Exhibition Essays

Number Nine Reviews

December 2002

Satellite City Review

Emma Jean

Sitting on the futuristic side of the millennium, the physical mapping of town planning models dreamt up in the 19th and early 20th centuries are still clearly visible. Born of history, yet with a promise to serve the future, the structure of urban and suburban space has a lasting impact on the culture and social interaction of those living in antipodean towns and cities. Inviting three artists to create new works in response to the urban zones they call home, Satellite City strode out from the traditional New Zealand art obsession with the isolated artist in a dark and immense landscape.

Rachel Brunton, Dominic Forde and Douglas Rex Kelaher each created works reflecting the multiple uses and forms of public and communal spaces. Put together, works by the three artists presented a version of the city full of people, cluttered with noise and communal activity, watched over by either religious icons or surveillance cameras. Overwhelming structures are represented and reacted against with a touch of escapism.

In their individual practices, each of the artists is concerned with the interaction of cultures in the artificial or constructed world. Douglas Kelaher has explored this in past works through his sculptural installations of modernist furniture and constructions referencing architectural styles from a corporate lobby or airport lounge to a science-fiction film set. For Satellite City, Kelaher built / scattered two separate communities of $2 Shop creatures within organic structural forms of wood and glass. One sprawling construction made from sheets of glass appeared to have something in common with glossy architectural design mags, but here give shelter to a pack of Dinosaur Boys – small and cheap domestic ornaments sourced from a bargain store. Wearing a different uniform, a group of ornamental Bee People formed a smaller cluster a few meters away in the gallery under a tighter wooden framework.

Rachel Brunton creates sleek abstracted objects and large-scale sound and sculptural environments questioning our interaction with space and technology, often creating an artificial self-contained reality within the gallery. Scaling down her work for a group show, Brunton contributed the small self-contained work ‘Novadrome’. Reusing scraps of retro technology, Brunton created an ambiguous object of sci-fi modernism. A sensor-triggered soundtrack permeating from a green glow spouted distorted snippets of scrambled messages. Malfunctioning and with ambiguous purpose, ‘Novadrome’ presents technology gone mad in an anti-utopia. It suggests a sinister manipulation of technology in mediating human interactions and its role in defining power and control.

Manipulating or subverting documentary techniques in his works, Dominic Forde has previously investigated popular public use of both the virtual world of the web, and the real world of domestic and urban environments.  ‘Monday to Friday’, his set of photographic prints for Satellite City, capture ten images in a working week on the public transport commute to and from work. The black and white images are pixilated and distorted – enlarged beyond capacity for the low-resolution digital format. Using a spy-cam the artist has shot the tram passengers unaware, creating an aesthetic similar to surveillance images from a security camera. Most of the subjects are emersed in their own psychological space, avoiding interaction and escaping the public arena by reading a book or sign.

While ‘Novadrome’ and ‘Monday to Friday’ implied a Big Brother-style surveillance, Kelaher’s more playful urban communities were overlooked by an ornamental glass Buddha, sitting high on a day-glow platform jutted out from the gallery wall. An imported icon of an exotic religion provides the omniscient power here. Yet all indicated a sense of some ‘other’ space within the confines of communal urban structures – the private escape route of reading a book while on the tram, the claustrophobic power of technology suggesting a controlled reality, or the separated groups of uniformed creatures existing without any reference to each other.