Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Leo Albert Kelly and the Three Days Darkness

Part of Kelly's rock collection,
many of them labelled with
hand-engraved metal tags.
A few years ago, the British artist Lindsay Seers and Queenstown-based Raymond Arnold visited the reclusive Leo Albert Kelly in his Queenstown home, videoing the tour of his extraordinary self-built corrugated iron house, complete with circular chapel and observatory. During their visit, Kelly revealed a great number of paintings and his collection of found objects - the full extent of which was only discovered on his death shortly after.
The resulting video was shown as part of Seers’ installation, Suffering, at The Unconformity festival last month alongside Kelly’s many paintings and collections of memorabilia, rocks and other ephemera. It was exhibited in the Queenstown’s Uniting Church building and Country Women’s Association hall. While the once devoutly Catholic Kelly would have probably rolled in his grave at the thought, the hall provided the perfect architectural environment for Seers’ replica iron house and video, which looked like it was shoehorned into the main hall. Kelly’s paintings also suited this humble environment perfectly, hung against the roughly hewn, white-painted wooden interior of the rear hall and kitchenette. Seers’ creative edit of the video (which included interviews with local residents, images of the landscape, and even the building that burnt down next to the CWA only three weeks before the opening) was interesting, but it left me wanting more information on Kelly’s life and work.

Lindsay Seers' installation, 2016.

Leo Kelly, 'Satan's Hand'.

Kelly left the church when Catholicism “didn’t match his opinions” (such as the rapture that’s supposedly due to occur in 2018), and he had a falling out with a local priest. His rumoured plans to join the priesthood fell through following a mental breakdown, and it’s assumed he had psychological issues and autism. He was described as ‘very reverent, very humble, and very quiet and private’, and at one point he worked as the town’s postman. While the exterior of his house indicated an eccentric individualism, there was little known about his creative pursuits until just recently.

Leo Kelly, no.7

Kelly’s paintings are a mix of mystic Catholicism, religious figures, and Queenstown landscapes – both built and natural. They feature rainbows, planets, angels, the Virgin Mary, and magic purple landscapes with glittering temples. But many of them also include the relatively banal streets, cars and houses that made up his everyday physical environment.

Leo Kelly, no. 36.

The paintings are individually numbered and hand-framed with offcuts from doorframes and other scrap wood. Number 36 is painted on Masonite with handwritten notes roughly screwed to the top. It portrays a group of people and their cars at the edge of a lookout, seemingly oblivious to the looming storm. The sky is ominously split in two, with the clear blue sky (with an oddly bright moon) on the right threatened by stormy grey clouds on the left (albeit with an accompanying rainbow). Number 35 depicts a central angel wielding a bloody sword, with a line of angels descending from the sky behind her - the mystical scene countered by the Queenstown townscape in the foreground. The recognisable grid of streets, complete with central roundabout, traffic and houses, are painted in flattened, map-like style. The paper tags attached to the frame echo this conflict between the everyday and the mystical: a couple of notes read “The Holy Trinity. The father. The Son. The holy Sprit” and “They will seek God’s face In there (sic) misery”, while another identifies the subject of the painting as “The Greate (sic) Red Cut Back”.

Leo Kelly, no. 35

Leo Kelly, no. 29.

Caption to painting no. 2:
"Jesus and Mary Greeting Leo". 
Number 29 is a little more grounded, but again, mixes Catholic iconography with a depiction of Kelly’s everyday surroundings. A walled house and garden sits in the foreground of an expansive natural landscape, its isolation exaggerated by the contrast between the flattened grid of the domestic plot and the illusion of depth in the surrounding landscape. An angel (or Jesus?) tends to a small bush, while a nun (or is it Mary?) works in the garden. Another painting (no.4) is captioned “Inviting Leo to look into Her stone”, recalling the time he was “given a gift” of a rock in the shape of the Virgin Mary while wandering along a beach. The rock, which is framed in a glass and wooden pod with doorstoppers as supports, does indeed look like the Virgin Mary.

Leo Kelly's 'gift': Virgin Mary rock.

No one seems to know what is going to happen to this incredible body of work, and a few locals I spoke to worried it would just go back into the church’s basement. I’d love to see it acquired by our state museum. Kelly’s work was never intended for exhibition or public display. They were created for himself and for his God, which is why they’re so intriguingly personal and revealing. It would be a great shame if his work wasn't preserved for the future.

