Sophia Cai

Zoë Bastin, Enough 2021

Three years ago, co-curators Zoë Bastin and Claire Watson had a spark of an idea. Born from a desire to imagine alternate ways to embed sustainable practices into the logistical and curatorial framework of exhibition making, Zoë and Claire imagined a group exhibition based on the theme and processes of inflation. If artworks could literally be inflated and deflated for each showing, one could save packing space and thus the prohibitive freighting costs that typically accompany major touring exhibition. Moreover, for the team at NETS Victoria, who handle major logistical challenges of travelling exhibitions across the country, the matter of a reduced carbon footprint is a priority of ongoing importance.

The resulting exhibition, Conflated, brings together nine contemporary artists with works that are guided or inspired by the overarching theme of inflation. The majority of works in the exhibition are new artistic commissions, which offered the artists a chance to embrace the creative possibilities (and challenges) of the inflatable medium. Whereas initial ideas for the exhibition were imbued with fun and celebration (think bubbles, balloons), as 2020 progressed this easy optimism was quickly displaced by the realities of lockdowns, social distancing and isolation. In this way, the goal posts of the exhibition shifted along with the social and cultural realities of the world. In the years since, the world as we know it has transformed, undergoing dramatic change on both mass and micro levels. The ongoing impact of the global pandemic has altered the way to relate to each other in public (and private) spaces. Questions around air and breath have haunted our consciousness in ways previously unimagined. In this way, Conflated,as a major group exhibition centred on both physical and metaphorical expressions of inflation and deflation, hasturned out to be unerringly prescient. Taken together, the works explore our ongoing relationship with ourselves, each other and the wider physical environments we inhabit.

One piece that speaks directly to this seismic shift in social landscapes is David Cross’ participatory work Pair. Cross has been working with inflatable methods and structures for the larger part of his practice and was already involved in the earlier development of the exhibition as an artistic consultant. Cross’ familiarity with the medium is evident in his contribution, which continues the artist’s interest in contemporary participatory art. Part reclining lounge, part compliance device, Pair is a large-scale installation that visually signifies the physical and emotional distance between people in times of enforced social distancing. Pair is ‘activated’ when two people reach for each other through a circular hole in the walls of the soft inflatable, highlighting the mediated possibilities of intimacy during the recent years of isolation. The work demonstrates how the pandemic has irreversibly altered our social cues and expectations, and highlights a new-found hyperawareness of our body’s relationship to others in space. As the world continues to ‘open up’, these questions will remain prevalent.  

The pandemic has also changed our relationship to ourselves, and the way in which we occupy space in the physical environment. Whereas Cross’ work is activated through the participation of two people, Zoë Bastin’s newly commissioned video Enough is an expression of the solitary artist, her mental state, and the ongoing effects of anxiety on the body. The artist appears against a pier with a patchwork of foil balloons fashioned as a cape or protective armour. These balloons, inscribed with cheerful smiley faces 🙂 and banal messaging such as get well soon, are typical of ones found in hospital gift shops. Despite well-intentioned wishes, they can also be a token empty gesture – the phrase ‘toxic positivity’ comes to mind. As Bastin moves and dances across the landscape, her movements push and pull the balloons – causing them to inflate and change their physical form. In some moments, Bastin is shown caressing and holding the balloon mass, as though imbuing the inanimate with a sense of life and agency. The balloons act as a metaphor for mental health (the ‘deflation’ of the self), visually externalising symptoms that are otherwise experienced internally and, in many cases, invisible to an outside perspective. Enough can be interpreted as an articulation of the difference between our public selves and our internal mental states – a duality that became more pronounced as we lived through mass-isolation and lockdowns. By the end of the video, Bastin navigates the space free of the balloons, perhaps hinting at a personal process of acceptance and self-affirmation.

Bastin’s work is one of many in Conflated that charts the relationship between the human body and processes of inflation and deflation. The changing of form and the movement of air recalls the processes of breathing, inhaling and exhaling, a visual correlation explored through the collaborative work of Amrita Hepi, Honey Long and Prue Stent. Hepi, Long and Stent are long-time artist collaborators, and for Conflated they have created a new body of work inspired by Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine (1993), which in turn was heavily influenced by the work of Julia Kristeva on abjection. In Omphalus, femme-presenting bodies appear on screen, distorted and mutated using mirrored symmetry and a single, large, neon inflatable that moves in tandem with the body. Like a three-dimensional Rorschach test, our brains scramble to make sense of the shifting form, whose face is never revealed. Simultaneously monstrous, abject and erotic, the resulting work speaks equally to desire and repulsion, highlighting the way in which women’s bodies are performed and codified in the public realm. Where Bastin’s work charts a journey of personal introspection, Omphalus raises questions about our roles as spectators, gazing on an unknown and unknowable subject.

