Yeah, Nah, Rockpool!
Two sea-themed installations, oceans apart.
Two sea-themed installations, oceans apart.
Currently on display at AGWA is Yeahnahnesia by Yok & Sheryo: a red-and-white nutso demon of an installation beset with off-kilter monuments, tiny doors to nowhere, and a mysterious rotating sculpted heart with an ode to Phil Collins hanging in the air. Red is known as the colour for good luck in many Asian cultures, and red and white together more commonly represents Christianity (replicated endlessly on ephemera of various scales, from the St George’s Cross to iced and dotted Christmas cakes). Despite its multiplicity of “cultural” and “islander” influences, the red/white scheme of Yeahnahnesia radiates a visual energy closer to consumer shopping bag or poisonous mushroom—no redemption or promise of salvation here, but a trip nonetheless.
You may know the work of Yok & Sheryo from one of the many public murals they have around Perth city, including the nearby-to-AGWA Chinatown Dragon. This work also reverberates in a red-and-white palette and toys with an “exotic” patterned aesthetic. The painting oft accompanies the hazy midnight stumble from closing city bars, offering a sign of safe passage to the warm embrace of Billy Lee’s or Uncle Billy’s—a preferential debate that can get more heated than the “SOR/NOR question” for Perthites.
Yeahnahnesia reminded me (gave me amnesia?) of another installation that I had encountered earlier, also in Perth, this year: The Rock Pool at Old Customs House, Fremantle/Walyalup. Both installations were surprising, enjoyable, and entirely fun, but for very different reasons; both can probably be classed as collaborative installation art, worldbuilding or participatory sculpture; both take off-beat inspiration from the ocean. Whilst the method of each show is much the same (artist collaboration, life-size installation, artefacts soaked in humour) their affects are entirely different. Like two hot pots made from the same ingredients, but delivered by frenemy restaurants on opposite sides of the street.
The limited aesthetic of Yeahnahnesia (red-and-white painted sculptures, overly stylised fonts, saturated approximations of the totemic) is contrived, self-conscious, and laid on thick. Not so The Rock Pool, with its stacks of paper maps, find–and–touch–me sculptures, and living breathing plant-filled central greenhouse. Yok & Sheryo give us “cultural artefacts”: idealised, untouchable relics (tacit) versus the everyday usable tools (haptic) of The Rock Pool.
Compared to The Rock Pool, AGWA’s variation of participatory art is disingenuous; take off your shoes and ‘enjoy yourself’ on the lush pomegranate–coloured carpet (which not one single visitor did when I attended); but please don’t cross the rope barrier to touch the central sculpture! The “imaginary” and “top-secret” world of Yok & Sheryo (as AGWA’s marketing spiel declares) is exclusionary, more like a hallucination or delusion than a shared participatory reality.
The repetition, from marketing to actual installation, of all Yeahnahnesia’s irony-laden surf-culture quips and self-congratulatory in-jokes becomes tiresome, displaying little faith in audiences to intuit these tones for themselves. Before one even sets foot in the actual exhibition, we are confronted, set up, primed: the elevator required to arrive at the roof gallery has been covered in the same matching carpet from floor to wall, complete with a demonic/totemic stencilled face against the back mirror. It's evident from the ascent that Yeahnahnesia is about affect, surface, in-the-moment experience. But it got me thinking—what gives a show like this staying power? Yeahnahnesia hinges on escapism, distance, sympathy, whilst The Rock Pool revolves around synthesis, participation, empathy. Like going on holiday versus going travelling, the distinction is tenuous, but the difference is tangible.
I came to the conclusion that Yeahnahnesia is ‘throw everything at the wall and something will stick,’ whilst The Rock Pool is ‘search carefully for treasures among the ruins.’ Then I went to Uncle Billy’s (or was it Billy Lee’s?) for some xiaolongbao. The below Ode was written in February 2023 in shattered awe of The Rock Pool and shared with the artists of the exhibition. I leave an iteration of it here.
The Rock Pool ran 12–26 February 2023 at Old Customs House, Fremantle. The project was supported by Artsource. Yeahnahnesia shows at AGWA from 13 November 2022 to 30 April 2023.
Ode for The Rock Pool
A rockpool is allusive to and elusive of the ocean.