Update: 9 November 2016 
The original version of this post incorrectly quoted that there are no plans to keep the collection intact.  The festival organisers have stated that there are plans to keep the collection intact, and the post has been changed accordingly. The article might have also implied a lack of community care about the collection.  I should stress that the people I spoke to were in fact passionate about the work, but were unsure of any plans for the collection and were understandably worried about its future. The wording has been changed accordingly.

Lindsay Seers' Suffering was part of The Unconformity Festival in Queenstown, Tasmania, 14-16 November, 2016.  See my previous post for an interview with the festival director, Travis Tiddy.

For a more extensive review of The Unconformity, see my article 'Festival for a town that doesn't conform' in Realtime 135, 2016.

This review was originally published in the November edition of Warp Magazine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Interview: Travis Tiddy, director of The Unconformity

Ahead of Queenstown’s third arts festival, I spoke to founding director and 5th generation Queenstowner, Travis Tiddy, about the festival’s development, his own involvement, and the name change from The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival to the more ambiguous The Unconformity.

Queenstown and Mt Owen at sundown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: How did the festival start?

TT: It started initially in 2009. [I was part of an] organisation called ‘Project Queenstown’ – a local tourism organisation that’s existed for 25 years.  We put out a municipal survey to ask local people where thought the direction of the town was going, or where it should be going.  The survey told us people wanted a festival.  So we took on the challenge of developing a cultural festival for Queenstown with a mandate from local research.  There was a gap and a need.

LH: The first two iterations were called The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival. Tell me about this original name.

TT: When we started there was a bit of momentum and energy around Raymond Arnold and what he was creating in Queenstown with many visiting international and national well-known artists. He had a rigorous artistic program, and so we wanted to capture that and build upon it.

We had no experience in event management when we started.  We built these skills from the ground up.  So The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival was a very literal title.  In a way it was incongruous at the time. It was self-referential in the absurdity of having an arts festival in Queenstown - a regional backwater on the fringes of cultural activity in the state.

LH: At the first festival, I noticed that there was a really broad spectrum of activities, from more traditional and conservative celebrations of cultural heritage to cutting-edge contemporary art.

TT: Previous programs have represented our diverse audience.  The festival has been a very strong home coming event [for] people who have had a very strong connection with the region.  The festival is an opportunity to reconnect.  We have historically had an older audience - a heritage-loving audience - who use it as an opportunity to connect to the place.  So we have a broad program [that appeals to this older audience] and also captures the interest of the contemporary art community.

There’s an incredible amount of goodwill and interest in the West Coast and Queenstown.  We have to remember that the region was really booming only decades ago. There was a point in time where Zeehan was supposed to be the capital of the state.  Earlier than that in The Depression, the West Coast was firing all cylinders while the rest of the state was really hurting.  In 1902, Mt Lyall company’s gross turnover was greater than the state government’s so we’re talking about a region that’s pivotal in the formation of the state, and illustrious on a national and international scale from a mining perspective. It means that as the mining industry has become more subdued, as people have moved away, there are still these fundamental connections that people still have to the region.  There’s still a memory or emotional response.  So our audience is made up of all those people.

View of the famous gravel footy oval from the Spion Kopf Lookout, Queenstown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: Where does the name The Unconformity come from?

TT: Personally, I think that at the 7-year mark it’s almost at a renewal phase for any organisation. It’s the fatigue point from a staffing point of view and from a brand point of view, but maybe also artistically. So we thought it was time to refresh the organisation.  When we looked at where we wanted to head with the festival, where artistically where we think it should be based, it came back to the geological story because it sort of unifies. It’s the reason why we’re still there. It unifies the mining story. It brings the natural landscape - the surrounding heritage wilderness - into the story.  It also lets us talk about the hydroelectric industry, which is really important to us as well.  So on a number of levels, the geological story gives us a lot to work with.  When doing research into the local geology, we came across this local rock form: the Haulage Unconformity.

LH: So it’s actually a rock form?

TT: Yes, you’ve probably seen it on our posters  - a detail of the rock face.  It’s an exposed wall of rock at the Mt Lyall mining field. It represents the touching point of three geological agents.

