LISTEN AND READ

Curatorial Essay

L.A is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save for the fictive scrim of its mythologisers.

     – Michael Sorkin 1

*

This exhibition began as a story.

Greetings from L.A: Land of clusterfuck highways, cacti, giant SUVs, $9 bottled juices, glitteratis and down and outs. All is equal parts familiar and strange. Like a giant Perth, with slightly more edge. 2

In 2014 I found myself in Los Angeles for the first time, for an extended period of time. Often alone, and usually in a car, I filled my days driving the vast distances from my accommodation in Venice to galleries in the Art District and Downtown, or to visit artists in their studios, often in the sprawling suburbs and outer fringes of the city. I joked in letters back home to friends that I was beginning to identify a little too closely with Maria Wyeth, the troubled heroine in Joan Didion’s classic 1970 novel Play It As It Lays, who, struggling to avoid a mental crisis, takes to aimlessly driving Southern California’s freeways. Clichés and exaggerations aside, I was looking to stories as a means of making sense of my relationship with my new environment: a city which, while on the surface appeared familiar from its representation in culture and on screen, was ultimately alien in its reality.

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. 3 So begins the opening lines of Didion’s seminal essay The White Album, written over ten years from 1968–1978, and which documents – against the comings and goings of the writer’s own life in a ramshackle house on Hollywood’s Franklin Avenue – the cultural and political changes, loss of innocence, and encroaching paranoia in California at the time. These stories, deftly interwoven, range from recording a studio album with The Doors, to the Manson murders, the rise of the Black Panthers, the student takeover of San Francisco State College, and the writer’s own nervous breakdown. This last topic is important, as it reveals the unreliable potential of our narrator. ‘Or at least we do for a while,’ 4 Didion continues; stories, seductive as they are, can also be untrustworthy. Yet recounted anecdotally, broadcast publicly, or circulated culturally through literature, film and song, this narrative impulse can help to shape personal mythologies and local folklore, and contribute to defining a collective sense of identity, history and place.

At the same time that I was in Los Angeles, George Egerton-Warburton, an artist in this exhibition, moved to the city for art school. On our drives together we began to reflect on the passing surroundings glimpsed through the car windscreen, drawing parallels to Perth, a city in which we had both spent time while growing up. Through these shared eyes and experiences, we remarked upon immediate overlaps: eucalyptus trees, a certain quality of light, contemporaneous architectural styles, and the orientation of a city towards the setting of the sun – to the ocean, always somewhere in the distance. Driving the long stretch of Venice Boulevard from Downtown to the beach could sometimes feel like peak hour on Scarborough Beach Road; Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica to Malibu was a more glamourous version of West Coast Highway on the way from Scarborough to Two Rocks. Yet there were more uneasy similarities as well – a darkness to counter the light. Perth and Los Angeles both felt like places that people might end up in to escape. Edges of the edge.

Later, recalling these comparative anecdotes to artists and friends in Perth, I found the idea had some resonance. Many had themselves travelled to Los Angeles and made similar observations, but equally so did the idea appeal to others for whom Los Angeles existed only in their social imaginary, 5 in part because it is a city that trades on its own myth. ‘Ten years away and I’ve managed to romanticise the vast expanse of suburbs. Boredom. Where did I even move to?’6 asks Steph Kretowicz, a Los Angeles-based writer, originally from Perth, in an audio essay commissioned for this exhibition catalogue. ‘The same fucking place, but dirtier. More expensive.’ 7

Thinking further, the correlations began to run deeper. Despite their inherent differences – in industry, scale, population, politics, public perception and self-image – and the distinct independent cultures of each city, Perth and Los Angeles share several commonalties: from indigenous and colonial histories to natural resource booms, sprawling suburbia, car culture, blazing sunsets and seamy underbellies. Frontier cities, bordered to the west by ocean, and separated from the east by desert, mountains and plains, both have a sense of freedom and of being self-contained, yet also remote and isolated. Being defined in opposition to larger, more established cities – as Los Angeles is to New York, and Perth to Sydney or Melbourne – creates a sense of adolescence: a perception of young cities still in search of themselves, all the while quietly, determinedly, knowing exactly who they are.

