 1.2 2009

Winsome Wild is a freelance arts writer. She works at Auckland's Gow Langsford Gallery and has recently returned from Venice, where she participated in the Peggy Guggenheim Internship Programme.

The Dust collective was formed in 2007, and is currently comprised of sixteen artists.  The original group, slightly smaller than the final sixteen, formed out of two other artist’s collectives: Post Masters and Big Shed Wednesday.  These previous groups held a few male artists, but Dust, although not intended to be so, is all women.  Most of the artists in Dust have degrees from Elam, AUT and other institutions.  The majority have also practiced in other fields, such as architecture and design, before returning to university and deciding to focus on and to develop their visual arts practice.  The aim of their collective is to create a forum that allows the artists to develop their individual practices, while at the same time being part of an exhibiting group that is open to working within such diversity.  The flexibility of the structure of the group is reflected in their choice of name.  As stated by the collective: ‘there are likely to be ongoing shifts in the nature and size of the group due to external circumstances. In the way that dust accretes and disperses, so the exhibiting artists may not always be the same’. (Dust 2009 proposal, project summary p.2)  

The concept of the collective is of course, not new.  Collectives have existed across art history and they can allow a group to develop a higher profile than perhaps they would initially, as individuals.  They offer the potential for collaboration, a benefit from shared ideas, critique and discussion.  While this may be an old concept however, when I was approached by Dust to look at their show at St Paul Street’s Gallery Three, it got me thinking anew about the idea of the collective, and the idea of the collective and artistic practice in Auckland.  How does one develop in the arts after leaving the collaborative environment of university, and how does one garner support?  In recent conversations I have had, several local artists have commented that artists in Auckland don’t like to talk to each other: that the culture of studio visiting and often rigorous critique evident in Europe does not exist in the same way here.  Is this the case?  If so, perhaps it’s just not in our nature.  Perhaps the niche here is too small: it becomes competitive.  Countering this line of thought however, is the recent flush of artist-run spaces that have emerged in Auckland over the last few years.  Again, the artist-run space is not a new concept, and neither are they new to Auckland. Yet there are an increasing number of them and they contribute a great deal to the arts in Auckland.  The artist-run space differs in their modus operandi to the collective.  Rather than banding together as an exhibiting group, they operate a space and a series of exhibitions.  Often however, the artists do sometimes put their own work into shows, and I would argue that the environment they create is similar to the collective, in the network of support and cross-pollination of ideas that they encourage.  

Dust, a relatively new collective, has had three exhibitions in their two year history.  The first was held at St Paul Street’s Gallery Three in 2008 (September 3 – 19).  It was entitled When the Dust Settles and featured the work of twelve of the collective.  The two exhibitions that will be discussed here, took place concurrently this year.  One, entitled Dust 1.2 was at Gallery Three from September 17 – 26 and featured the work of thirteen artists.  The other, Dust: Dispersion, showed at Artstation, Ponsonby, from September 9 - 26 and included the work of seven of those thirteen artists.  For the 2009 St Paul Street exhibition, all members of the group made works specifically for the show.  These works were critiqued by members of the collective in two five hour workshops one month prior to the exhibition.  As a result of this critique some pieces were reworked, though none were turned down.  Two members curated the show in terms of placement of the works. These were Sandra Littlejohns-Clark, who has worked at Papakura Community Gallery and Meiling Lee.  The Artstation exhibition was a smaller show – a smaller venue and fewer artists (seven) took part in this.  These seven artists met two weeks prior to the opening of the show and worked together as to placement and relationship of the works.  

Both exhibitions then, were created through an extremely democratic process, in line with the aims of the collective more generally.  Dust describes their exhibition process thus: 
Rather than being bound by a unifying theme our aim is to search out synergies that reveal themselves as work is developed and discussed in the lead up to exhibitions, and then work with and emphasise these points of connection through ensuing installational decisions. For this project we will continue to explore ideas that reflect the shifting, cumulative nature of dust… the overall impression will be of a diversity held together by having been dispersed and then settled in that place. The concept of dust remains a strategy that will continue to invite ongoing artistic interventions within atypical exhibition spaces. (Dust 2009 proposal, p.2-3) 
A potentially challenging aspect of exhibiting as a collective is creating an exhibition out of such a variety of practices and individual concerns.  Unlike the majority of contemporary group exhibitions, in which works are often selected on the basis of theme, the collective may require a different, or more subtle approach.  

