Cairns Art Gallery

This week I’m in Cairns for the Museums and Galleries Queensland conference. I’m really looking forward to the conference officially starting tonight with a public art tour and welcome reception at the Cairns Museum. This morning, I’ve been exploring the city – my first stop was the Cairns Art Gallery. I was particularly excited to visit as there is a Patricia Piccinini exhibition currently on display. Unlike the exhibition I saw at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), this particular array of sculptures and drawings is inspired by the environment of Far North Queensland. They present a commentary on the ecology of the region, but also speak to the overwhelming number of challenges.

I did spend a bit of time in the exhibitions Connecting Narratives and Home is where the heart is. Connecting Narratives showcases fifty works from the permanent collection of the Gallery. If you are visiting for the first time, I recommend starting with this exhibition so you can gain a sense of the Gallery’s mission and collection focus.

Cairns Art Gallery

If you have been following my blog you might already know that there is nothing I love more than combining heritage with museums. Mainly because it’s great seeing new life injected into a heritage building and new stories being told within its walls.

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The Cairns Art Gallery building was formerly the Public Curator’s offices and State Government Insurance Office. It first opened in 1936 and was repurposed into the Art Gallery in 1995. When trying to find some further information on the heritage-listed building I came across these plans for a Cairns Gallery Precinct. Essentially, keeping the heritage, but expanding the site. Despite all the potential problems that may arise during this project, it is always so fantastic to see places embracing the arts and growing, rather than destroying, its presence.

Patricia Piccinini – Life Clings Closest

Patricia Piccinini’s work can be incredibly confronting – and that’s why I love it. Her human-animal hybrid sculptures are uncomfortable to look at, but at the same time oddly entrancing. They definitely demand attention. In this particular exhibition, Piccinini deals with themes of evolution, environment, technology, family, maternity and the artificial. The first room you enter displays a series of works with titles such as Shoeform, Defender and Cleaner. I have included a couple of photographs below. These sculptures explore what can be described as a much stronger, different relationship between people and nature. The aim of this installation, to show people as one animal amongst many. What I admire most about her work is its potential to spark conversations. Rather than providing answers, Piccinini is more concerned with debate and furthering an individual’s understanding of themselves and their environment.

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What really works in this exhibition is having a set of A4 laminated floor plans available that have the titles of the works on display, their year of creation, and materials. Not having labels can sometimes be really problematic if there are works by different artists in the same space. I think it has great potential, in an art context, when the works are all by one artist. Especially for works like those by Piccinini that need to stand on their own and not have anything, such as labels, as a distraction.

Without doubt, the most uncomfortable I felt in this exhibition was seeing this sculpture titled No Fear of Depths created in 2019.

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The dolphin-human hybrid is pretty disturbing, however, it is playing a comforting role hugging a small child. So, despite my initial shock, I ended up really liking the work. That’s not to say that the dolphuman will forever haunt my dreams.

In total, the exhibition has five rooms. Three of these have either one sculpture or a video installation. As well as the room containing the nature/people hybrids, there is another large room with multiple works inside. In this room, the first sculpture that captured my attention was the blob fish. Created in 2011, this sculpture, titled Eulogy, represents the poor blobfish not as ‘the world’s ugliest animal’ (a title it did win), but as an animal that has adapted to its surroundings. It is now being held by a man who is  contemplating and reflecting on its existence.

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The final piece I want to talk about is Unfurled. Right at the end of the exhibition (or start if you use the lift) there is a bright pink room with a sculpture in the middle of a child and owl. It is so realistic it gave me a shock. Similar to the dolphuman, I interpreted this sculpture as the animal (in this case not so creepy) having some influence over the person. Rather than comforting, however, I see the owl protecting the child.

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I would have appreciated seeing some more in-depth descriptions of the works on display. In writing this blog post, I’ve Googled quite a few of the works to discover more. Having that integrated into the display, on the floor plan sheets, would have been very beneficial.

Connecting Narratives

The aim of Connecting Narratives is to connect historical and contemporary narratives of Cairns in the one display from three different regions – Cairns, Cape York and the Torres Straits. I was amazed to learn that since the mid-1990s, the Gallery has acquired over seven hundred works documenting the cultural heritage of Far North Queensland. A very impressive collection!

Similar to Patricia Piccinini’s exhibition, there are no labels in Connecting Narratives. Rather than a floor plan, each artwork has a number next to it that corresponds to a label on a separate room guide. Because of the multiple artists, I didn’t think it worked as well as in Piccinini’s installation. As I spent more time in the space, I did start to see why they opted for this rather than labels. It would have looked too crowded with so many works on display alongside an equal number of labels.

Despite this, the works on display from the Cairns Art Gallery permanent collection are stunning. One work in particular titled Untitled (from the Parkingland series) by Michael Marzik presents 15 black and white photographs of scenes around Cairns.

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I also enjoyed the Torres Straits display with such a diversity of works including paintings, digital prints and cultural objects. They look incredible displayed together. Going back to what I said before, it would have ruined the display having labels for each of the works on the wall. You can just make out the little numbers next to each work.

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Further Information

To finish, the Art Gallery has a really wonderful gift shop with so many great art supplies and works on offer. I was able to find some Aqua Painter pens that I’ve been looking to buy everywhere!

Cairns Art Gallery is open daily (except public holidays) from 9 am to 5 pm (Monday through Friday), 10 am to 5 pm (Saturday) and 10 am to 2 pm (Sunday). It is free entry and completely accessible. If you are in Cairns I would highly recommend starting your trip here to better your understanding of the city. Life Clings Closest is on display until 8 December 2019. Connecting Narratives is on display until 17 November 2019.

Author: Rebecca Lush

Curator, Integrated Pathology Learning Centre.

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