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Powerhouse – The Canberra Glassworks

March 25, 2010

Site specific artworks, and exhibitions that exist outside of a gallery context, are fickle beasts. When they work, they are fantastic, thrilling – a revelation. The trouble is, they often don’t.

This conundrum is currently being brought to light by the Canberra Glassworks, who have handed the reins to independent curator Narelle Phillips for their latest exhibition Powerhouse. Phillips has invited eight artists (not all necessarily of the glass persuasion) to respond to the Glassworks building – the antiquated Kingston Power House.

The building truly is something to behold – particularly in the context of the history-hungry Canberra sprawl. The cavernous structure, with its industrial fixtures and nonsensical collage of windows, doors and corridors has a wonderfully imposing, and perhaps slightly whimsical presence. Herein lies a problem.

I am instantly reminded of my ventures to Cockatoo Island for the 2008 Sydney Biennale. Also a historical and imposing locale, Cockatoo Island proved a problematic setting for the viewing and consideration of art. When one wasn’t completely preoccupied by not tripping over a crack/falling down a hole/touching live electricity/being attacked by ferocious gulls it was difficult to identify where the artworks were, and indeed where the Island’s infrastructure ended and the art began.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience. Far from it. I chugged home on the ferry completely seduced by the Island’s intense environment, my head full of romantic historical notions, the art but a distant murmur. Unfortunately I felt I would have gained much the same experience had there been no artworks on display at all. difficult to identify where the artworks were, and indeed where the Island’s daunting infrastructure ended and the art began. But to return to the Glassworks, and a similar predicament.

The artworks are displayed throughout the building, both inside and out, with a small selection in the designated gallery space, and a map provided to assist in location. It is the works presented in the gallery that are shown to their best advantage. Jacqueline Bradley displays yet another elegant, slightly skewed take on domesticity, and twisted clusters of phosphorescent resin light bulbs by Bjorn Godwin draw the audience in towards them.

Further into the building, the project appears to have brought out different aspects of many of the artists’ practices. Local glass-world favourite Trish Roan displays an uncharacteristic industrial edge with her contribution Longing, while sculptor Geoff Farquhar-Still makes a subtle intervention within the building’s lift that is a far cry from his usual approach. Adelaide artist Nicholas Folland’s ever growing and melting ice piece, a truly remarkable creation but understated for him, is let down by its position, tacked above the stairs (although it manages to alert visitors to its presence by dripping on their heads).

The majority of works, however, are overshadowed by both the overwhelming surrounds in which they appear and the way in which audiences engage (or don’t engage) with the infrastructure of the building. In fact, I would have missed both Roan and Farquhar-Still’s works completely had I not asked for help to find them.

On the whole, Powerhouse presents itself as the sketch of a great idea that could and should be built upon, with more fully realised works that make a greater impact on the space. It does, however, give you the perfect excuse to inspect all corners of the Glassworks you may not have otherwise yet visited – a licence to explore.

Powerhouse is on show at the Canberra Glassworks until April 29th.

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