Writing in 1971 in his influential book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, British architectural historian Reyner Banham drew an early and now well-known comparison between the two cities: ‘Los Angeles is the greatest City-on-the-Shore in the world; its only notable rival, in fact, is Rio de Janeiro… and its only rival in potential is, probably, Perth, Western Australia.’ 8 This promise of potential, and by association its suggestion of unrealised or missed opportunities, was later echoed in the words of writer David Whish-Wilson in his excellent chronicle of the city, Perth:

It occurs to me… that if the first iron-ore boom had happened in the 1920s rather than the 1960s, Perth might have more closely resembled golden-age Los Angeles, whose Mediterranean climate it shares. We might have graceful Art Deco towers rather than beige office blocks… Art Deco suits Perth’s pure light, and like the Art Deco movement, with its optimism for a shiny humanist future brighter than what eventuated, Perth has also been a city cast in the shadow of its promise and potential – the enduring fever dream of the City of Light. 9

Love in Bright Landscapes similarly considers the cities of Perth and Los Angeles as comparative case studies, explored through the work of 14 artists who are from, live in, or have passed through either city. Specifically, the exhibition considers the role of myth and narrative in defining a sense of identity and place, revealing subjects and stories both specific and universal, legendary and lesser known. It is by no means an exhibition about either Perth or Los Angeles, and the distinct, various and complex histories and lived realities of either place – such an undertaking would inevitably be futile, for cities, as with the people who inhabit them, are constantly in flux. It is, rather, an evocation of place. My hope is that in considering work that references the character or qualities of one city, the viewer might also recognise some semblance of the other. Like stories, exhibitions are themselves constructions, an assemblage of facts, fictions and falsehoods, interpreted by a subjective audience, and conceived of by a narrator who might themselves be unreliable.

Love in Bright Landscapes takes its title from the name of a 1986 album by former, now cult, Perth band The Triffids – a group that has contributed much to the city’s narrative of wide-open roads, treeless plains and the relentless heat of a long, dry Perth summer. ‘Nothing much happens here/Nothing gets done/But you get to like it/You get to like the beating of the sun/The washing of the sun/In Spanish Blue’ are the opening lines of The Triffid’s 1982 song Spanish Blue. While not explicitly about Perth, it can be assumed that the lyrics, penned by the late songwriter David McComb, are written in reference to the band’s sleepy hometown. Out of context, they might also appear as a description of life in Los Angeles – which, while an undeniably bigger city with a prolific cultural output, shares some of the sundrenched suburban idleness alluded to in these lines. Kretowicz draws a similar relationship between apathy and the environment: ‘There’s a climate in Los Angeles that’s similar. To Australia, Perth. Hot. Dry. Torpid. Some refer to what happens to you when you move to Southern California as the “LA lobotomy.” Or at least, I do. There’s something about the heat and the light that makes you not want to do anything. No drive or ambition…’ 10

It could be argued, however, that these exact conditions are precisely the catalyst for the compulsive experimentation, risk-taking and DIY creative culture that is apparent in both Perth and Los Angeles. In his fantastic essay about the Perth music scene Creative Darwinism: Pretty flowers grow in shit, Pond frontman Nick Allbrook writes about the fertile environment for creativity in the ‘little corner of filthy otherness’ 11 that is his hometown of Perth. ‘You have to really need it,’ Allbrook writes, ‘and without the mysterious and poetic benefits of a vibrant city culture this has to come from deep inside.’ 12 Whish-Wilson would concur. In defence of Perth’s geographic isolation and remove from cultural and commercial centres on the east coast, Whish-Wilson writes: ‘If anything, Perth’s distance from the other Australian cities fostered a spirit of making-do and innovation.’ 13 Curator Ted Snell has likewise described the ‘make-do mentality’ and outward-looking focus of artists working in Western Australia, who are ‘…influenced by geography, but not constrained by it.’ 14 These sentiments are shared with many artists with whom I have met in Los Angeles, who have chosen to establish their practice in the city, despite New York’s historical prominence as an artistic centre, because the slower pace of life and distance from established canons afforded space – both physical and critical – for taking creative risks.

In an early conversation with Noongar writer and storyteller Cass Lynch – whose audio work Dampland, made in collaboration with sound artist Mei Swan Lim, serves as a starting point for this exhibition – Lynch challenged Perth’s prevailing myth of isolation. For Whadjuk Noongar people, the coastal plain that Perth sits on is, and has always been, the centre. Lynch’s caution reminds us that stories can obscure as much as they reveal; that for every narrative there is a counter-narrative, that there is never just one story. In assembling the artistic projects that comprise Love in Bright Landscapes I have embraced this murkiness, taking inspiration from American urban theorist and historian Mike Davis’ summation of the role of both ‘boosters’ and ‘debunkers’ as two competing subsets of intellectuals who helped shape and commodify an image of Los Angeles as a cultural export. 15 The artworks in the exhibition variously consider ideas that could be broadly categorised, in Davis’ words, as ‘sunshine or noir,’ combined to present a relationship between the two west coast cities that is both complimentary and complex. A footnote to the exhibition, through the work of Carmen Argote’s Last Light, reminds us that, despite the similarities between Perth and Los Angeles that this exhibition seeks to draw, there are ongoing events that mark the lived experiences of both cities as vastly different from one another. Filmed in the first wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Argote walks the desolate streets of Los Angeles (an activity that is itself unusual in a city centred around the use of a car), while a voiceover reflects upon feelings of vulnerability and betrayal, and muses on the future – envisaging a city that is forever-changed in the period ahead.

