• Shows
  • May 08, 2018

“Sheer Fantasy”

Multimedia installation featuring Big Bird singing "It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green" at Jim Henson’s memorial service, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, May 21, 1990, documentation video: 2 min. 58 sec., at "Sheer Fantasy," Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2018. Courtesy Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney.

A big yellow bird—the Big Bird—stands in the middle of a crowded cathedral, and sings a requiem. He stands stoically and bids farewell to Jim Henson, the legendary creator of the Muppets, in what can only be described as the most absurd and touching of acts: by singing “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green,” originally performed by Henson himself as Kermit the Frog. The worlds of whimsical innocence and profound sadness collapse into one another with every word that passes through Big Bird’s beak. There is perhaps no topic more serious or confronting than death, and there is perhaps no individual better equipped to deal with its harsh reality than this mass of friendly feathers. It’s heartbreaking. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolute perfection.

I’m standing in the middle of Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney, with wet eyes and an exhibition catalogue in my hand. Around me, the exhibition, “Sheer Fantasy,” continues where the short video of Big Bird left off, presenting a series of precious moments where the real and surreal converge. An eclectic spread of artists is on show here, yet they are all united by a singular impulse: the willingness to dream. Indeed, the mere act of stepping into the exhibition conscripts the gallery-goer into this shared willingness, as one passes under a vibrantly colored archway at the entrance and enters into the land of “what if.” This installation, Architectural Interventions (2018) by 1000 BCE, does not attempt to create an illusion that deceives us—one only has to look back to see exposed wood and armature on the other side of the arch to recognize its artifice—rather, it functions to enable us. The real threshold that we have crossed is psychological; the architecture serves as a reminder of this crossing.

I enter the room on my left, and find myself staring at a large table filled with alien memorabilia from The UFO & Paranormal Research Society of Australia. The eclectic mix of materials is almost self-defeating in its excess: we find everything from newspaper investigations to Martian bumper stickers, to pixelated photos of the sky, to alien themed lollies, to lava lamps, to figurines of an extraterrestrial five-piece band. The collection could easily belong to a child, indiscriminately hoarding anything that resembles some vague approximation of their interest. But while it may be easy to dismiss the contents of the table, in a way, this mix of science and fantasy is the most honest representation of how we collectively conceive of aliens—creatures whose existence forever walks the interminable line between the factual and fictive. If we accept that, then, in scorning the display, we are really scorning ourselves.

Installation view of MARK SHORTER’s Hello Stranger, 2017

In the next room, a life-sized truck sits against a panorama of the desert; this is Mark Shorter’s Hello Stranger (2017–18), which simulates the experience of road-tripping through the secluded inner reaches of the United States as imagined in 1970s road movies. Walking around the truck, one hears the idle conversation of Shorter’s long-time muse and Kenny Rodgers impersonator, Renny Kodgers, whose melodic voice could almost lull the viewer to sleep. The artwork conjures up the feeling of lying in the backseat of your parents car, listening to one of them softly soliloquize. There is something distinctly cinematic about the work, with its immersive visual and aural setting, and, like a good film, it is able to elicit a collective nostalgia for an imagined experience. 

Installation view of POLLY BORLAND’s Bunny and Louie, 2018, lenticular print, 215 x 172 cm, at "Sheer Fantasy," Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, 2018. Photograph Jay Patel. Courtesy the artist.

As I’m leaving, I catch sight of Polly Borland’s lenticular print Bunny and Louie (2018). When looking at the work from the left, one sees the actor Gwendoline Christie and, when viewed from the right, one sees Borland’s son Louie. I walk back and forth between the two views, until I notice a man staring at me, from a few feet away. I feel self-consciousness begin to bubble, but then he speaks: “It’s fucking brilliant isn’t it?” Now, it’s my turn to stare. It’s always strange to have someone rupture the social contract of the gallery by speaking to you, and it’s even stranger for them to venture beyond polite remarks. But then I remember, we’ve both passed through the arch; we’ve both crossed the threshold. I return his smile: “It really is.”  

Sheer Fantasy” is at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, until June 3, 2018. 

Related Articles