Photo: Jennifer Leahy
‘Space YZ’ was the name of a gallery established in 1992 at the University of Western Sydney (now Western Sydney University) on the country of the Darug People of the Darug Nation. Less a destination than an idling walkway, the gallery was literally a transitional passage linking the newly built Visual Arts Studio complex in Z building to Y building’s classrooms for science. Replacing the former Peachtree Studio of an earlier eighties era, Z building was connected to the rest of the Kingswood side of the Nepean campus by a modest gallery that now barely exists through a patchy mnemonic intersection of the archival and anecdotal.
As a site “generated by the artistic possibilities of using an otherwise unusable broad corridor,” to quote Helen Grace, a former lecturer in art history at UWS, ‘Space YZ’ is a metaphor for the transitional experience of art school and what its factory like studios stirred into being. Cheo Chai-Hiang, who taught at the art school, was the founding curator of Space YZ. A key highlight of his early programming was Six Contemporary Chinese Artists, assisted by art history student Melissa Chiu. In the foreword to the catalogue, Dean of the Faculty, David Hull, writes: “This, the first year of the gallery, has been an exciting one and this exhibition is indicative of the gallery’s desire to mount relevant and contemporary work which provides a learning experience to students and staff and the community of the university.”
I named this exhibition after Space YZ as it speaks to the metaphors of transition and connection that abound at art school; where ideologies are challenged, unique artistic identities forged, and lives changed. A changed life is exactly what art school did for me and exactly what I was hungry for it to do. Delving into my archive, triggering long-dormant memories, this piece traces my own undergraduate experience, and what it set into train for my life and career, populated by the friendships and networks that continue strong to this day.
As Year 11 was winding up and school holidays loomed, my art teacher Iain Wallace showed me a flyer for an Art History Summer School being held at UWS. I would have been 16-years old when I first set out by train to Kingswood for this two-day art theory primer. Taught by Elin Howe – alumni from the art school’s prior iteration as the Nepean College of Advanced Education at its former Peachtree Avenue studios in Penrith – the Summer School blew my mind. Immediately, I knew this was my calling. It was here I wanted to be, living on the edge of Z, following the HSC.
The second time I stepped foot on Kingswood campus was sometime in 1992 when I attended the interview for the following year’s student intake within the Faculty of Visual and Performing Arts. Like everyone else I’m sure, my ‘portfolio’ was cobbled together from artworks made at high school. Lecturers Anne Graham and Cheo Chai-Hiang conducted my interview.
An exciting environment of confusion is the best way to describe these undergrad years at Z block. Recently, former lecturer Terry Hayes explained that the first-year Foundation Studies curriculum was deliberately intended to create a sense of confusion as a strategy for critical thinking. The Latin etymology of confusion is to mingle together and fuse. The curriculum placed a foundational emphasis on ‘confusion’ so that thinking was challenged as part of the creative process. Having elected to take the Art History and Criticism strand of the Bachelor of Arts, taught by Jennifer Barrett, Susan Best, Jill Beaulieu, Helen Grace, Colin Hood and Phillip Kent, my thinking was being consistently challenged and shaped in both studio and classroom contexts over the progression of the degree. A guest lecture from conceptual artist and curator Ian Burn on 9 September 1993, inspired my growing interest in the blurring of practice and theory. Sadly, it was Burn’s last appearance in public life – 20 days later he accidentally drowned while swimming at Pretty Beach.
In the studio, especially during Foundation Studies, everything felt like it was up for grabs and disciplinary boundaries were intentionally commingled, if not entirely obliterated. “The job of the lecturers and students in Foundation Studies is to create situations where possibilities open up” writes lecturer Rhett Brewer in the 1993 first-year exhibition catalogue. “Where one can set aside habitual practices and try something else if they wish.” Indeed, from what I recall of Foundation Studies, we were expected to try not just something, but everything – using conceptual thinking strategies as a means for sampling and blurring the lines between drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, ceramics, printmaking, photography, video and performance.
Looking back, my studio trajectory started with expressionistic paintings and drawings of sad psychosexual moments from everyday life. I abandoned painting quickly upon realising that Jenny Watson had already cornered the market on the messy cartoonish canvas and moved to found object installations. Observing my studio, sculpture lecturer Noelene Lucas referred to me as “surreal object boy”. I recall being unsure if she was being dismissive or matter of fact.
