HSP Cargo-Cult Suburban Racket : Jacquelyn Greenbank, Anton Mogridge, Gemma Stratton & Jamie Richardson. 15-16 march, 2006




Suburban Racket


Everybody knows at least one lucky bargain hunter who manages to always get the best deal, show up in the sharpest op-shop chic outfit or on the coolest re-conditioned ride. HSP’s Suburban Racket pays a certain kind of homage to those like-minded souls caught up in a constant process of acquiring, re-evaluating and re-deploying forgotten objects and lost fascinations.

This could be the clubhouse of some swap-meet kids keen on insider trading and playing for keeps. Or maybe, more appropriately, it’s their trophy-cabinet or tuck-shop of treats ready for the consumption and enjoyment of anyone willing to join the gang or pay the price. Whichever scenario you privilege or story-line you buy, the members of this Suburban Racket ultimately mobilise a variety of familiar objects in the pursuit of their own agendas, no-one else’s.

These works are just a taste of what HSP plays host to during each year’s programme of exhibitions and it’s entirely appropriate that so many of the artists affiliated with the space are so good at playing games. These street-wise kids are clearly trafficking in the symbolic objects, associations and fascinations of youth and hope to both charm and unnerve through the transplantation of a little slice of our suburban yards in Christchurch to the unfamiliar docklands of Melbourne.

Playing at more than just chivalry or good sportsmanship here insider knowledge, tall tales and sub-cultural cool abounds. Jacquelyn Greenbank courts the interest of royal heads of state with her artfully regal barbeque, just as Jamie Richardson’s bruiser takes on the trappings of another performative elite altogether. Anton Mogridge lines up the gleaming tools of some pool-shark’s trade and Gemma Stratton’s troupe of cross-stitched rackets are more than prepared to set a range of contentious issues ricocheting around within the confines of this suburban racket.

Cargo-Cults

The works HSP has brought together for our somewhat cynically titled Cargo-Cult Project clearly trade on associative value of a variety of kinds. In relation to the thematic brief of this year’s Next Wave Festival, ‘Empire Games’, these playful and inviting sculptural works certainly fit well within the temporary village of shipping containers that has appeared in the docklands for the duration of the Commonwealth Games. Yet, a darker streak and a certain slyness runs throughout the work of these collected ‘local’ artists who are more interested in doing deals and telling tales than breaking any kind of records while they’re here.

The distortion created through the recollection and repossession of elements of our shared ‘popular’ culture has proved to be rich fodder for these young artists whose works all share an interest in the shadier side of the clean-cut or the overly convincing. Gaining credence through an attachment to various forms of affiliative ornament, this box-lot of goods serves up a slice of Christchurch’s recent artistic produce for the consumption of the touristic hoards as they come and go from the Containers Village - checking out the natives so to speak.

Over the last fifty years or so, a variety of cargo-cults have spontaneously originated in and around the South Pacific. Originally, these various indigenous groups believed that if they went through the same rituals as the colonial ground staff had done at abandoned airstrips or docking points, cargo would continue to rain from the heavens as it always had when those bases were occupied by colonial troops. Such observed ethnographic practices have attempted to be explained as an unusual, but none the less fitting, response to the resulting confusion and insecurity of changing times as individuals and groups seek to rationalise their situation through reference and dependence on certain symbolic objects with which they choose to identify.

The documentation of such rituals gave rise to the English idiom ‘cargo-cult’, which has come to be understood as any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system. In every case though, such groups firmly invest their belief in a kind of sympathetic magic. Spending a great deal of time creating mock-ups and fabricated likenesses from appropriated or replica materials, cargo-cults go through the motions, enacting practices they do not entirely understand in the hope that their desires will eventually be realised.

Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs), at least in New Zealand’s version of their historical emergence, purposely do not exist as commercial ventures. Choosing instead to position themselves as spaces that allow artists to develop their practices within a supportive and facilitative environment that removes the financial constraints of putting on their own exhibition, collectives like HSP continue to offer artists the opportunity to become involved in a variety of initiatives such as this, our latest foray into the more open territories of the global ‘art-world’. Yet realistically, when you consider the size and presumed scope of this particular opportunity, ours is no less of an ethnographic exhibit than any previous representation of the trappings of other cargo-cults. Especially when you consider the uncanny resemblance of these linked containers to the structure and intent of the Universal Exhibitions of old.

