GOMA’s 10th anniversary exhibition is enveloped in a remarkably bright installation by Shoplifter, writes Andrew McMillen
Affixed to the glass above the entrance to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is a large decal depicting a curious meeting of blue and orange. At first glance, the nature of the bright substance in the image is unclear: is it smoke, paint, fairy floss, or something even weirder? Positioned in the centre of this combination are some words — “GOMA Turns 10” — and on walking through the doors, another great bloom of colour reveals itself, positioned high up on the right wall, as if a psychedelic shagpile carpet has been transposed to the vertical plane.
It’s only upon journeying further into the building — past the fences that surround a towering, under-construction slippery slide — and turning right into the Long Gallery, however, that the mystery substance suddenly makes sense: it’s hair, and there’s a bloody lot of it. Stepping closer to take it all in, the first comparison to spring to mind is that a sizeable chunk of the Great Barrier Reef’s most spectacular section of coral has somehow been transplanted here. Two white walls are connected by a furry overpass that tickles the top of your head as you walk beneath it, and in between the neutral surfaces is an ocean of bright purples, pinks, blues, greens and yellows.
Named Nervescape V, this immense installation has clearly been designed as interactive art, as the urge to touch the extraordinary arrangement of synthetic hair will be practically irresistible for any attendee, no matter their age. Its prominent position in the downstairs gallery reflects its role as a key attraction of Sugar Spin: You, Me, Art and Everything, an exhibition curated by GOMA’s manager of international art Geraldine Barlow. Next month the gallery celebrates its 10th anniversary, and Barlow has been digging through storerooms to rediscover some of GOMA’s greatest hits since its opening: hence the enclosed, multistorey slide, otherwise known as Left/Right Slide by Belgian artist Carsten Holler, which first appeared in 2010.
In a decade of showcasing conversationstarters and eye-poppers while becoming the nation’s most-visited art complex — together, the Queensland Art Gallery and GOMA attracted 1.8 million visitors in 2010 — the gallery has never seen anything quite like this. Casting her eyes across the phenomenal field of colour that envelops the space and extends high up the wall, Barlow compares it with “giving the building a bit of a hairdo”, and it’s hard to disagree. There’s nothing subtle about this piece, and that too is by design.
“Nervescape is like a model for the whole exhibit,” she says of Sugar Spin. “There’s a vast collection here: I’ve plucked out popular favourites, but it’s important for me to use those in a storytelling mode that’s not entirely didactic, but which sets up a rich ground that sparks off peoples’ own natural sympathies, interests and curiosities.”
Barlow is also hopeful that the sights and sensations encountered in these spaces will stick in the minds of visitors long after they have left. “Queensland has its theme parks, and people look to them for a certain kind of pleasure and joy of taking them out of their daily realities,” she says. At GOMA, “we need to do that differently, but still understand that people want a sense of delight and wonder, and a place that gives them an energy back — it doesn’t just require them to read a long, serious text [beside an artwork] to know what’s going on.”
It is early November when Review visits GOMA for a preview of Nervescape V, whose installation was completed the day before with the aid of two scissor lifts and a dedicated team of assistants. The visual artist behind the work is Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, though given how tongue-twistingly alien her Icelandic birth name appears to the average English speaker, she is happy to be addressed by the nickname Shoplifter — or Shoppy for short, which perfectly suits the Australian preference for proper noun truncation.
The 47-year-old wears black fingernails, a pale green dress adorned with bananas and the phrase “celebrating randomness” on her chest, as well as lurid green leggings she designed herself and white sneakers that show her bare skin beneath the laces.
Shoplifter’s work here in Queensland’s capital is now complete, but not without significant effort and sacrifice. “This has been very intense,” she says, widening her eyes. “This kind of undertaking is so grand and big. To do it in 10 days, without a break, is no joke. You are physi- cally and mentally exhausted after all of that decision-making. It’s like painting on a huge, three-dimensional scale. I could prepare more beforehand, but I enjoy the process of thinking and ‘painting’ while I’m here, to have an instantaneous response to the work.”
Despite harbouring an unpleasant array of bodily aches this morning — scoliosis in her back, and a strained wrist from gripping the staple gun for so long — Shoplifter is practically levitating as Review’s photographer snaps a few frames of her standing proudly at the base of the vast, furry mountain, as well as sitting on a perched platform built into the artwork. This is one of several vertical access points that are bound to be scaled by younger visitors, and perhaps a few of the young-at-heart, too.
“I’m fine with people climbing it,” says Shoplifter. “I believe that some artwork should not be touched in galleries, because they can be absolutely ruined. But an installation like this? You can’t break it. As long as people are not pulling the artwork apart, I’m happy to see kids climb on it. I want things to be playful. I’m not saying [galleries] are supposed to be amusement parks, but you see the slide by Carsten Holler; I like the way they’ve put it together. You can slide down, see a pop of blue colour on the way down, then you come around and see some other colour … It’s like pop art!”
Nervescape V has been exhibited before, as the name suggests, but never in Australia, nor at this scale: this work comprises some 500sq m of nonflammable modacrylic fibre, and the individual pieces, each about 70cm in length — similar to hair extensions — are bundled together with nylon zip ties and steel staples.
The hair was sourced from a Chinese distrib-
THIS KIND OF UNDERTAKING IS SO GRAND AND BIG. TO DO IT IN 10 DAYS, WITHOUT A BREAK, IS NO JOKE SHOPLIFTER