*

This essay ends with a story.

Around 1840, little over a decade after the British established the Swan River Colony in present-day Perth, Noongar woman Fanny Balbuk Yooreel was born on Matagarup (Heirisson Island) in the middle of the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River). Despite the draining and filling of surrounding swamps, the nearby construction of Perth Railway Station, and the swift and dramatic colonisation that impeded Fanny from accessing her Country, she continued to walk her traditional bidi (track) from Matagarup to Lake Kingsford to gather food. When a fence was erected in her way, Fanny climbed over it; when a house was built, she marched through rooms; as trees were cleared and the city developed around her, she resisted, steadfastly committed to continuing her traditional practices and culture. 16 Fanny’s spirited defiance, and the image that she conjures of a woman walking a straight line through a landscape rapidly changing around her, is remembered through the telling and re-telling of her story. The city that we know today is unimaginable from Fanny’s own experience of it, yet her spirit lives on, beneath layers of concrete, steel and glass, former wetlands, a present-day public square, stadium and suburbs. Across these suburbs, new narratives are scripted daily, yet that of Fanny Balbuk Yooreel endures; one, in the great palimpsest of stories, that we tell ourselves in order to live.

 

1 Michael Sorkin, ‘Explaining Los Angeles,’, California Counterpoint: New West Coast Architecture 1982,  (San Francisco: San Fransisco Art Institute, 1982), p.  8.
2 Annika Kristensen, email to friend, 2014.
3
Joan Didion, ‘The White Album,’, The White Album 1979 (New York: , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2009), , p. 11.
4 Ibid.
5 A term coined by the American urban and media historian Norman Klein to describe ‘a collective memory of an event or place that never occurred, but is built anyway’. See Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory 1997, Verso (, London and New York: Verso, , 2008, p.) 10.
6 Steph Kretowicz, ‘Brutal,’, Love in Bright Landscapes,  (exhibition catalogue, (Perth: Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts,), PICA  2021) [available online via www.pica.org.au.
7 Ibid.
8
Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies 1971, University of California Press,( Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).
9
David Whish-Wilson, Perth (Sydney: , NewSouth Publishing, Sydney 2013, p.), 11.
10 Kretowicz, ‘Brutal’.online
11 Nick Allbrook, ‘Creative Darwinism: Pretty flowers grow in shit,’, Griffith Review 47: Looking West, eds. Anna Haebich & Julianne Schultz (South Brisbane: , Griffith University, Brisbane and in conjunction with Text Publishing, Melbourne 2015, p.), 116.
12 Allbrook, p.Ibid, 118.
13 Whish-Wilson, Perth, p. 14.
14 Ted Snell, ‘Shifting focus: A comprehensive, unbiased history,’, Griffith Review 47: Looking West, eds. Anna Haebich & Julianne Schultz (South Brisbane: Griffith University in conjunction with Text Publishing, 2015), Griffith University, Brisbane and Text Publishing, Melbourne 2015, p. 123.
15 For more, see Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles (1990, Verso, London and Brooklynn: Verso, 2018).
16 Gina Pickering, ed., (ed.),  Fanny Balbuk Yooreel: Realising a Perth Resistance Fighter (, Perth: , Dessein, 2017),, p.  2.

 

Annika Kristensen is Senior Curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), where she has curated recent exhibitions including Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act(2019); The Theatre is Lying (with Max Delany, 2018-19); Eva Rothschild: Kosmos (with Max Delany, 2018); Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism (with Paola Balla, Max Delany, Julie Ewington, Vikki McInnes and Elvis Richardson, 2017–18); Greater Together (2017); Claire Lambe: Mother Holding Something Horrific (with Max Delany, 2017) and NEW16 (2016).

Previously the Exhibition and Project Coordinator for the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) and the inaugural Nick Waterlow OAM Curatorial Fellow for the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012), Annika has also held positions at Frieze Art Fair, Artangel, Film and Video Umbrella, London; and The West Australian newspaper, Perth. Annika was a participant in the 2013 Gertrude Contemporary and Art & Australia Emerging Writers Program and the recipient of an Asialink Arts Residency to Tokyo in 2014. She holds a MSc in Art History, Theory and Display from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Arts/Communications from the University of Western Australia.