There’s a semi-apocryphal story about the establishment of Carriageworks. It is said that during a helicopter ride in 2002 with the then NSW Premier, Bob Carr, French avant garde theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine pointed down at the decommissioned Eveleigh railway yards and asked why wasn’t this space being used for the arts. At the time, the building was being used somewhat illegally by underground performing arts troupes, but now it almost seems ridiculous to suggest that such a leading cultural institution in Sydney could have sprung from this serendipitous beginning. But, just as the building captivated Mnouchkine, the structure continues to inspire artists and visitors alike.
For the fourth artwork in the Schwartz Carriageworks series, French conceptual artist Daniel Buren will present the Australian premiere of Like Child’s Play. Following on from Katharina Grosse’s The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped which enveloped the interior of Carriageworks with multi-coloured fabric, Buren’s work will engage with the spatial dynamics of Carriageworks. The work itself is an immersive installation of over-sized sculptures, half in a cacophony of primary colours, the other in a subdued white. Playing with our assumptions of what objects can be presented in a gallery context, Buren offers the audience a moment to question Carriageworks as a gallery space itself.
This dialogue between the space and the work is something that Carriageworks Director Lisa Havilah is seeking to tap into with Buren’s art.
“[Buren’s] work is very much at that intersection of art and architecture and he has a real focus on integrating work into the fabrics of buildings but also responding to the scale of buildings as well. So this installation does that in quite an incredible way because it is a counter point to the architecture of the building but it also has a monumentalism to it.”
The space which Carriageworks inhabits sets it apart from other sandstone institutions of contemporary art which ring the harbour. As Havilah noted, this changes the way that people interact with the artworks on display, “the architecture breaks down the particular expectations that defined cultural spaces give to audiences before they even enter into the work.”
The experience of being within an artistic work is another signifier of what sets Carriageworks apart. Buren and Grosse’s works, along with works exhibited as part of the Biennale and performances staged at Carriageworks, invite audiences into the old, unpolished brick and steel construction of the space.
“A lot of artists that we work with, they have these entry points that are really about immersion,” described Havilah. “So it's not like you're coming into a gallery and you're looking at a picture on the wall it's actually you are within the work.”
This not only invites a discussion about the relationship between the artistic work and the space it is exhibited in, but also the role of the audience in relation to the artistic work. Rather than pedagogically imparting one interpretation of a work, allowing the audience to feeling within the artwork encourages multiple associations and understandings, something that Havilah seeks to encourage, drawing out the associations between Buren’s work and notions of play.
“I always think that the best contemporary art is work that has multiple entry points into it and I think that whole idea of play and a different scale of what is a sort of play object is a really good entry point, but then it is sort of makes you then reflect on a whole range of other things like your scale in relation to the form around you and the psychology of play.”
Augmenting this immersive approach has been the growing role of social media and the remediatisation of contemporary art across online networks. For Havilah this further permits the institution to step back and allow audiences to develop their own understanding of the work, discussed across media platforms.
“I remember when we did the first Ryoji Ikeda project, that was when Instagram video came out … and it was super interesting to see how we don't have to talk about the work as much because our audiences are talking to each other about the work.”
In this sense rather than a method of promoting what’s occurring at Carriageworks separate to the actual work, social media has become part of the engagement that the audience has with the artwork. “It's really about people sharing the joy or the experience of being in a piece of contemporary art,” said Havilah.
As these conversations occur in the wider public sphere, the value of showing artists who are at the peak of contemporary art becomes apparent, especially those artists who have built a sustained relationship with Carriageworks and the community that it represents. As Havilah argued “I think it's really important for Sydney communities to experience the very best of contemporary art at this moment in time. With quite a few of those artists we have shown them two to three, sometimes up to four times now, and that's really about local audiences experiencing a body of work by a very high level artist.”
The nature of Carriageworks as a building and institution has drawn international contemporary artists back to the site for multiple shows. Electronic composer William Basinki, who returns to Carriageworks this June for Open Frame, a mini-festival curated by Brisbane sound art collective Room40, has noted in the past how Carriageworks has an authenticity to it that other institutions in Sydney do not. It’s no surprise then that Havilah also sees Carriageworks as intentionally distinct from other arts and culture institutions in Sydney, noting that “I think Sydney has always wedded its identity to the harbour and to sandstone and I think what Carriageworks is is the opposite of that. We represent urban Sydney.”
The diversity of urban Sydney and its unwillingness to be boxed into a particular genre or form carries across into the cultural programming at Carriageworks, which as Havilah describes in an appropriate post-industrial metaphor, has been de-siloed. “so it's not like this is only a place for performance or music or visual art or food, but we've sort of tried to bring all those things together to really create a contemporary cultural precinct that reflects contemporary Sydney in all its diversity.”
With this ethos in mind and with the site’s history as a place of empowerment for migrant and First Nations peoples, Carriageworks plays host to a number of artistic groups, including Indigenous dance troupe Marrugeku and Aboriginal performing arts company Mooghalin. Carriageworks also facilitates Solid Ground which provides education, training and employment pathways for indigenous youth in Redfern, Waterloo and Blacktown. These programs are enabled by Carriageworks’s unique model where the revenues from commercial events which utilise the space are invested back into artistic programming.
However, while this approach enables Carriageworks to support and develop artists within its remit, Havilah sees other opportunities for young and emerging artists dwindling. “I think it's a real issue that there's less and less of those spaces all the time, because I think if you look at it as a pathway there's not enough at the front end of the pathway. There's not enough opportunities.”
Like Child’s Play opens on July 7 and continues until August 12. Admission is free. Find out more and see the full upcoming program at http://carriageworks.com.au/events/