The body is also implied in Bronwyn Hack’s new work, which transforms a familiar everyday item – the cosy hot water bottle – into a re-imagined inflatable. Titled Alfred, the work is a homage to Hack’s favourite Australian children’s television program, Johnson and Friends, and the beloved green water bottle character of the show. But where Alfred was green, Hack’s sculpture combines colourful fabric scraps and textures to create an arresting aesthetic. The work is the same height as Hack, which transforms Alfred from a mere static object to something more personified. For Hack, hot water bottles are more than ubiquitous household items bringing comfort and warmth – they also hold sensory potential, activating both smell (‘the smell is interesting,’ shares Hack) and touch, through the ridged plastic surface. By upscaling these sensory experiences, Hack translates her intimate encounters into broader considerations around how the quotidian shapes our lives.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, artists are examining issues from socio-political angles, considering questions such as who, or whom, is given access to air and, by extension, space. Andy Butler’s Live to your Potential (After Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog) is a bitingly satirical video work that comments on the perceived ‘inflated’ value of contemporary art made by white male artists under late-stage capitalism. The video work depicts Butler wearing a suit while blowing and twisting balloon dogs, a repetitive action that can be read as a dryly humorous reference to the iconic Balloon Dog series by American contemporary artist Jeff Koons, whose works continue to command record prices. While Live to your Potential was created by Butler in 2019, the recent acquisition of Koons’ Venus (2016–21) as part of the 2020 NGV Triennial demonstrates the ongoing relevance of this critique. Considered in this way, Butler’s video serves as a stark reminder of the way in which art institutions support and uplift particular artistic voices – and the dissonance between the high art market and the unglamorous reality of most living artists.

The question of value, perceived or otherwise, is similarly explored in a new series by Taungurung artist Steven Rhall. Hermetic Rituals depict the artist with his upper body daubed in mud and his head covered by the severed head of a blow-up kangaroo. The contorted face of the deflated kangaroo covers Rhall’s own, masking any identifiable features. This act of covering, through the ‘mask’ of the animal, can be interpreted as a form of erasure. The resulting portraits are framed together with an assortment of objects and imagery including part of the original yellow kangaroo’s body and found air pump packaging, among other detritus. By placing these objects together, Hermetic Rituals highlights how national identity is ‘inflated’ through visual symbolism and artifice. The iconic yellow ‘boxing’ kangaroo is a popular image, frequently celebrated in Australian sporting vernacular to instill a sense of nationalist pride. The inflatable kangaroo can be understood as a visual metaphor for the forced construction of this pride, one that can easily be popped or disrupted by recognising the violence of Australia’s colonial past and present. In this way, Rhall’s work offers critical commentary on the ongoing legacies of this country’s contested history, and the way it continues to shape popular imagination and identity.   

The synthetic materials and plasticity of everyday inflatables also raises questions of sustainability and environmental disaster. Christopher Langton’s installation Breathe In Breathe Out presents a sombre scene: a human figure, donned in a gas mask and hiking gear, stands amidst a desolate landscape of barren trunks. The trees are stripped of leaves and the only companion is a small marsupial-looking animal. Langton’s mastery of silicone and plastic materials is evident in the construction of the scene, which subverts our expectations of inflatables as playful or joyous. Instead, we are confronted with a scene that appears straight from an apocalyptic future, or perhaps our soon-to-be present. Langton draws attention to the toll unfettered industrialisation and human development is having on the natural world, including air quality and pollution. To accept that this is our fate would be nihilistic and defeatist, and the work provokes us to contemplate change before it’s too late.  

Inhaleinhaleinhale by James Nguyen similarly addresses themes of environmental collapse, as well as the confluence of social and political unrest. Nguyen pieces together found footage from YouTube, including ASMR videos, to create a soundscape that invites the listener into an intimate encounter through its presentation in an enclosed sound dome. ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos are designed to activate stimulating sensory experiences, using audio or visual cues – such as listening to soft, repetitive sounds like breathing – to create soothing feelings of comfort and relaxation. In Nguyen’s work, the combination of found ASMR material coupled with sounds from environmental disasters and political moments of unrest creates a sensory overload that fluctuates between calm and unease. Offered without context or background information, it is up to the audience to make sense of the discordant mix of source materials, which together paint a fraught picture of contemporary existence, particularly as mediated through screen-culture and social media.

Where Nguyen’s work considers intimacy and personal vulnerability as mediated through screens and mass-media, Eugenia Lim’s work for Conflated sees the artist consider the relationship between architecture, built environment and labour. Initially made for the Kyneton Contemporary Art Triennial, at the heart of Shelters for Kyneton (triadic transfer) is a consideration of the meaning of ‘shelter’ as imagined through the site of the town’s Transfer Station. The work features the artist performing together with two members from the Kyneton local community: transfer station worker Steve Boulter and Macedon Ranges Shire Council Mayor Cr. Jennifer Anderson. They are all dressed in gold Mylar jumpsuits connected by a single arm, creating a unit that moves as one. Lim’s interest in the material of Mylar, which is frequently used in emergency blankets, is long-standing, and it is through the movement of the three performers that the material inflates and takes form. In this way, the work highlights the invisible labour that is often unseen, as all three bodies are essential to the activation of the work. Coming full circle from David Cross’ Pair, where the work comments on the distance between its participants, Lim’s work instead offers a hopeful glimpse of adaptability, resilience and togetherness through connection.  

Considered together, the works in Conflated approach the medium and process of inflation as a visual and metaphorical device to explore a broad range of contemporary issues. The malleability and plasticity of the inflatable offers the artists an intimate way to consider questions of personal space, the body and self, and the contested politics of air – not just how we breathe, but who breathes and what we breathe. The time taken for the development of works for Conflated has allowed for the conceptual underpinnings of the show to shift with the times, directly influenced by the social, cultural and political transformations of the last three years. The resulting exhibition is a diverse and timely snapshot of the ways in which artists can use art to imagine new possibilities – and the ways that artmaking can act as both a salve and tool of resistance during turbulent times.