Mechanical Symphonies and The Overview Effect: James Aksman-Glosz reviews Sophie Clague’s ‘Pointing Devices’ at the SCA Galleries

Pointing Devices by Sophie Clague is at the Graduate School Gallery, Sydney College of the Arts, until 30 April 2016

Corrupt Diptyc
Sophie Clague, Corrupt Diptych, acrylic paint on wall, 2016. (Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)

Every week, in the media, we are reminded that we are living in a black cloud of conflict, uncertainty and swelling cynicism. In print, or online, we are bombarded with media articles about the lack of affordable rental housing, and how the middle class is being squeezed out of the housing market by generous tax concessions, and if Australia is the lucky country, its citizen’s fortune has faded, as many won’t have a place to call home. Overshadowing this is the constant threat of terrorism, some events are frighteningly real, (such as the Paris and Brussels attacks) although, in many cases, it boils down to just being shrouded sabre rattling, successful propaganda, which keeps Australia’s citizens in a constant state of anxiety and panic.

All these external threats have forced contemporary art, and the cynical culture of criticality that it brings, to take a back seat to escapism, a mirror image of the propagation of escapist culture during the Great Depression (1929-39). Instead of Life magazine and films such as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) that helped people endure the economic devastation of the 1930’s we have contemporary alternatives. Such as the popularity of big-budget superhero franchise films such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — nothing more than an adventure into adolescence — and the increasing profitability of the wellness industry, a feel-good distraction from real health problems. Acting as the counterculture to both the cynical nature of contemporary art and the empty distractions of popular culture is Sophie Clague’s latest exhibition Pointing Devices (2016). An exhibition that jettisons the conceptual baggage of hyphenated arts (art-and-capitalism, art-and-technology), and leaves the grim realities of our world behind, for more of an aesthetic experience, which visually explores the musicality of the cosmic universe placed in proximity with the image of faded memories of a childhood home.

Sophie Clague, Solar Flare Family Symphony, laser marked stainless steel, copper and brass, 2016, installation view. (Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)
Sophie Clague, Solar Flare Family Symphony, laser marked stainless steel, copper and brass, 2016, installation view. (Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)

One of the first impressions that I had when I walked into the commodious area of SCA Galleries, which houses Sophie Clague’s Pointed Devices, was more of a feeling, a sense of distance. A distance primarily created by the extended space between artworks that are on display. The closest artwork is ‘Corrupt Diptych’ (2016), a graphic acrylic wall painting, and the largest in the scale of all of the works. It depicts abstract geometrical shapes overlayed with mechanical-like ciphers, in a low-key palette, faded in colour and possibly a visual cue for corrupt memories. Light beige, charcoal grey, newspaper grey, lilac, and off-white, a colour scheme, which is used quite often in modern bathrooms and kitchens, and good enough reason to interpret this artwork as a faded memory of a childhood home.

and brass, 2016, detail view. (Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)
Sophie Clague, Solar Flare Family Symphony, laser marked stainless steel, copper and brass, 2016, detail view. (Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)

Perhaps my interpretation is biased, based on the fact that before coming to this exhibition, I read Sophie Clague’s honours thesis The Expected Ground: Entropy in Transmission (2012). In this thesis, the first chapter titled ‘Beginnings,’ is where Clague narrates a story about one of her earliest childhood memories of her parents building the house where she spent most of her life, near Bathurst in rural New South Wales. Clague states in the most honest and poignant prose “The house itself is situated on a hill of gravelly, granite-based rock. Hard pink gravel with a thin layer of topsoil…it stayed for many years and became known as The Dirt Hill…it was an epic mountain upon which endless stories were played out, and its scale could change as quickly as the wind.”

This testimony, with its heavy weight of childhood memories, has directly influenced my experience of ‘Corrupt Diptych’. I view it as an artwork less to do with the ideas evident in modernist abstraction, even though the deconstructed language of democracy and freedom (Neoplasticism) and a meditative and immersive void (Color Field Painting) hovers on the surface. In a similar vein, to her childhood recollections, this work strangely echoes temporal qualities. The faded surface of ‘Corrupt Diptych’ is haunting, like the distinct sensation of déjà vu, the dirt and gravel is metaphorical not material, moving this artwork away from hyphenated arts (art-and-environment) towards something more mysterious with its abstract lines that race past the corner of the gallery’s gyprock wall; themes of time and movement that have more in common with land art than abstract painting.

Sophie Clague, 'Unicorn', powder-coated steel, cast concrete, 2016.(Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)
Sophie Clague, Unicorn, powder-coated steel, cast concrete, 2016.(Photograph: courtesy of Fiona Grace McDonald)

Across from this wall painting, lies a considerable expanse of space, which leads to ‘Solar Flare Family Symphony’ (2016), a collection of over seventy plates, of various sizes, made of stainless steel, copper and brass. Unlike the majority of contemporary art, this work’s presentation doesn’t conform to a clear-cut visual archive. Rather ambitiously, and from a distance, it resembles a star cluster, with the gallery lights illuminating the gleaming plates producing pinpoints of silver, gold, and orange flare in the distance. As the gap shortens between viewer and artwork, symbols on the plates begin to emerge, more mechanical-like ciphers, cropped or heavily edited diagrammatical images, perpetually enigmatic and devoid of any actual meaning. However, on closer examination, there are some subtle visual cues of repetition within these secret ciphers, not too dissimilar to the four-note opening bars in a symphony. Although the visual rhythm of this work remains at a steady tempo, a series of visually harmonic tones that never quite reach a high crescendo.

Consequently, becoming a visual symphony experienced at a distance, this is a valid concept and brings to mind an article I read a few years ago, about astronauts who change their perceptions of the world when they view the planet Earth from space. This unique experience is called The Overview Effect, and it’s the acknowledgment that divisions — creating conflict on the surface of our planet — begin to dissolve when we can view our world at a distance. If visual art is to take the front seat in people’s minds again, it needs a changed trajectory, to move away from the cynical criticality of the past, towards a future where we can embrace a more meaningful culture instead of wanting to escape from it. Maybe ‘distance’ is the key, keeping visual arts an arm’s length away from rational discourse, so it can begin to grow again in more imaginative terrain. Providing affirmation that Sophie Clague’s exhibition Pointing Devices is heading in the right direction.

– James Aksman-Glosz


James Aksman-Glosz is an arts writer and a practising artist whose work places emphasis on painting, drawing and printmedia. He holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Painting) from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Previously he studied at Kunstakadamie Düsseldorf. With further study at the Sydney Gallery School and at the NADC (Nepean Arts and Design Centre). More recently he was the Master Printer for Matthys Gerber with the works being exhibited in Hot Art—Cold Market (2012), Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (I.C.A.N), Sydney.




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