The first thing you notice when you step off the train at Casula is what’s missing: the noise. All you can here is the sound of wind in trees, and bellbirds. And all you can see is greenery – and the bloody big brick electricity station. Surrounded by bush and birdsong, there’s an air of magic to this fortress-like compound. Inside, too, weird and wonderful things abound: a pet cemetery of plush purple and toffee-coloured creatures, part furnishings and part fantastic beasts, hold court along a mezzanine gallery, overlooking the foyer – in which a large inflatable bunny reclines, contemplating several ponderous dirigibles suspended from the vaulted ceiling.
The occasion is Soft Core: a group exhibition of works curated by Michael Do for Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. The aforementioned works – by Kathy Temin, Michael Parekowhai and Brook Andrew, respectively – sit alongside other pieces that speak literally, figuratively and tangentially to the idea of ‘soft’.
Do conceived Soft Core as a kind of ‘right of reply’ to his 2015 group show Solid State (which featured some of the same artists). “Solid State was about exploring the history of the centre and it’s previous use as a powerhouse,” says Do. “I really explored the architecture of the building, with architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer [who undertook the original conversion in 1992 and subsequent developments]”.
Do’s appreciation of CPAC’s hard shell – it’s brick and concrete surfaces and patina’d iron girders – inspired what he describes as “an antidote”. “We’re basically putting the soft core into the hard shell.”
Thirteen artists (most from Sydney) are showcased across five spaces within the building, with many of their works straightforwardly ‘soft’: celebratory technicolour needlepoint works and wall-hung quilts by Melbourne artist Paul Yore; soft inflatable ‘doona’ sculptures by Tully Arnot that ‘breathe’ by means of internal fans; and carved-foam busts of famous figures, by Simon Yates.
The softness of air is given solid form in a series of transparent ‘plastic forms’ by Mikala Dwyer, and in Patricia Piccinini’s poetic attempt to cast a human breathe, in bronze.
There are some delightful ‘surprise’ interventions. Six cement balloons by Todd Robinson droop from custom made trapezes and ooze over the edge of concrete ledges and pipes overhanging the first gallery space. If you didn’t look up you might miss them – but for the splash of colour. Elsewhere, one of American artist Tony Oursler’s hand-sewn video-animated ‘effigies’ (soft dolls onto which footage of human faces are projected) peers down on passersby from an almost-concealed perch in between wall and ceiling.
The coup de grâce is an installation by Koji Ryui that takes up a corner of the gallery with a haphazard floor arrangement of found objects (a broken glass; a lamp fallen on its side; a plastic shopping bag), fake plants, and several of the artist’s diminutive ‘Have a Nice Day’ sculptures – little figures made from unfired clay and smiley-faced polyethylene shopping bags, that appear mournful or menacing depending on your mood.
It’s the least visually demonstrative of all the works, and Do rightly describes it as a “softly spoken moment” within the exhibition. In a world in which we’re pushed ever more aggressively toward the flashy and overt, Ryui’s installation feels like a plea for a gentler – softer – kind of experience.