It was a junky installation in my studio that caught the eye of a second-year student, Marcelo Severo, who struck up a conversation, discerning that I had the makings of a video artist. The idea seemed preposterous. Nevertheless, he invited me to contribute to Honey, a film festival he was organising for the AFI Cinema (now Chauvel) in Paddington on 13 August 1993. Flattered, I accepted the offer, booked a VHS camera from AV Services, and spent a Sunday afternoon shooting Troll, a ‘horror film’ on the rooftop carpark at Hurstville Station with fellow student Michelle Seamons (my girlfriend), Herbert Ng (my childhood best friend) and Björk (via a sample from The Sugarcubes’ Take Some Petrol Darling). Troll is juvenilia at best, notable only in that it hatched a video art practice immersed in pop songs and music video aesthetics.
The final Foundation Studies project written by Terry Hayes and its culminating first-year exhibition, Someone Might Notice a Thick Puff of Smoke (10) was conceived as a ten letter cryptic crossword clue. The undeclared answer to the riddle – ‘camouflage’ – formed the basis for a project that called for us to identify and employ commonplace and transient sites on campus outside the Z block studios. The project brief was “to draw attention towards [the site] as a ‘noticing’ of something that is both odd and inexplicable” and “find means to ‘mystify’ mundanity through teasing out of the various threads of intrigue latent within its commonplace ordinance”.
For my chosen site, I settled on two adjacent window display galleries at the entrance to the former Allen Library at Kingswood. In one of the windows I presented Gender is a Drag, a performance video looped on a CRT monitor, perched on a plinth. In the video I appear to be undergoing a gender transformation, helped along by hair dye, makeup, a cigarette, and the Pet Shop Boys song Heart (1987).
Photo: Ross Cunningham
I had been reading Judith Butler thanks to one of Susan Best’s theory classes. In her landmark feminist queer theory book, Gender Trouble (1990), Butler writes: “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself - as well as its contingency”. I took the ‘puff of smoke’ clue to mean the ‘drag’ of a cigarette likened to the ‘drag’ of gender, while outing the camouflage of my closeted sexuality up to that point – even if my queerness was hiding in plain sight.
At the exhibition opening on 25 November 1993, I performed live in the second window and reversed the ‘drag’ by removing the makeup and, much to everyone’s shock, shaving my head. As the performance concluded, I referenced my favourite Frida Kahlo painting Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940) by writing on the window in red lipstick: “Look, if I used to love you, it was because of your hair; now that you’re shorn I don’t love you anymore”. A melancholy sentiment of lost or unrequited love. Frida Kahlo meets Pet Shop Boys via Judith Butler. These were indeed postmodern times.
Following this dramatic ‘outing’, second-year was when I fully embraced the newfound freedoms that came from being more comfortable in my skin as a queer performance artist rather than a failed straight white male painter. This newfound liberation also came from knowing that at Z block, anything was possible.
I struck up a friendship with Emma Crimmings, my bestie to this day. I left home after a room opened up in Emma’s share house at 1/56 Jones Street, Kingswood, a short walk from campus. While living at Kingswood, I hooked up with Tim Hilton, who lived at Glenmore Park, and we became each other’s first boyfriends. We’d hang out at the Midnight Factory, a gay bar in Penrith that resembled a set from Twin Peaks. A posse of sorts formed which included Michelle Seamons, John South, Erna Lilje, Toby Huynh, Jennifer Leahy, Emma, Tim and I – all of us second-year classmates. We all formed strong bonds as collaborators, lovers, friends. Often we appeared in each other’s work. My appearance in Emma’s Let’s Do Lunch, a case in point.
I made several no-budget VHS performance videos that year that were either shot in backyards or bathrooms. The most ‘ambitious’ was Bicycle, a camp dance romp shot in the shed at my parents’ Springwood property for a class taught by Julie Rrap. Riffing on the Liza Minnelli character in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), Bicycle later spawned a short drag piece called Licycle at Performance Space’s cLUB bENT, as part of the 1995 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. I was paid a cheque of $100 – my first artist fee.
Photo: Heidrun Löhr
High Street Heights
In 1994 I recognised my aspirations to be an artist and curator. Not that I really understood what a curator did, let alone grasp the conflicts and complexities that arise from wearing both hats. Courses in Curatorial Studies were not offered at UWS, so I took the self-taught path and made it up as I went along. For a brief period I volunteered as a curatorial assistant for Space YZ, which involved photocopying invitations, pinning them on noticeboards around campus and setting up the cheap wine and snacks at openings. That year Tim Hilton and Erna Lilje organised Strange Bedfellows, an exchange exhibition between H-Block Gallery at Queensland University of Technology and Space YZ.
