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Ash Keating, Continuum (Part 2) , 2013/14. Dual Channel HD, 1.85:1, PAL, colour, sound, 6:45 min, seamlessly looped. Courtesy the artist.

SELECTED VIDEO WORKS 2006—2014

Catalogue essay for Ash Keating
Selected Video Works 2006—2014
Presented by blackartprojects
CACSA, Adelaide, South Australia
30 January – 15 February 2015

Download a PDF of the full catalogue here.

At the height of excess in the West, philosopher Felix Guattari wrote that the ‘goal of capitalism is to manage the worlds of childhood, love, and art: to control the last vestige of anxiety, madness, pain, and death, or the sense of being lost in the cosmos.’ [2]

His 1989 commentary in The Three Ecologies was against what he called integrated world capitalism, and highlighted the need for ‘new ecological operators and enunciative assemblages’ that could change the direction of an otherwise uniform and often destructive system of world economic growth. He advocated for an ‘art of the “eco” … intimate modes of being, the body, the environment, the great contextual ensembles of ethnic groups, the nation, or even the general rights of humanity.’

Ash Keating’s diverse art practice can be understood in terms of this ‘art of the eco’, drawing together social and psychological ecologies to unpack our complex relations with the environment, not as something out there but decidedly in here.

Keating’s work over the last decade has concerned itself with everyday issues: with waste as product, the economic-heavy goals of manufacturing, concepts around labour production, consumerism and social status, all embroiled in a kind of anthropomorphised ‘market’ discussed ad nauseam in the media, as though it were an endangered species undergoing constant emergency medical treatment.

From his talismanic solo performance in Blockbuster (2006), to the vast ceremonial Activate 2750 (2009), through his mother’s memorial in A New Lifelong Landscape (2011), and more recently in his endurance pieces West Park Proposition (2012) and the meditative Continuum I & II (2013–14), Keating has created the kinds of reorganised assemblages Guattari wrote about, ‘which spill out across the existing boundaries of the body, the ego, and the individual.’ [3]

Keating’s use of contemporary art forms — including intervention, dance, painting, sculpture, performance, video and industry collaborations — is combined with a sly humour and his own personal type of ecosophy. His works are, as academic Amelia Barikin writes, ‘designed to hollow out and expand the transitionary points between one state and the next.’ [4]

Blockbuster (2006)

Inner city in the dead of the night. A blank billboard is lit up for no purpose other than to advertise its vacant presence. Recently expanded to take up the entire corner, the ‘blockbuster’ billboard awaits its next glossy colour campaign — but an anonymous activist has culture jammed the space, painting it sickly yellow under the spotlights, creating a strange absence with theatrical stage appearances. The site is ripe for further action. A movement in the darkness reveals the figure of the artist, dressed like some kind of 21st century shaman in the shiny extracted remains of previous consumer advertising waste.

The waste creature yields two poles, similarly covered in reflective tape, shaking them at the billboard in a type of ritualistic exorcism, warding off the evil (or the good) that has inhabited this highly visible commercial corner of the inner city. Having completed the ceremony, the figure moves back into the darkness and the video ends. While there may be a certain kind of dark humour at work, it is mingled with a foreboding that questions the artist’s overlay of a cleansing ritual onto this billboard — the ultimate consumer canvas — with what Keating called a ‘toxic creature haunting the space’. [5]

This was the first time Keating had collected and masked his body in the waste of advertising for performance. In the ensuing years, his trash monster interventions would appear in unlikely and controversial places: from incursions into art gallery dumpsters, to the sites of tips, rivers and factories, through to the heart of the Melbourne CBD. Keating shows his deep concern for our connections with the environment, a theme significantly shaped by his late mother’s work, but while concerned with consumer advertising waste, he explains that ‘its poetic nature is a detour from morality or disgust and is more in the realm of mythical fantasy.” [6]


Activate 2750 (2009)

In her essay Regimes of Value, UK artist and academic Gillian Whiteley discusses Guattari’s ecosophy as a basis for rethinking our encounters with the world, where we can ‘start to imagine matter differently — as a complex interplay of social relations and new subjectivities, porous stuff and entangled objects.’ [7]

Whiteley writes about the ways that ‘detritus and found objects have evocative and talismanic properties; they tell stories and have transmutatory potential’ [8] — a quality of both narrative and materialism that is evident in Keating’s complex Activate 2750 project from 2008–09.