While Shed 14 may bear little resemblance to The Crystal Palace of the 1851 'Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations', it is still wholly appropriate to consider the continued relevance and use of such a concentration in time and space of exhibits from around the Commonwealth. If The Great Exhibition was indeed staged in order to parade the industrial pre-eminence of Britain, under the auspices of celebrating the industrious citizens of all nations within a format designed explicitly to display the exhibits as well as the audience viewing them, then how should we best class the celebratory role of The Containers Village?

Certainly, ARIs of all kinds provide a perfect training ground for individuals to gain experience exhibiting, administrating and working alongside like-minded peers. Indeed charitable trusts like HSP were most often established as an attempt to claim back a sense of autonomy and freedom of expression from the commercialised focus of the wider arts and culture industry. Yet, whilst much of what HSP has managed to achieve over our lengthy history through a rhetorical dedication to collective pursuits and team ethics, it can be pretty easy to loose your edge and detractors at times, can appear to be everywhere.

Despite all this, the ambitious project of assembling a ‘village’ of the world’s independently organised ARIs seemed much too good an offer for HSP to pass on. Loosely structured on the idea of a temporary shanty town sprouting up ‘spontaneously’ from the fertile but often overlooked not-for-profit art spaces and collectives of the world seems appropriately idealistic for something as warm and fuzzy as the cultural festival of the Common-wealth Games. The name says it all doesn’t it – if we all work together we’ll be richer in the long run.

The High Street Project will be turning 14 this year, which is still a way off Melbourne’s lengthy history of ARIs and project spaces, but either way, running such an initiative all boils down to the same old spiel: you don’t just have to be doing something well, you have to be doing something new along with it. So, here we are.

The Artists

Jacquelyn Greenbank

The Queen’s regalia turned up in Greenbank’s work a while ago now. We’ve seen her tandem-led chariot, her high heels, her high tea, her supporters’ Raleigh 20 and now Her BBQ. This emblazoned barbecue could certainly be seen to function as a clever invitational adjunct to Her schedule and as a delightful aberration from the norm. As a symbolic manifestation of an earnest grassroots appreciation, Her BBQ is unmistakably kitschy but also, quite literally, warm and fuzzy to boot.

At her coronation at the tender age of twenty seven ‘Our Elizabeth’ became figurehead of the United Kingdom and its colonies, gaining the ceremonial title of Head of the Commonwealth and also receiving the surprise coronation gift of Everest’s ascent by her loyal subject and earnest Kiwi, Edmond Hilary. At the time, the trendy housekeeping periodical Wife and Home offered their dedicated readers the opportunity to procure a special heraldic transfer to assist in the embroidered reproduction of the emblems and designs of the new Monarch. In itself, this offers a fascinating glimpse into the times that were and the lengths people will go to for this woman, their Queen, and it looks like old habits still die hard.

Greenbank’s fascination with and generosity towards what is now almost a distant memory of the widely held reverence and admiration for our heads of state, kings and queens of country is a fascinating throwback to the narrative possibilities and coincidences of Her Majesty’s various Royal Tours. Apparently we Kiwis even dyed a flock of sheep red white and blue as a measure of our devotion, or perhaps more accurately, in an attempt to curry favour via a strange blend of stage-managed charm.

Yet, all this boosterism seems to ring a little more hollow than it did in the ‘roaring fifties’ as most of the once adoring housewife age bracket are out working, chasing careers instead of prospective husbands and marital bliss. Yet, in this Commonwealth Games year what’s more real, what represents devotion more clearly? Buying the commemorative T-shirt, coffee mug or teaspoon or emblazoning royal regalia on your barbecue? Hell, maybe she will fancy a few cold ones if she does drop by.

If in effect it is the Queen’s job to be owned by her people, then the role must be more than a little bleak. QEII in Christchurch is an ageing sports complex that still bears her name from the last time the Commonwealth Games passed through town in 1974. Now synonymous with aqua-jogging and a seating embankment that’s half empty at the best of times, the gloss has well and truly worn off the complex despite numerous attempts to reinvigorate its functions and appeal. But maybe that’s why the show keeps travelling? It keeps the ball in the air so to speak ensuring that there’ll always be a crowd.