True to the aims of the group, Dust 1.2 at Gallery Three is in a sense, thematised in its focus on the space of the building and the way the pieces settle within it.  For those not familiar with it, St Paul Street’s Gallery Three is a medium sized concrete space, with windows and two floor levels.  After entering the building the viewer ascends a ramp to the main exhibition space but then descends a second ramp to the lower level.  The building is light, open and airy, but the passage up and down, and the split level, gives the illusion of hidden niches and a winding passage through the works, and makes it an unusual space to exhibit in.  

Dust 1.2 features a variety of painting, sculpture and installation.  The first work to greet the viewer on entry is a set of three canvases by Marcia Jurasovic McEwan.  These are minimalist works that explore the power hierarchies of uniform.  The work is physically isolated within the exhibition, and this, combined with the monochromatic technique and geometrical emphasis, marks McEwan’s work out from the others.  After entering the main part of the gallery the viewer is presented with canvases by Sandra Littlejohns-Clark and Kerry Aitkin, two light boxes by Elaine Barry Conway, and installations by Serene Thain, Juliet Monaghan and Linda Roche.  Juliet Monaghan’s work, entitled Unveiling - Veils sets the scene for this part of the show.  It doesn’t entirely dominate, but the sound element of the piece, which consists a voice-over of interviews by the artist of three brides-to-be, pervades the area with the gentle murmur of female voices.  There is a feminine, or female, dimension to the exhibition which I think it is important to mention.  Because Dust did not start out as a specifically women’s dedicated group, and this is not a defining point of their modus operandi, they are reluctant to have this as a significant part of any discussion on their work. Yet it is a factor, as is the fact that they are all artists who have explored other fields before turning to art.  Gender is something to be considered, and by doing so, does not mean some kind of essentialist label that relegates the collective to the relevance of another era.  Would the non-hierarchical structure of the group, and the name of Dust have been chosen had the group included men?   

A particularly engaging work within this first grouping is Serene Thain’s, Untitled 2009.  Thain, whose professional background is in architecture, is known for her architecturally constructed, precise miniature wonderlands.  Untitledconsists of detritus the artist has scavenged from $2 shops and has employed in the construction of a Lilliputian-esque entertainment park.  Part futuristic city, part dream tree-house, the work has two main wooden ‘towers’ and offshoots of delicate spiraling ladders and wires.  These tendrils seemingly extend from the towers and scale the two window ledges of the gallery, before finally heading off into the adjacent wall.  This interaction with the space is not an aggressive intervention, but rather a playful integration with the opportunities the space provides.  There is a doll’s house element to the work, and the human desire to be experience omnipotence may in some part explain the fascination of the piece.  The bright colours of hair curlers and tapes measures, wooden blocks that spell out ‘domino’, all add to its lighthearted nature.  Thain’s imaginary constructions have parallels in Peter Robinson’s early practice.  While Robinson’s work, such as The End of the 20th Century, 2000, has a grimmer undertone and much bleaker outlook, the crazy fun-house atmosphere, pluralistic inclusionism and participation in a tiny world, is similar in the work of both artists.  There is however, in opposition to Robinson, also a feminine element to Thain’s practice, which employs primarily feminine accoutrements such as hair rollers and cotton buds.

The second part of the exhibition consists of three canvases by Raewyn Whaley (located on the wall of the descending ramp) and on the lower level, works by Meiling Lee, Juliette Laird, Robin Ranga, Carolyn Williams and Jude Graveson.  While the first part of the exhibition consisted of pieces that were strong independently, this second constellation of works is particularly cohesive as a group.  Each piece gives thoughtful consideration to the space it occupies and is in some way, focused on the ephemeral.  Particularly in light of the mission statement of the collective, this delicacy lends the works a shared connectivity.  Though terms such as ephemerality and delicacy sound potentially dismissive in terms of critique, on the contrary, the subtlety with which these works fill the space is one of the most successful elements of the show.    

Raewyn Whaley’s work employs automotive drawing processes. Her works in Dust 1.2Cloud of Unknowing 1, 2 and 3,(2009) consist of pale washes of layered oils on board.  The translucent light blues and grays are run through with pale red skeins of colour.  They are reminiscent of landscapes, but also of more abstract organic and cellular forms.  Juliette Laird’s work, Memorial 2 (2009) is created from nylon and installed in the corner of the gallery.  Due to the transparent nature of the medium it is possible to pass by the work without really seeing it.  Laird has knitted nylon into balls, located on a line of a single thread of the material.  These are stretched across the corner of the room above head height and attached with silver pins to the two walls.  The effect of the installation is understated, and entirely beautiful.  The nylon glistens in the light and the balls cast slight shadows on the walls.  The heads of the silver pins also cast a shadow, forming a pattern of dots.  Robin Ranga’s work, Colony/Colonise (2009) consists of shells and sea forms made from Abbots white clay, located on an expanse of Port Waikato black sand.  An investigation into forms of the natural world, the work sits particularly well here in terms of the use of sand as a medium.  Affected by passing foot traffic, the fragility of the material ties in with the work of Whaley and of Laird. 