It’s a really dynamic representation of local geology. It tells the story of why there are so many minerals on the West Coast. It has a sense of immeasurable force - forces that are in opposition but coexist. So artistically, when we were thinking of this feature as a thematic basis for the event we realised that the Unconformity speaks about the people… people with a very keen sense of identity…  an isolated community that essentially does things its own way and in its way doesn’t conform.  We had a lightbulb moment.  Not only does it speak about industry, it also speaks about the people and is something of a statement about where we live and how we live.

LH: Queenstown is such a unique place visually, particularly the contrast between the world heritage area and the landscape immediately surrounding Queenstown. Its social history is so interesting too – it’s a tale of changing fortunes.

TT: There’s quite a tragic narrative to the place. When we held the last festival [in 2014], only 10 months earlier we had devastating news that there had been multiple fatalities underground in the local mine. It rippled through the entire community. It really impacted everybody. Six months later, the mine temporarily closed.  In that context, we decided to make the entire festival free. We also changed our opening ceremony to feature a sculpture called The Angel of the West, a symbolic feature of ‘let’s get through this’. However, during the opening ceremony it caught on fire…

LH: That wasn’t deliberate?

TT: It wasn’t deliberate.  We were disappointed by the outcome but afterwards as we were reviewing it, we thought the idea of a community creating a symbolic five-meter tall angel and yet her face burns off… it sort of fits with the tragic narrative. I was doing the speech at the time so I quickly changed the speech to make it seem like it was intentional with a few references to the phoenix coming from the ashes and that sort of thing.

At the moment there’s a lot of interest in the fringes. There’s a lot of interest in authenticity, in stories and connections within regional settings and I think artistically we can see a bit of a move in that direction.  We recognise the world is coming to Queenstown. 

Queenstown's famous Empire Hotel and a very handsome vehicle. © Lucy Hawthorne

The Unconformity, Queenstown, Tasmania. 14-16 October, 2016.

Visit for program information and ticketing.

This interview was originally published in Warp Magazine, October 2016.

Review: Tesselating in the Slips at Visual Bulk

Jonny Rowden and Alexandra Hullah’s energetic performance, Tesselating in the Slips, followed a month-long residency at Visual Bulk.  It’s a testament to their performance that they sustained an engaged audience for nearly two hours on a freezing Hobart evening.  The performance was bookended by participatory damper making, then damper cooking and consumption.  When I arrived, visitors were kneeling in the gallery, mixing ingredients according to laminated instructions.  In a small vestibule, sat the ‘common loaf’ – a lump of dough kneaded by any and all.  Later, the common loaf took on almost religious status when the uncooked mound, shrouded in a tea towel, was taken from its plinth as part of the performance.

The room of the common loaf was lined with documented thought experiments, notes for short performance ideas, and photographic documentation running up to the public performance.  The ideas range from the banal to the utterly absurd. 

The start of the performance (or at least the first of the short back-to-back performance ‘vignettes’) was down the banal end of the spectrum.  I couldn’t quite hear the chanting, but it was something about energy transference I think.  It was a lengthy and participatory affair that led me to flee into the dark corners of the courtyard lest I be picked as a vessel for energy transfer.  I was reminded of a similar activity at a meditation retreat I attended in the Blue Mountains fourteen years ago (my first and last).

As the performance moved inside it picked up pace, incorporating sound, light and projected images, a costume change, a sandstone block, and eventually the absence of clothing altogether (as previewed on the Facebook event photograph that remarkably dodged the site’s ban on nudity for an entire week).  The relationship between the two artists altered with each vignette.  One moment they’d be hurting each other until the safe word ‘sufficient’ was mentioned, and in another, they’d be diligently oiling and powdering each other’s naked bodies as if applying some kind of protective layer.  While passing the burden of the loaf-like sandstone, they exchanged confessions: “last year I dropped a bottle of whiskey on my hand and it broke my finger”, “I use to pray every night until I was 21”, “I can speak four languages”, “I never liked Disney films because there are too many songs”, “watching Disney films made me want to be an artist”, “I hate making bread” [cue laughs from the audience].  The activities were ritualistic and little a bit Catholic with all the confessions and the breaking of bread.  Unlike most performance art, the seriousness was relieved by small moments of humour. 

The last vignette, however, was extraordinarily confronting.  Although the context suggested otherwise, the naked wrestling in which Alex was forcibly pinned to the ground looked non-consensual.  Distressed, I ended up exiting the gallery.  I’ve sat through some pretty challenging performances, but Tesselating in the Slips crossed a line at that point.  As one friend later asked, “at what point should the audience intervene?”

