GOMA’s 10th an­niver­sary ex­hi­bi­tion is en­veloped in a re­mark­ably bright in­stal­la­tion by Shoplifter, writes An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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-


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