An earlier work by Greenbank called The Royal Raleigh Watchers has previously been described as "a harlequin device that indulges our follies" and as a postcolonial nation New Zealand’s continued attachment and fascination with ‘Her’ could certainly seem like a dangerously retrograde inclination. But Greenbank’s practice can also be read as a more personal, generously fetishistic devotion to the woman herself and the phenomenon that continues to accompany her wherever she goes. Such an approach to Greenbank’s practice is also specifically appropriate here if we recall for a moment the widespread description and portrayal of Sydney’s Olympic games as the biggest backyard barbie ever. Melbourne can only hope to pull off an event worthy of such praise and we can only hope that maybe, this time, we might also be as lucky to court such attention too.

Jamie Richardson

Paying homage to Butch and Luke, New Zealand’s ‘Bushwhackers’, who were crowned the World Champion Tag-Team Wrestlers twice over in the early 90s, the Otautahi Bruiser is a really well clad thug. He wears the Union Jack like he means it but on second take, as you circle him he’s got the Southern Cross stitched boldly to him like eyes in the back of his head.

Professional wrestling is all about profile, the exploits of the characters set up against one another in the ring and the reaction of the crowd. As Roland Barthes explained, wrestling is an explicit, performative text easily read by all. As a spectacle of excess, wrestling is made even more sensational by the grandiloquence of the combatants’ played out emotional range of gestures expressed without reserve. Both hyper-masculine and hyper-sensitive, the muscle-bound beefcake opponents revel in the simplistic content of their roles and the primacy of the spectacle at hand. They beat and are beaten, playing out a variety of preordained routines and roles.

Wrestlers know how to direct their fights, how to draw the crowd in and then go through the motions, accurately personifying everything from the archest of villains, to the most sullen of defeated heroes. They mine the gamut of shared cultural clich├ęs just as artists filter the signs and residual presences of subcultural clusters and fan bases, representing them anew for their own audiences.

An investigation of stock characters and a range of culturally significant emblems and abbreviations punctuate Richardson’s practice. Not too long ago three small-scale figures appeared on the scene as The Papadopolis Brothers. Their cartoon gang-land format and teamed arrival created a fair amount of comedy, as the short burly one looked ready for a fight while the tall, nonchalant one probably got all the girls and the other one knew it. All smooth surfaces and store bought slick, this gang of thugs clearly evinced Richardson’s continued interest in the darker side or more shady elements of even the slickest packaged goods.

An earlier work titled Mickey Two Face dodged expectation by mutating Mickey mouse into just that, a hyper-friendly Disney character with sinister Janus faced smiles. And when accompanied by two other un-manipulated cohorts, Donald and Goofy, Mickey seemed all the more shifty. If you ever thought those intimate childhood pals of yours really cared, Richardson certainly wants you to think again.

With its title also set in counterpoint to the clean corporate facade of the Disney corporation, Mickey Two Face most effectively elides our trust in this most familiar of mice, instead putting its money on baser back-alley influences and the principles of petty thugery. If you can choose your friends, then Mickey Two Face sneeringly reminds you to choose them well.

If it’s true that Australians take pride in a certain irreverence towards authority it won’t be at all surprising to see Richardson’s rough as guts characters going down well over here. With his Knock-Out knuckles and overly emblematic attire the Otautahi Bruiser’s ready for almost anything you can throw at him.

Anton Mogridge

Possessing something of a serial fixation, Anton Mogridge likes to line things up, lay them out and even colour-code them. His practice clearly illustrates an orderly attraction to, and insistent representation of the disorderly, slightly sinister aspects of popular culture and everyday experience. Implements of leisure and tools of distraction most often re-emerge within Mogridge’s practice as the basis for further investigation into the affiliated cultures with which these objects are synonymous.

Chromed up baseball bats, personalised handlebars and now customised pool cues are just a few of Mogridge’s recent accomplishments. You’d think he was a total sporting buff but his interest equally lies in disrupting the covetous gleam of these refinished objects to expose some of the more dubious cultural affiliations of these objects.

An honest wooden baseball bat is one thing, but owning a sinisterly gleaming one, let alone a custom built rack of three as in Magoo is quite something else. Appropriating the title and sheen of Magoo Mufflers, an instantly recognisable muffler company as well as calling forth an oafish association with the dim-witted cartoon character cleverly amplified Mogridge’s dig at the sub-culture of young hoons and their pimped up rides.

A range of works for his last HSP show focused on the unearthing and salvaging of lost or devalued objects. Mogridge here laid claim to the seductive appeal of the veneer-clad speaker box and distorted its surface and form for a number of works graphically and literally overwritten by the inferred presence of the specifically obnoxious culture of the ‘boy racer’. These works spoke loudly, if not strictly eloquently, of contemporary concerns about the pass-times and perspectives of specific youth cultures that more often than not comes to blows with mainstream authority.