It is both alive and unfeeling, shallow where there would usually be deep, light where there should be shadow.
The last time I saw one was as an adolescent, at the Back Beach. Among cliff face rocks where you could smash your skull in, snag jewellery, hide and steal creatures, coins. The preface to the precipice, where stable footing was no longer reachable, or desirable. The groin: the waves—those exclusively humanly-featured and named things that the coastline shares. When a human enters the water, it is undoubtedly primordial.
As a child, after a day of swimming and floating on my back—when drifting off to sleep I would feel like I was still moving atop the ocean, at once still in my bed. The rhythm, the current, the memory was visceral, and wonderful, the most excellent way to rest after a day of play and hurling seaweed at my siblings. The shape of the feeling of The Rock Pool is the same. The exhibition, by artists Kieron Broadhurst, Jess Day, Pascale Giorgi, Jessee Lee Johns, Oliver Hull, and Jack Wansborough transported me instantly back to childhood.
I wanted to grasp and turn Jess Day’s stained-glass sculpture-structures and hold them up to the light—like church, watching how the coloured hues change with the day as the minutes swim by, imbued with their divinity or message. I wanted to kneel: to sit at the telescope kaleidoscope; to be transported along its plumbing system and live inside the ridiculous aquarium-greenhouse and teetering toilet trapezoid. Telescopes, kaleidoscopes and microscopes have always fascinated and endlessly frustrated me: they are devices to look and see more, but to what end? We can’t ever get to the bottom to see the atoms themselves—as everything we try to look at them with, through or for is also—surprise—made of atoms.
A similar thing—as a child I would stand and wonder how they measured where the border of our land’s line in the sand was, how wide it was, and how wide this was on maps—where exactly was and is the point where the water overlaps or demarcates the shore? I vividly recall standing at Koombana Bay thinking, but where is the definite edge of Australia, the part where yellow turns to blue? As a twenty-something, standing in The Rock Pool, I am reminded of Borges—the map is not the territory. How can you be sure of the shore?
The Rock Pool makes no sense and makes perfect sense. The installation is cohesive through its unitedness purely through the medium of time, marked by the ongoing eon trickle of water in the artist–installed plumbing system. It is cyclical, literal, guttural—eat, shit, die, fertilise; be eaten, turned to shit, used for fertiliser. Maybe for crops of Pascale Giorgi’s happy-faced pagan-looking corns. The imagery that adorns the marketing for the exhibition—a sun sharing the same coy smiling face—can undoubtedly be traced back to the prototype of the Alchemical treatise. With its wonderfully debased strange imagery in various stages of becoming and transformation, preserved on paper a good thousand years before the Surrealist ‘exquisite corpse’ repopularised this type of figure for our modern milieu.
Alchemy—the complex mystical science-art of turning base metals into gold, with the eventual goal of creating a healing substance, eternal youth, life everlasting. The mind from baseness to divinity. Transmutation, from one thing into another. Like church, the phenomena of transubstantiation—when the host (bread) becomes the ‘body and blood of Christ’. Catholics believe it’s the real thing, as in Jesus’ actual body; most other Christians believe it’s merely a representation. The map is not the territory.
Anything you could dream of, invent, or circumnavigate, there is probably something already extant, infinitely stranger, lurking in the depths of the ocean. There are fish with lights on their head; feather stars that are alive. Like any reasonable sea or God-fearing person, to me, the ocean represents infinity. Like consciousness itself, it is ultimately unknowable and scary. The sun also rises but the sea never hesitates—it is constantly roaring undulating spiralling swallowing throwing hurling gurgling metastasizing.
The Rock Pool—with its dizzy up ephemera and sideways aesthetic, its mystical weird little witch’s house and its endless trinkets—is buckets of fun. There is something so precious and self-indulgent to walk and wallow in its strange shores and ponder the ridiculous notion that the ocean is or could be in motion, spitting out or drying up rockpools to save or replicate or see itself at its own whim and whimsy.
None of the angst, all of the charisma, The Rock Pool is a utopia, a micro-macrocosm, and a whole world.
Everything contained inside The Rock Pool is a conscious choice to exclude something else. Everything you need is already here.
Image credit: The Rock Pool by artdoc and Yeahnahnesia by Sam Beard.