With a dedicated site arranged by C3West in the Sydney suburb of Penrith [9], Keating organised for 10 tonnes of clean industrial waste to be diverted from its usual dumping point at the Davis Road Transfer Station, and instead be tipped and spread across the neat green lawns of the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre. As seen in Blockbuster and his later works, the piece begins in the early hours of darkness before the city has awoken, before the brightness of dawn and the lift of consciousness reveals the latest truth of the world.

Keating and his collaborative group of local artists sort and reassemble the waste into a towering fort-like monument. Aesthetic decisions are made on the fly as arrangements, patterns and colours emerge from the random fall and slide of plastic tubing, wooden pallets, fabric banners, outdoor advertising from old campaigns, rubber, foam and paper. The artists work their way through three truckloads of completely useful waste destined for completely useless landfill. At the end of the first part of the video, surrounded by temporary fencing like a giant rat run, the group completes the material transmutation into what Keating calls ‘an apocalyptic zoological habitat’.

In a similar way to Blockbuster, the site is disrupted with Brechtian implications through the costumes and masks of the performance by ‘making strange’ — using the ‘distancing’ or ‘estrangement effect’ (in German, Verfremdungseffekt). There is a transition point in the video, where local Sudanese crumpers pause and dance for the camera, breaking the theatrical ‘fourth wall’, before moving into the costumed ceremonial procession. In the process of inhabiting this other space, while draped in familiar remains of corporate brand colours and everyday flotsam, the performers elicit an emotional distancing through their strangeness, which allows for a type of intellectual empathy from the audience.

The performers, led by Keating, transform themselves through reassembled wardrobes of flowing waste costumes, replete with overflowing shopping trolleys, which the artist describes as ‘eccentric movable waste machines’. Together the strange cabal spends the next four days in performative processions up and down High Street and Mulgoa Road in Penrith, then through the labyrinthine Penrith Westfield Shopping Centre. We observe shoppers giggle and others stare in wonder, but most people simply ignore the passing parade of trash creatures, as though it were a perfectly everyday occurrence.

This incursion and subversion of the shopping centre — the ultimate temple of consumerism — transforms something considered broken and disposable into an animated lifeform, one that inhabits the spaces of transit between shopping centre and landfill, between consumption and disposal, between getting and forgetting.

In the climax of the work, the trash creatures return with their waste machines to their apocalyptic enclosure where they encircle the monument to waste, seeming to hover in a trancelike state, stroking and touching the remains of a former order, then slowly melding their bodies back into the material from which they came. The final aspect of the work, off camera, is the recollection and removal of the waste from Penrith and its return to be responsibly recycled at a station in Wetherill Park.

MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor noted at the time that the Activate 2750 waste drop represented just 0.006% of the total waste that travels through this one transfer station each year. She also highlighted the observations of local tradies who were fascinated by the quality and quantity of waste materials they could reuse, only to be shocked that it was destined for landfill. [10]

Here lies the crux of the artist’s efforts at raising awareness around consumer and industrial waste. Since 2002, Keating has worked at his mother’s waste audit and consultancy company, Sustainable Learning, conducting visual audits of waste around Australia. For many years, Keating’s practice was inspired by her ideals and dedication to improving our environment, but two weeks into beginning the project, he was devastated at the news that his mother was involved in a fatal car crash.

The effects of this event would be far-reaching. The original procession was planned as a carnival-style celebration intended to subvert the audience’s engagement with waste. But now a major change was made to the project: the festival mood was replaced with a somber, funereal mourning, a meditative movement, and a memorial not only to waste and the environment, but to the artist’s mother, Pamela Keating.

