Apr 19, 2013


Review by Jeffrey Fereday 
of CAVE, solo exhibition by Colin Duncan, at 200 Gertrude Street

Like many a writer whose interests have stumbled into performance, I've certain affection for La Mama theatre in Carlton, its modest space, and its relentless creative activity. La Mama carries a specific history: it is literally in the walls, the accumulated dust, an atmosphere which pervades the place. Every fortnight, show after show, its appearance and space change dramatically; and each group's passage leaves its mark, its memory, its paint on the walls.

I mention theatrical space as background to a Gertrude Street installation for various reasons: because of the difference of respective focus – on experiential culture in performance, cultural artefact in exhibition; because of the different desires towards transformative or transgressive relations in spaces these institutions define; because of different ways cultural history accumulates in a low-means theatre like La Mama and a gallery like Gertrude Street; and because, as gallery art, Colin Duncan's transformation of the main gallery at 200 Gertrude Street into CAVE is in some way theatrical. To stand amidst its constructed ambience is to ask eventually 'to what theatre is this the set?'

Duncan's assemblage/installation entirely covers the vast gallery surfaces – floor, walls, pillars, ceiling – with drab brown cardboard boxes and sheet packaging. Various formations of box sculptures protrude into convoluted space, while carefully positioned bare-bulb lighting distorts and disorientates; an effective cave-like ambience is enhanced by the dank cardboard, the absorption of voice, deadened whisper, muffled footsteps. To enter this space is to accept playful artifice; one's prior associations and perceptions are tricked, teased. In first astonishment it's hard to make out the familiar Gertrude Street of flat white walls, sharp art, and right angles. To stay awhile is to be denied the sensory and spatial signposts that culturalise individual experience in gallery space: an estrangement which recalls conspicuously these normalised accompaniments to cultural consumption.

CAVE freely reveals its means – yet, as if to hide such matter-of-fact surface, an avalanch of representational associations leaps forward, persistently offering superficial, literal references: cave/womb, CAVE/painting, subterranean/subculture, art/history, primitive/progressive, hermetics/dialectics, this/other, institution/other.

However, CAVE's particular materiality proves more productive of allegoric and conceptual interest than its representational allusions. It is interesting that all gallery surfaces are covered – that ambient dislocation is achieved dialectically through full displacement of the visible gallery space with a surface constructed from an excess of packaging material. On one hand one might see its displacement as revealing the gallery itself as a frame, in this case a kind of package-box for the art commodity. Or could it be that the actual product of the institution is the perpetuated institution itself, and the work on its walls merely its packaging?

CAVE anticipates audience presence like it regards its site – as a generalised entity, someone or other, a gallery. It directs one non-specifically towards experiential immersion. Unlike theatre, whose design is dynamic in its relations to audience, performative text, and to its space – whose work is, literally, to de-sign the text's unfolding potentials by specifying material context, CAVE is experienced not as the sum of its fragments, but as a constructed totality, a totalising ambience. Theatre's displacement involves discarding exhausted signification; within its design, one forgets the theatre. CAVE's mode of displacement acts theatricality through its contrivance of situation – audience is positioned to move between the fictive material of CAVE's visible transformation and the factual material of the gallery as institutional site; in its design, one recalls the gallery.

Remarkable in its sheer presence, this installation succeeds in activating within its space both selfconscious referentiality and aesthetic irony; as well as inverting the material of display/package, it constructs an object/space inversion where the space itself becomes the material of the work. Reconstruction or deconstruction? – which way is out of this hellhole!

Perhaps the limit of its work is that the institutional framework is identified rather than structurally challenged. In situ, CAVE's exploration concludes short of how art might disturb normalised relations to the gallery, without merely redecorating, remodelling, repackaging, refabricating, or entertaining existing institutional architecture. Yet the extent of its displacement is best measured in absentia, by the mark it leaves upon the walls. There is no parallel here in the gallery to those walls at La Mama, say, with their 26-year, 468-layer thick stagepaint and the imagined revelation of cross-section. Not only is the gallery's accumulation of cultural effect not acknowledged, but it is the assumed right of each artist, viewer, and institution that each successive exhibition has the same polyfilled, whitewashed, neutral beginning. Perhaps this is the greater pleasure of CAVE's theatricality – a quiet anxiety brooding upon the impending de-construction, on whether the space can be physically, ironically returned to its proper origin, brought back to normal, all cleaned up, ready to go for the next show.

© 1992

First published as ‘Cave: Colin Duncan Installation', review, Agenda #23, May/June 1992, p.14