Welcome to the 16th guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! April's culture selector is Roslyn Helper: director of Underbelly Arts Festival, artist (solo and as part of Zin), and former artistic director of Electrofringe. Every Wednesday of April, Roslyn will be telling us what she loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to her.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word ‘displacement’ and recent works by young Australian artists that deal with the incongruences between our learned and felt identities. Displacement is felt on one hand by generations of Australians with migrant backgrounds who have struggled to define a certain Australian-ness not represented in news and cultural programs. But displacement is also felt in Australia in the incessant corporatisation and commercialisation of culture more broadly. Cultural products, ideas and actions are displaced from their root source, appropriated and spoon fed to us in the forms of mainstream fashion, design and advertising.
This week I went to Firstdraft to check out artist JD Reforma’s exhibition Coconut Republic, an exhibition that – as the room sheet explains – “explores how American corporate ideology has colonised our modern field of vision”.
Upon first glance it seems the gallery is set with a series of branded objects. A wall painting that looks like a big Tommy Hilfiger logo, a black Calvin Klein adhesive vinyl, an American Apparel print, a Ralph Lauren Home bedsheet.
The effect is instant. You are in a shopping centre, a showroom, a sample sale. It’s kind of comforting. Even for the sceptics and cynics amongst us, a heavily designed environment can be soothing. Culturally we are very tuned-in to the way design experiences manipulate us, but more often than not we are gladly complicit with them. You know Bondi Junction’s Westfield is designed like a casino and causes disorientation so as to continuously defer your exit. (But actually, whilst I’m here maybe I will just check out Victoria’s Secret anyway.) Our agency within the designed, branded, commercial environment – the kind of environment that is increasingly dominating our social and public space – is taken, repackaged and gifted back with a credit card deal attached. In these spaces, our choices are designed for us. Civic space has become market space and the alternatives have become blurry, unintelligible and increasingly invisible.
Upon closer inspection, the objects that make up Coconut Republic are not quite as they seem. The wall length Tommy Hilfiger logo runs out of paint. The Calvin Klein logo is not a CK vinyl at all but an OK vinyl. The American Apparel sign is a glitchy framed print with the words ‘American Apparent’ ghosted onto the surface. Subtle embroidery at the bottom of the Ralph Lauren hanging bedsheet quotes The Ralph Lauren Corp. in an article from Women’s Wear Daily: “The Presidential Inauguration is a time for the United States to look our best to the world. It was important to us to uphold and celebrate the tradition of creating iconic American style for the moment.”
The sound of military helicopters is broadcast through the gallery, and behind the sheet is a large screen depicting glorified scenes of US military aircraft, vehicles and boats descending on Pacific Island and Southeast Asian landscapes.
This is a literal glimpse beyond the curtain, a startling reality check that reminds us that even the horrors of military conflict are corporately aestheticised, justified and advertised to us regularly through the Hollywood machine. The work as a whole feels incredibly timely given North Korea has so recently lambasted Australia for “blindly and zealously toeing the US line”, and is rich in food-for-thought about what our cultural values really are, and where we might reclaim the agency to produce effective alternatives.
Check out our hit list of the best art in Sydney this month – then read more about our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.