A New Lifelong Landscape (2011)

In the time following Activate 2750, Keating was in a dark place and he struggled to make new work as he came to terms with his family’s loss. Revisiting the site of his mother’s death, he began a different kind of work, not for art’s sake, but because ‘it was necessary to come to terms with the event and the place, making peace with the location, having only been there once, I returned to an amazing and beautiful place where her life was taken.’ [11]

The most personal and emotional of Keating’s video works, A New Lifelong Landscape is foremost a dedication. The artist walks down the quiet country road where the car accident occurred. In the early frames, we see a truck moving slowly up the hill, followed fast around the curve by two cars, one seeming to tailgate the car in front, urging it forward, almost threatening to cause another accident.

Keating visits the site of the crash, taking stock of the road and surrounding countryside, then carefully digs a hole and plants a Kangaroo Paw, its red flowers waving gently in the twilight through a long final frame. The video is also silent, as memorials often are, but it does not take long to understand the intent and moving nature of this ‘time capsule to grief’. [12]

This work also marks a point of major transition for Keating, where he moved past his creative block, both personally and artistically. His next work would leave behind the waste interventions, and turn instead to painting and performance interventions on a much grander scale.

West Park Proposition (2012)
Painting the West Park Proposition (2013)

Here is the artist in a field of change, a tiny figure before a monolithic slab in a semi-rural expanse of waving grasses and shifting colours. The city lies just off in the distance, slowly encroaching in concrete subdivisions across the land. The figure paces back and forth, considering the scale, the immensity, the possibility of this out-of-place structure. And then an endurance event begins: an intensive performance of high-pressure painting in sweeping arches and towering splays, all filmed from near, far and via drone from above.

The triptych of these perspectives combine into a tightly edited 2.5 minute video, a decision Keating says was important in creating something that had the capacity to reach everyone, because ‘in a world of split second attention spans, using the timing and editing styles of the modern music clip or advertising commercial is the best way to engage a contemporary audience.’ [13]

The choice of the massive tilt slab wall at the back of an industrial estate reveals this unintentional monument to progress. The environment is unnaturally split by a blank concrete façade. It interrupts the horizon line with blind disregard for the ecological landscape that struggles for survival around it. Not a single window looks outside; the structure is deliberately artificial and closed to its environment, a constructed denial with its cold palette of lime greys and steeled silvers.

Engaging with the surrounding natural environment, Keating enacts his performance in painting endurance. He repaints the landscape across this wall of denial, recreating the warm colours of passing clouds and tall flowering grasses, in a lament to a landscape forever transformed.

In the extended version, Painting the West Park Proposition, the 16-minute video shows the detail of the work, the angles, materials and tools carefully chosen, and literally the stuff of emergencies. So with buckets and fire extinguishers Keating paints a new colour field, infusing a physical urgency that calls our attention to the environmental truth behind this layering of development, a familiar transition of ecology to economy.

Continuum I & II (2013/14)

The scale of renewable energy projects is enormous by necessity. To even reach the kinds of outputs achieved by traditional energy production, solar farms need to open out like calderas of volcanoes, and wind turbines need to dwarf the blades of an airbus if they are to generate enough power to contend with our demand for polluting fossil fuels.

The two sites chosen for Continuum are the solar farms in the hot, eroded Lake Mungo National Park near Mildura, and near a wind farm located northwest of Ballarat. Keating uses these vast renewable energy generators and their immediate surroundings as both landscape and character, and again includes contemporary dancers to create a large-scale meditation on the environment, one with a poetic, physical awareness of time and energy.

The titles come from the continued human presence on the land. Both the setting and the performance act as signifiers reminding us that these ancient landscapes have an Aboriginal continuum going back at least 42,000 years. [14]

In Continuum I, three male dancers are shown mirroring the turn of the wind turbines, as spliced versions of the figures gradually occupy the frame, their arms matching the roll and turn of the blades as the audio track presses with slow resonant whumps. It is a controlled yet fluid movement and, like much of Keating’s work, is almost verging on absurd — a man being a windmill like a child being a teapot — yet as the eye matches the arms and the rotating blades, we sense a shift in time; the rotations are slightly out of sync, this is not a perfect combination of nature and machine, but it is close.