Visual Bulk attendees are a diverse bunch who seem to linger at openings (based on my observation and absolutely nothing else), making it a perfect venue for extended performative works like Tesselating in the Slips.  As always, I look forward to the next event.

Tesselating in the Slips was performed on the 17th September at Visual Bulk, Argyle Street, Hobart.

This review was originally published in Warp Magazine, October 2016.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When Words Fail Emotion

Apple emoji images. Image source:    

“The young people these days… they can’t write, they can’t spell.  They’re always on their phones, spelling words however they please, using smiley faces and children’s pictures instead of words… what’s the world coming to….” I’m sure you’ve heard these words uttered at some point.  But is the world really coming to an end because we’ve found a way to communicate quickly and succinctly through the written word? 

I’ll say it upfront: I love text speak. I love emojis and emoticons.  They allow us to quickly and succinctly convey tone and nuanced emotion in written form.  When we speak face-to-face, we read each other’s body language, facial expressions and vocal tone.  However, thanks to the internet and the rise in email, text messaging and social media as preferred methods of communication, our ability to express ourselves via the written word is more important than ever.

Emoticons generated by the iPhone’s Romaji keyboard  
Most of us have, at some point, sent an email or a text message where the tone or intention has been misinterpreted by the person at the other end.  It’s hard to communicate sarcasm via text message, but in some instances a couple of characters, such as (; can overcome this barrier.  If I text a friend with “I went out last night. I have so many regrets”, they might panic. If I pop a wink at the end, they’ll probably know that I probably just had a couple of pints too many. Basically, two simple characters can turn a serious statement into a light-hearted one. Emoticons can also help tell a story.  “I spent the day with a cat” is rather banal.  If I write “I spent the day with a cat :/”, it indicates that the day really didn’t go to well (FYI this is based on a true story: I spent the day with a cat. In true cat form, it bit me).

Tears of joy emoji
ICYWW, there is a difference between an emoji and emoticon.  They’re often used interchangeably, but in short, emoticons are a typographical expression using only text, such as the examples above.  Emojis on the other hand are pictograms. The term emoji stems from two Japanese words -  e and moji  - and translates roughly to ‘picture character’ or ‘picture letter’. Unlike most written languages, emojis are generally easily interpretable (I say most because after Oxford Dictionaries declared the ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ emoji/LOL emoji/laughing emoji as their 2015 word of the year, a couple of academic studies concluded that the symbol is sometimes interpreted as grief-stricken emoji.).

Of course, there’s a time and a place for emoticons, text speak and the like.  We haven’t got to the stage where it’s appropriate to use smiley faces in an email to your boss, or an academic essay or exam (I once marked a university art theory exam in which a student had described the Raft of the Medusa with a L. He didn’t pass.)  Perhaps we need to think of these new methods of expression as another language of sorts.  Language is constantly evolving, and text speak in particular is already affecting all languages, not just English.

The fact that we use acronyms like LOL and IMHO doesn’t mean that the English language is dying.  To illustrate the evolution of language, (as well as our treatment of geese) consider this passage from the 1653 that exalts the joy of using a goose as an ‘arsewisp’ (now commonly called toilet paper):

“...o conclude, I say and maintain, that of all torcheculs, arsewisps, bumfodders, tail-napkins, bunghole-cleansers and wipe-breeches, there is none in the world comparable to the neck of a goose, that is well douned, if you hold her head betwixt your legs: and beleeve me therein upon mine honour, for you will thereby feele in your nockhole a most wonderful pleasure, both in regard of the softnesse of the said doune, and of the temperate heat of the goose, which is easily communicated to the bum-gut, and the rest of the inwards, insofarre as to come even to the regions of the heart and braines; and think not, that the felicity of the heroes and demigods in the Elysian fields, consisteth either in their Asphodele, Ambrosia, or Nectar, as our old women here use to say; but in this, (according to my judgement) that they wipe their tailes with the neck of a goose, holding her head betwixt their legs, and such is the opinion of Master John of Scotland, ali├ás Scotus.”
Not quite a swan, but close enough. Jan Asselijn, The Threatened Swan (c.1650). Google Cultural Institute.

When people launch into a generational superiority rant like “young people don’t know how to write properly”, they reveal their ignorance as to the way language evolves.   If text speak, emoticons and emojis are the most efficient way of communicating then let’s embrace this evolution (IMHO).

This article was originally published in the September edition of Warp Magazine