Cynthia Schwertsik Exhibition Launch by William Peterson
Like Cynthia Schwertsik, I too am a migrant to this land, someone who grew up far from here. What I share with Cynthia and so many other migrants is that even though it may seem like a series of happy accidents brought us here, at some point we made a conscious decision to stay and build a life in this beautiful, ancient land. Also like Cynthia, I came of age at a time where artists crossed disciplinary boundaries in ways that seemed transgressive and exciting. The rigid categories that characterized bounded fields of art than would seem arbitrary, stupid, indeed unimaginable to many young people today.
From the 1960s and into the early 1980s, there were a few places in this world where rigid categories of artmaking were openly challenged by artists. This was happening in the East Village of Manhattan in New York, at crazy abandoned spaces in London’s Brixton, in Southern California, and, believe it or not, here in Adelaide. That’s right, little old Adelaide, was arguably—or at least in my view—one of the great global centers for a bold, transgressive, socially-conscious artmaking practice.
At the time, Adelaide was one of a handful of cities where art practices variously termed performance art, live art or post-object art were being experimented with. In form, content, and particularly for its social engagement, the practices of Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation and the South Australian Women’s Art Movement (WAM)—both key players at the time—were uncannily aligned with the work of Southern California artists of the time, particularly those associated with the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, where feminism had opened up the space for urgent and necessary connections with the world outside the gallery.
It was in this environment that visionary Flinders University Professor Donald Brook (1927-2018), foundational chair of Fine Arts , coined the term “post-object art”, and began assembling what is quite possibly the world’s largest and most delightfully idiosyncratic collection of “objects” connected with a “post-object” artistic practice, held by the Flinders University Art Museum. Brook, whose brilliant conceptualisation of a range of related arts practices much-circulating in Europe, the United States and Australia, observed that, ‘Works of post-object art are to be understood as actions (or as the evidence of actions) occurring in a complete world in which any aspect or consideration might turn out to be relevant, and from which art is not insulated.’1 In other words, the point was not the creation of an object to be admired, consumed or contemplated, but rather actions—or evidence of human actions—could be the thing itself, the work of art.
Given the action orientation of “post-object” or performance art, it may seem ironic that the objects created and used in such a practice, including photographs documenting such “actions”, were deemed worthy of preservation. But thankfully they were, which leads us to Cynthia Schwertsik’s UTE-ilitarian. Austrian-born Schwertsik was given access to the ephemera associated with the post-object art practices of Australian artists housed in the University’s Art Museum and then tasked to use the collection as a creative impulse for new work.
Perhaps because she, like so many of us, is a migrant to this ancient and powerful land, Schwertsik’s work is supremely receptive and responsive to place. Thus, it is unsurprising that while looking through the back catalogue of performance art she was drawn to Aleks Danko’s (1950- ) work, in particular his artist book, The chair is not a tourist (1975), which you can see here. Danko’s photographic and written documentation of himself, fellow artists and the general public shows them seated on chairs in urban and suburban spaces, a connection with Schwertsik’s recent practice, one in which she has routinely used chairs to move through civic space in ways that playfully interrogate our relationship with place.
The Australian suburbs that surround us here are characterised by cubes and boxes, regimented spaces defined by fences, walls, streets, and driveways, and though seeming to lack beauty at street level, they are nonetheless the places in which many of us live. When the artist moves through built and public spaces, as is the case with the site-specific work we are launching here, as Schwertsik observes, ‘I’m responsible for that place too as I’m living in it.’2
UTE-ilitarian is inspired by Cynthia’s engagement with what she calls a ‘catalogue of ideas’3—which involved taking threads from the back catalogue of Australian performance and post-object art, from work such as Danko’s, and translating and reconfiguring them into the present moment. In this new figuration, car parks, the necessary but hideous spaces that flatten the steep, wooded terrain on which this university is built, become a site of performance, with chairs used to suggest the places in which we sit within little metal boxes that hurdle us up and down roads as we move through space from one place to another.
By viewing these spaces from overhead and at an angle, we see them for what they are, as a disfigurement and colonisation of place, transforming an actual place into a generic space to be temporarily occupied by vehicles of different shapes and sizes. We demand these spaces of convenience, so necessary to bring us together at public institutions, but ironically, we both arrive and leave alone or in small groups, sitting our little metal boxes, isolated from others, moving through space on our way to some other place. In UTE-ilitarian, the aesthetic qualities of the work are inextricably connected with the natural world; here “works of nature” employ what Brook called “non-artistic artifacts”—i.e. chairs—positioned in ways that enable us to “see” nature differently and to critically reassess our position within it.
Yet for all of the apparent seriousness of intent behind Schwertsik’s work, she offers it to us in a way that is clever, ironic, even humorous. This then, is the gift of this work it seems to me: Without making us feel badly or guilty, but while showing our own complicity in this crazy scheme that has us living and moving through places of great beauty while insulated and even disconnected from them, Schwertsik gives us license to laugh at our choices, at ourselves, and then, perhaps in the moments that follow, and opening to reconsider our relationship with the place—this place—the place that constitutes our world in the here and now, a place we leave our imprint upon, but which exists without us and indeed may well see us as a nuisance—that is if place cares about us at all!
1 Brook, Donald, ‘Post-object art in Australia and New Zealand’, in Britton, Stephanie (ed), A decade at the EAF: a history of the Experimental Art Foundation, 1974-1984, , Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1984, p25.
2 Schwertsik, Cynthia, personal communication, 9 May 2019.