In Continuum II, the site shifts to the seemingly endless photovoltaic solar array in Carwarp, south of Mildura, and around the ancient and eroded sands of Lake Mungo, where the oldest human remains in Australia were found. This is a fragile land where the past can crumble between your fingers. Together with the glittering unfurled array and the crusty red earth, the other player is dancer Lilian Steiner. Her costume appears contemporary and hooded, but the outfit is made from the high-vis yellow of trade and construction industries. Steiner gently curls and rolls her body through the changing light of morning, midday and dusk, as the colours of ancient landscape shift and turn.

Both videos loop seamlessly to mark the cyclical motion of time, the meeting of movements between the energy of the body and immense objects built for future energy needs. Keating’s interest here is in kinetic movement, renewable energy, land and time. The work raises questions around our present continuum, our increasing energy needs and our volatile presence both here and in the future, for there are no guarantees our time will last.

Keating here marks the contemporary shift upon an ancient and sacred landscape, where humanity has walked for tens of thousands of years. His meditations on time and our place in our only home in the cosmos remind us that unless properly managed and respected, all can turn to dust and debris.

Yet it would seem that scientific proof is not sufficient evidence for those who need to be reminded that they already benefit greatly from the discoveries of modern science. In the current political climate, with a federal government that demonstrates disdain and hostility toward scientific and humanitarian concerns, the urgency to address our abuse of people, land, resources and waste has gone beyond national interest and become global.

Keating’s work compels us to ask how we place ourselves emotionally, physically and collectively in our uncertain world of certain change. If we fail to overcome our differences in this grand endeavor called civilisation, then we force future generations to suffer the consequences of our inaction as the protectors of Earth. [15]

In human beings, creature and creator are united: the human being is matter, fragments, excess, clay, filth, mud, nonsense, chaos; but the human being is also creator, artist, hammer hardness, spectator of the divine… [16]

NOTES

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, (trans.) Walter Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil, New York: Vintage Books, 1886 (1989), ch. 40

[2] Felix Guattari, (trans.) Chris Turner, ‘The Three Ecologies’ in New Formations, No 8: Summer, London, 1989, p. 139

[3] Ibid. p. 143

[4] Amelia Barikin, ‘Time Shrines: Melancholia and Mourning in the Work of Ash Keating’ in DISCIPLINE, No 2: Autumn, Melbourne, 2012, p. 18–24

[5] Ash Keating interviewed by Michael Dwyer, ‘Imagine that’, The Age, 5 January 2007

[6] Ash Keating, C3West: Contemporary Art. Community. Commerce, MCA Learning Resource, Sydney: MCA Australia, 2009, p. 26

[7] Gillian Whiteley, Regimes of Value: Sensuous Stuff, Entangled Objects. Undoing the Order of Things, essay for the exhibition Regimes of Value curated by Elizabeth Gower at VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne and the Substation Newport in 2013. http://regimesofvalue.blogspot.com.au

[8] Ibid.

[9] The title ‘Activate 2750’ refers to the local postcode and collaborations between the artist’s team, SITA Environmental Solutions, Penrith Performing & Visual Arts, Penrith City Council, and MCA’s C3West throughout 2008–09.

[10] Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, ‘Introduction’ in C3West: Contemporary Art. Community. Commerce, p. 25

[11] Conversation with the artist, January 2015

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The ancient burial sites in Lake Mungo and Willandra Lakes were discovered in 1969, dated to be more than 42,000 years old, making them some of the most ancient human remains in the world outside Africa. The various sites have now been returned to the traditional custodians of the land: the Paakantji, Ngiyampaa, and Mathi Mathi peoples. See: http://www.visitmungo.com.au/three-tribal-groups

[15] Disturbing findings by international research teams led by Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre are being presented at the World Economic Forum in January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/15/rate-of-environmental-degradation-puts-life-on-earth-at-risk-say-scientists

[16] Nietzsche, Op. cit., ch. 225