Why MCA?

We went to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the city on Saturday. The main exhibition was by a couple of local artists from the Blue Mountains, combining smell, sight, sound and parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we don’t usually experience. Unfortunately, it’s precisely what I spent 6 years working on removing – we called electromagnetic interference back then.* While there were a couple of interesting pieces, the assemblage as a whole lacked any real focus and clumsy execution of some of the technical aspects of the art distracted this Technical Officer. My appreciation may have been skewed by the way that much of what was presented as art was to a younger me called work. Our smells (usually burned out capacitors) were less contrived, too.

My favourite was a piece of installation art wasn’t part of the main exhibition. It was tucked away behind the stairwell on level 2 simply entitled “Male”. Visitors are greeted by a closed door with a small pictogram of the male figure in blue, reducing the male to almost insignificance and yet beckoning the visitor to enter. The strong pink colour of the door, and after entry, the walls of the installation challenges the underlying stereotypes of masculinity.


On entering, the first thing the visitor will notice is the clean sterility of the male state. The installation is arranged in a small, almost square room with a low ceiling. Two small cubicles along one wall represent Solitude and Isolation, although the way the walls and door don’t quite extend the whole way to the floor and ceiling remind the visitor that the male isn’t always as isolated as they may think. Within each of these rooms, a cold ceramic throne mounted on the floor invites the visitor to sit for a while and ponder the nature of “Male”. On the wall behind the throne, two buttons give the visitor the illusion of choice, choosing either will release a tumbling torrent of water, representing the turbulent passage of time, sweeping through the throne and away into presumed darkness. While it could be heard both before and for a short time after, the water was visible for only a very short part of its journey, giving insight to the way “Male” is only experienced for a brief period in the totality of time.

On the opposite wall, three ceramic objects intrude into the room at knee height, threatening disruption like an unexpected tow-bar to the shins in the dark. Again, the flow of water represents the passage of time, with the visible section a metaphor for the brief span of existence. The water in this part of the installation turns on and off at random, the visitor having no control of the start, duration or end.

The next section was a trio of ceramic bowls arranged at waist height, each with a chromed apparatus that allowed the visitor some control over when the flow of water started by pressing a button on top, but cruelly, none over when it stopped. I tested all three and found that each gave the flow for a slightly different period of time, possibly highlighting the differences in each visitor’s life span. Visitors were symbolically meant to immerse some part of their being in the stream, whilst the mirror behind the bowls stood for the quality of a life reflected as the water/time washed away.

The final part was a silver canister mounted on the wall at chest height, it produced a blue light and warm air when the visitor stood next to it. The air evaporated the water acquired in the previous stage from the visitor’s hands, hinting at some form of after life following on when the male’s allotted time is done. Significantly, the warm air flow continued for as long as the visitor was willing to interact with the device, a potentially eternal period of time.

While highly derivative (I’ve seen similar work by the artist Armitage Shanks, itself an interpretation of an earlier opus by Thomas Crapper), the work offered a degree of freshness not apparent in many others and the progression of attention from floor, to knee, to waist, to chest, lifts the visitor and leaves them with a sense of lightness and to some degree, relief.

As I exited, I noticed to my left another installation, apparently by the same artist, “Female”, but as the others in the group had moved on, I left that for another time.

* Last time I was at the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri I saw some of the filter circuits I had built on display in the visitor’s centre. They’d been acquired by CSIRO from OTC when Telstra came in and shut our lab down.


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