Friday, August 10, 2012

Cockatoo Island, the perfectly dirty gallery

by Stephenie Cahalan

Growing up in Sydney Cockatoo Island was always a no-go zone in the middle of the harbour. Like a big present in the middle of the room that you have to walk around but are never allowed to open. For the twenty-five years I lived in Sydney within eye-sight of Cockatoo Island, I had never set foot on there. It was a ship-building site, a naval base, an industrial zone under remediation, a ferry stop at which guys in greasy work clothes alighted or boarded, and always an exclusion zone.

Not now. Cockatoo island is now an amazing post-industrial gallery space that has captured the layers of living and working history, preserved it and reinvented it. It is a fascinating museum littered with beautiful, industrial objects and relics. It is the perfect venue for a contemporary art festival aiming to juxtapose seemingly disjointed eras and purposes. It was a far cry from the tempered, blank canvas style of venue that is the MCA.

However, there is already so much to look at on Cockatoo Island that an artist must compete with an existing visual landscape.

In a reinvented workshop there is a wall of wooden boxes that used to house nuts and bolts of every measure. A whole wall from ceiling to floor with every box labeled (split pins, half-inch bolts, two inch clouts, hex screws…). It is a beautiful sight.

Cockatoo Island bolt boxes.
From the Museum of Copulatory Organs by Maria Fernanda Cardosa
Within this darkened room lies another exhibition by Maria Fernanda Cardoso, The Museum of Copulatory Organs that is a collection of sculptures of insect genitalia enlarged to an outrageous degree. It sounds a bit repulsive and obscure. But if you didn’t know the detail of the inspiration behind the work you would only look and marvel at the delicacy and detail of the sculptures in wax, blown glass and other media.  Inside finely-crafted glass and wood cases, with accompanying video installation, these representations of the microscopic genitalia of the Tasmanian harvestman (a small beetle-like insect displayed in a corner of the case for scale) made elegant, marble-like, flowing forms.

This is exhibition of work that has begun in a clinical laboratory environment, now on show an industrial site that still has the collected grime of may decades makes for a glorious clash. The gallery is dirty, yet perfect.

We got blown off the island and our visit was cut cruelly short. 120 km per hour winds whipped up and with no such thing as a lee side of the island for shelter we made a bolt for the free ferry back to town. As it turned out, the top part of the island was closed due to the wind which was shame; when I studied the map of the island on the way home I realised I had barely seen a thing.

It is a treasure trove there, worth as many visits as you can squeeze into a Biennale feast. Having had a nibble at the edges of that festival venue I beat a retreat to the ferry bouncing on the Sydney Harbour whitecaps, wishing I had made it to the main course.

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