In the furthest corner of the exhibition are: Sound Vessels for Pieces in Polystyrene (2009) by Carolyn Williams and Skin Dialogues: The Sheddings of an Inside-Out Person (2009), by Jude Graveson.  The pairing of these two works forms an interesting conversation.  William’s practice looks at sound: specifically the voice, and often imbues it with an unexpected dimension.  In this case, Sound Vessels, which consists of three polystyrene sculptures on a plinth, gives three dimensional shape to the voice.  The work is comprised of three ‘sound vessels’ of the word ‘pieces’ spoken in English by three different voices, with different accents.  The shape of each sculptural piece is entirely different.  While each work is aesthetically pleasing, more haunting is the representation of the voice which is completely silent here, but holds this strong physical presence.  Likewise, Jude Graveson’s work, which continues the artist’s interest in exploring gut as a medium, represents the unseen.  The translucent material is crafted into an organic form – with a main ‘body’ and four or five ‘sleeves’ extending out of it, and draped on a bending steel pole.  This ‘inside on the outside’ form is strangely lifelike, though it consists only of a thin membrane.  The work has a strong presence, like the sloughed skin of some fantasy creature.

Several of the artists discussed here, were also part of the concurrent show at Artstation Dust: Dispersion.  This exhibition was shown in Artstation’s upstairs gallery, which is one square room with windows along one side.  The artists that participated in this show were: Carolyn Williams, Juliet Monaghan, Elaine Barry Conway, Meiling Lee, Serene Thain, Jude Graveson and Linda Roche.  I saw this show after Dust 1.2, which impacted my reading of the exhibition.  After spending some time with the work at St Paul Street, the relationship of the artist’s different practices began to fee familiar.  Thus, when I walked into the exhibition at Artstation, it was with a sense of recognition, familiarity and even comfort.  It made it impossible to think about the exhibition as if I had seen it as a standalone show.  This is not entirely negative of course, but I was possibly less aware of more subtle conversations between the works.  It may also be however, that there was simply not as great a relationship between the pieces at Artstation than those at St Paul Street.  Dust 1.2 had been more planned of course, and more ‘curated’. 

The Artstation show differed in several ways from the one at St Paul Street.  This may have been due in large part to the difference in physical space.  That is, a square room leaves less room for a playful interaction.  Serene Thain’s work in Dust: Dispersion for example, 3D Landscape (2009) was located in the middle of the floor, and as such, there was no possibility of the work climbing the walls, which was an aspect in the St Paul Street show that made the work so intriguing.  On the other hand, several of the works at Artstation were stronger pieces, in the sense of being more dominant in colour or form.  Linda Roche’s Control Panel (2008) for example was a continuum of bright colours on huge canvas that ran down the wall and rolled out into the space of the gallery.  Juliet Monaghan’s work Unveiling(2009) again looked at the concept of the bride, and also featured a voice over.  Yet the voice-over emanated from a plinth and bridal bouquet located on the top.  Somehow, being able to walk around the work and around the voice, lent it more body, as did the greater audibility and clarity of the women’s voices.  Similarly, the work by Meiling Lee – This Land Version II (2009) was more physically engaging.  Lee’s work in the St Paul Street exhibition consisted of three globes situated inside small glass houses.  At Artstation, a huge red house mala made with 108 globes was suspended from the ceiling, curling into a spiral on the floor.  While exploring similar themes of home and belonging, the second piece was more physically spectacular. 

Both exhibitions presented a range of different practices.  Particularly in light of the difficulties inherent in such an exercise – working in a non-hierarchical and collaborative team, and working with such a variety of artists, I thought that both shows, especially St Paul Street, were very successful.  The individual works benefitted from their relationship with other pieces, and connections and associations could be made that would otherwise have remained silent if the works were viewed individually.  It will be fascinating to see how the collective develops and what their next exhibitions will hold.  If there are shifts within the composition of the group this will of course change the group’s dynamic and that of their exhibitions.  If the membership remains consistent, future exhibitions will evolve parallel to the development of each artist’s practice.  Certainly, the development of collectives such as Dust points to the importance and necessity of conversation within the arts as a means to its growth.