Around this time, lecturer Peter Charuk invited me to curate a portable window gallery he built called Avago-West. Located near the photography darkrooms and adjacent to the stairs leading to Space YZ, Avago-West was modelled on Avago Gallery, a window space in Paddington for emerging artists that founder Marr Grounds dubbed as the “biggest little gallery in the Southern Hemisphere”. For Avago-West, I recruited exhibition proposals from my peers and built a program of diminutive student shows with the occasional intervention from the lecturers.
Aside from Space YZ and Avago-West, there were very few opportunities to exhibit in Western Sydney. Legendary artist-run initiative (ARI), Street Level was located in Blacktown until 1995, its vibrant program brimming with UWS students and staff. Regional galleries were also lively sites offering opportunities to exhibit, especially Penrith Regional Gallery, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and Campbelltown Arts Centre (then known as the Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery).
Despite the thrill of visiting or showing in galleries in Sydney, there was a pressing need for local alternatives, sparking the establishment of a short-lived ARI called Nepean Arthouse. Located in a converted warehouse at 65-67 High Street Penrith, Nepean Arthouse opened on 26 July 1994 with a group exhibition called Bringing It Back Home (for which I submitted a cringeworthy installation made from train tickets and a pair of blue cotton shorts). Opening night guest speakers included David Hull, David White (then Head of Arts at Penrith TAFE) and Freda Whitlam (then Member of the Community Advisory Committee, UWS). A dedicated committee of students from UWS ran Nepean Arthouse, with Neil Laredo having instigated it and served as chairman. For a stint I was involved on the committee alongside peers including Laredo, Susan Pendlebury, Joe Ernsten, Margareta Fisher, Rhett Boland, Janelle Power, Nathan Waters, among other members.
Programmed in February 1995 as an ‘unofficial event’ of the Mardi Gras Festival, my first curatorial project, Drag Races, was held at Nepean Arthouse and loosely themed around an intersection of ‘drag’ and ‘race’. Exhibiting artists were all UWS students or staff and included Keith Clancy, Jules Gull, Tim Hilton, Toby Huynh, Sandi James, Gabrielle 50s Kitsch, Michelle Seamons, John South, Nathan Waters, and myself.
While we were staging Drag Races, some of us were engaged as volunteer assistants on Perspecta 1995, curated by Judy Annear at the Art Gallery of NSW. We were all thrilled that Annear showed her support by attending the opening night of Drag Races with Perspecta artist, Tracey Moffatt.
L-R (standing): Erna Lilje, Keith Clancy, Gabrielle 50s Kitsch, Daniel Mudie Cunningham, John South, Nathan Waters; (sitting): Sandi James, Toby Huynh, Tim Hilton, Jules Gull
As 1995 rolled on, the grad show was looming. Setting aside drag and performance, my work increasingly became interested in the codification of masculinity and desire within gay sex cultures.
The starting point for my grad project was a set of 1950s white hankies wrapped in their original packaging. Having acquired these items as a teenager, I was particularly drawn to how their packaging was marketed around various tropes of (hetero) masculinity: the Debonair, the Ambassador, and the Rugby ‘active man’. As I was deciding what to make for my grad project, I experienced my first visit to a gay sauna: a sex venue where men cruised around dark, labyrinthine spaces wearing only white towels around their waists. The sameness of the white towel in this environment contrasted the ‘hanky code’ specific to gay male cruise cultures originating in the US in the mid-to-late twentieth century. A colour-coded system was applied by gay men to their hanky of choice, which helped signify a preferred sexual proclivity.
Intrigued that white was not listed on the colour spectrum of the hanky code (possibly due to its virginal connotations of innocence or purity) I appropriated the whiteness of these handkerchiefs and remixed their meaning as the white towels worn before or after sauna hook-ups. ‘His Towels’ for gays.
Comprising two framed towel boxes, three embroidered towels and a small drawing, the installation was titled Drip Dry. Opening night for the grad show occurred on 13 November 1995 with Tracey Moffatt as guest speaker. A day or so later, peer assessment crits were held in the exhibition. To my horror someone had tossed rubbish on the ground in front of my work – a crushed can and a chip packet. Lecturer Joan Grounds thought it was part of the installation and seemed disappointed as I removed the offending litter. Without the detritus, she perceived the work as too hygienic and sanitised given its ‘casual sex’ connotations.
Along with eight other students, Drip Dry was selected from the grad show for Small Works, an exhibition at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. After it closed I went to Casula to collect my works but the three embroidered towels had been stolen from the collection store. After an argument with the gallery director who said it was not the Art Centre’s responsibility, Anne Graham arranged for UWS to reimburse my productions costs (a whopping $314.15) as a gesture of support.