The more sweetly sincere work, Tama and his Gang called forth the nostalgic image of little scamps riding round the hood on their ten-speeds. Yet, what was the coolest bike around 20 years ago is more likely to get a kid the bash or at least do their street-cred some serious damage these days. More accurately you’re most likely to see those oddly shaped handlebars rollin’ round the poorer suburbs of Christchurch or on the latest model of racing bike but if Tama’s the leader of the pack then I don’t think this particular gang’s training for any time trials. Here the re-chromed finish and vinyl-cut designations instead function as a highly polished interrogation of current socio-political realities and the disparities that continue to exist within New Zealand culture.

Even within the provisional setting of Suburban Racket, Mogridge’s work couldn’t be more at home. After all how many pool tables live in garages and sheds, next to the beer fridge or the stored family BBQ. Although billiards is an officially sanctioned sport for the Commonwealth Games you wouldn’t necessarily know it, as it’s not yet been offered as part of the line up at any of the games. But more importantly, Mogridge doesn’t even seek to lay claim to the pretensions or status of the more elite games of billiards or snooker. Instead he chooses to privilege the underground or unauthorised hierarchies that exist alongside the sporting tools of those presumably more amateur players’ trade.

Gemma Stratton

Drawing web-like connections and filling narrative gaps is the name of the current game for Gemma Stratton. Perhaps taking a cue from Royal Tennis, one progenitor of the contemporary grand-slam game, Stratton presents a range of homespun NZ icons within the grided space and scope of some discarded but not forgotten rackets.

As a term originally derived from the Arabic word ‘rakhat’ which refers to the palm of the hand, Stratton’s rackets clearly illustrate a fascination with cultural imprints of many kinds. Filling the enclosed space of these implements with a series of recognisably nationalistic images and icons, Stratton is operating in a mode similar to that of her other Suburban Racket accomplices. Like them, she repossesses the empty objects and icons of a nationalism radically distanced from its long lost, or perhaps not yet found ‘ideal state’.

New Zealand’s history is deeply entwined with the rhetorics and protocols of Imperial Britain and its negotiations with Maori. Stratton’s work plays out another yarn in the long running narrative of colonial negotiation, punning quite deliberately on the rackets and shady deals of the past. These postcolonial reverberations and our nation’s ongoing commitment to the process of redressing past wrongs and moving forward together sees New Zealand increasingly recognising and mobilising an effective form of biculturalism.

In a closely related work last year, Stratton strung up a large image of New Zealand on the fence circumscribing a public tennis court. Rich in associative references, this work served to reinforce the bipartisan nature of any process of negotiation, which must necessarily set up rules and protocols to which both sides must agree and adhere. Clearly, Stratton set her court according to the times, as the negotiations that continue between The Crown and the various iwi of the Maori population via the official processes of the Waitangi Tribunal are necessarily detailed and drawn out. Within that forum, aggrieved parties have the opportunity to rally against the injustices of the past and work towards settling their differences with The Crown fairly and appropriately. So whilst Stratton threads up the geographic form of New Zealand on one racket for this exhibition, she also depicts the appropriated form of a Maori tiki as her ‘Junior Model’ on another in a hopeful gesture of point and counterpoint.

Whereas many of the first rackets were strung with sheep gut, here we find their modern synthetic cousins playing host to a little flock of the woolly creatures as Stratton directs us towards a reconsideration of other NZ icons that structure and interpolate our nation’s psyche. The Buzzy-Bee for example may be the quintessential New Zealand child’s toy but it isn’t always safe for those unprepared for its failings. In its original design and construction, the bee’s wooden wing tips were easily pulled off to expose a strong, rotating metal shaft just waiting to cause trouble of one kind or another. Like anything though, there are always tricks for young players.

Apparently it was royal patronage that boosted the popularity and profile of Tennis, making sure the game spread rapidly across the world amongst the leisured classes. Even today at a purely amateur level, Tennis remains synonymous with social accomplishment and advancement of many kinds, if you’re prepared to acknowledge and play by the rules that is. Perhaps the key question is really whether we, as a composite nation, are capable of relaxing our shared dedication to winning at all costs and moving forward together to the point where participation and fair play are the rules that we choose to play by.

Project co-ordinated by Kate Montgomery.

Copies of the Suburban Racket catalogue are available on request from HSP.