From Y to Z...
After graduating with Honours in Art History and Criticism, my association with UWS continued for a decade in various teaching, doctoral research and activist guises while working independently as a curator. All my curatorial projects at this time were heavily indebted to Western Sydney artists, especially at MOP Projects where I was an active committee member responsible for shaping its program (a history that has been surveyed nostalgically by Ann Finegan). In 2008, I curated Bent Western at Blacktown Arts Centre, an exhibition of queer art from Western Sydney. Of the 16 artists, ten were alumni from UWS.
From 1997 until 2007 I accepted sessional and contract teaching work when opportunities arose, which meant I would swing from semester to semester between the Art History department and elsewhere in the Design Studies units of Visual Communication. Ironically, it was Visual Communication that was ultimately prioritised by university management, effectively restructuring the Visual Arts out of existence with the final student cohort ‘taught out’ in 2009.
Leading up to this fateful time, I maintained a strong connection to the art school through friendships with staff, students, and in particular, a relationship with former partner, Drew Bickford, a member of the 2002 graduating group. As the art school started to implode, I was well and truly ensconced as contracted teaching staff in the rival design school, simply because it was the only work I could get. Watching the debacle unfolding at Kingswood from Werrington, I became radicalised by the potential offered by the emerging blogging and social media platforms available online. With Sari Kivinen, alumni from the same 2002 group as Drew Bickford, I formed a protest blog called Save UWS Arts in September 2006. Using intel gleaned from within, I ghost-wrote every incendiary post for the blog, exposing administrative corruptions and contradictions in order to undermine moves to abolish the art school. The blog attracted media coverage, sector support and helped garner advocacy for tertiary arts education. A satirical blog called The Artswipe wrote about Save UWS Arts in a welcomed gesture of solidarity. Sari became the ‘public face’ for Save UWS Arts while I wrote its contents in the shadows. Management were so incensed by Sari’s student uprising, they didn’t for a second guess that it was engineered by one of their own.
In June 2007, I finally left UWS for good to take up the curator position at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery with Michael Rolfe as Director (his daughter Emily Rolfe – exceptional Curatorial Manager of the Space YZ exhibition – back then in high school, she was dreaming of being a curator I’m sure).
Later that year in 2007, I was invited back to Z block as a guest speaker on the opening night of the UWS graduation exhibition. Other speeches were given by John Cheeseman, then Director at Blacktown Arts Centre, and Terry Hayes, whose rousing speech acknowledged how many academics had left that year.
The staff at the school were delighted to see me again, as were my former colleagues from the design school, still clueless that my blog had started the fires of protest that were now well and truly raging. As my speech turned into a full-blown attack on the university for killing Z, I looked over at the huddle of incensed Faculty executives who had not expected me to be so impolite.
A full circle moment. In 1993, outed with a razor and a puff of smoke. At the time of writing, outed as the mole.
...And Back Again
When I proposed this exhibition to Michael Dagostino in April 2017, my motives were driven by the diminishing art school options available at a tertiary level. Following the closure of the art school at Western Sydney, bureaucratic unrest has beleaguered the remaining three Sydney institutions: National Art School, Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) and UNSW Art and Design (formerly COFA). For instance, a scheme to merge the SCA and UNSW art schools was abandoned after a significant protest where students occupied the executive offices for two months in 2016. Elsewhere two years later, it was revealed that Western Sydney University was in talks to potentially partner with NAS prior to a declaration of its current state of independence.
Space YZ is a timely reminder of the vital role art schools play in the formation of our cultural landscape. It also highlights the scope of what can be achieved, individually and collectively. By presenting work from alumni artists made during undergraduate studies or within two years of graduation, Space YZ is a time capsule that reinserts a potentially forgotten narrative into an art history of the recent past. Aside from two deceased artists – Daniel Kojta and Jon Wah – the artists assembled for Space YZ are still practicing today, evidence an art school can create sustainable pathways.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic that seemed unimaginable when I first embarked on this project, Space YZ could not be a more timely and pressing reminder of the importance, not just of art schools, but the entire humanities. As COVID-19 decimates the financial models on which universities depend, a concurrent attack has been waged on the arts and humanities by a conservative government clearly threatened by the critical thinking enabled by higher learning. Space YZ takes stock of what has been achieved during a relatively compressed period of time, emphasising what we must fight to retain and protect in the present. Or what could be rebuilt in a perfect world.
Imagine that, being back, living on the edge of Z.
Essay for Space YZ at Campbelltown Arts Centre, 7 January – 14 March 2021.
Published by Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2021.