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Boxcopy on Margaret Street | Danni Zuvela

He knew that this temple was the place required by his inflexible purpose; he knew that the incessant trees had not been able to choke the ruins of another such propitious temple down river, a temple whose gods also were burned and dead; he knew that his immediate obligation was to dream.    Jorge Luis Borges , The Circular Ruins

Heading down Margaret Street in Brisbane, after crossing George Street, you find the incline flattens out as you near the Albert Street intersection. Standing on the Botanic Gardens side of the street here, its grand pediments framed by the foliage of leopard trees, is the Watson Brothers building. The trees are council street plantings from the 1970s, but the building dates back much earlier. An imposing three-storied warehouse, it was purpose-built in 1887 for the four Watson brothers: important plumbers, gasfitters, sanitary engineers and ironworkers in the modernisation of Victorian Brisbane. Then, as now, impressive buildings marked periods of growth and prosperity; then, as now, ‘spaces receive their being from locations’ (1). For their warehouse, the location the plumbing brothers chose, near the intersection of Albert and Margaret, was right in the muddy heart of a notorious, low-lying region known as Frogs Hollow.

Though surrounded by the ‘circle of excellence’ – the commercial clout of Queen Street, the political power of George Street and the mercantile might of Eagle Street – and despite the presence of other prominent industrial outfits, this part of Brisbane was, in more ways than one, a teeming swamp. As a tidal catchment fed by several creeks, including a bubbling outlet on Margaret Street, many properties festered below the levels of drains, streets and ‘made ground’; so, despite some piecemeal attempts at drainage, Frogs Hollow was consistently inundated. Unsurprisingly, as Rod Fisher notes, the instability, putrescence and danger of Frogs Hollow extended to its population, with the rotting streetscape furnishing a natural – if mud-filled – home to many of the city’s public houses, hostels, gambling joints, brothels and opium dens. Upstanding citizens regarded the area unwholesome in the extreme; assisted, no doubt, by sketches such as the one provided in 1888 by critic William Lane, who invited readers to ‘Walk down Albert-street on any night in the week, if you care to venture through its suffocatingly significant aroma of opium and insanitation, and among its prowling gangs of wolf-like larrikins, and its filthy swarms of cursing slatterns’. Despite the efforts of the city’s lawmen, a vibrant mixed economy emerged, sustained by the region’s constant flow of wayfarers seeking pleasure, oblivion and trouble. These they found, and plenty more, in the Hollow’s ‘rare clustering of drunkards, prostitutes, larrikins, thieves and assailants who, in one way or other, lived off the visitors, mariners, and new arrivals at the many boarding-houses, lodgings and hotels’.2

This theme, of vivid clusters vying for visitors’ attention and expenditure continues in contemporary Queensland, as Ross Woodrow notes, albeit with the more legitimate means of amusement parks, and ‘Australia’s largest, most impressive and most expensive contemporary art museum’. One effect of this contemporary spectacular culture, Woodrow argues, is polarity, since ‘the choice between low and high culture translates to a choice between super crass and hyper arty’, leaving ‘little chance of a quiet cultural profile being promoted’.3 Local artists have responded to this situation with resistance and resourcefulness, engineering and maintaining meaningful alternative spaces between these poles.

Over its first year in the Watson Brothers building, Boxcopy has staged a series of critical encounters featuring artists whose practices both fits Woodrow’s description of a more ‘quiet cultural profile’, and emphatically asserts a commitment to questioning and expanding the possibilities of contemporary art. In Dis-close: Project Another Country, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan directly confronted the site by stripping and tearing away the layers of paint and plaster adhering to the underlying brickwall. Reading this suddenly unconcealed history through milimetre-thin time-tunnels, the viewer was invited to reflect on the manner in which memory can variously – even simultaneously – inscribe and efface experience into the patina of time. In an era of accelerated development, Dis-close’s raw, exposed interior also powerfully codes expungement: as a process, as concept, even an ideology. The city’s propensity for destroying historic structures, coupled with the current building boom, means that Brisbane is increasingly defined by the architecture associated with newer cities; shining edifices of glass, chrome and dramatic angles. ‘Like massive reflectors of two dimensional form,’ Sally Breen notes, ‘the archetypal buildings of the new city ‘appear as sleek flat screens, projecting multiple extremes of light and sign’.4

Screens however conceal as much as they reveal, deflecting and redirecting our attention in shifting and multiple ways. The gleaming planes of Brisbane’s increasingly neobrutalist skyline mask a near-systematic historical erasure that ranges from the omission of Frogs Hollow’s colourful but ignoble past, to the Bjelke-Petersen regime’s stealth demolitions to ongoing occlusions of the recent past. As Boxcopy discovered when they moved to Margaret Street, they weren’t the first artist-run gallery to feel a rapport for the Watson Brothers building; the space housed another artist-run gallery operating in the interstices of the major institutions and commercial outfits, the Whitebox Gallery, organised by artists Franz Ehmann and Tracey Smith between 1996–1997. Acknowledging this prior occupancy of the building, a rare remaining example of Victorian architecture, is a way to both affirm the lived history of Brisbane’s creative culture, and reframe space itself, from material fact to mental form. As an artefact, the warehouse offers opportunities for what social historian Chris Healy terms ‘learning to inhabit landscapes of memory which are, in part, landscapes littered with ruins’; a unique space for the performance of the ‘remembering of ruination which is part of our being-in-history: a refusal to accept that “the past has been settled even more effectively than the country”’.5

This refusal marks Office of Australia by Dirk Yates, who, like the Aquilizans, took the memories of the interior ‘skin’ of the building as his point of departure. In contrast to their deconstructive approach, Yates employed an additive process to critically transform the space, repainting the walls in their original colours, and installing a cohort of charged objects (a flag, a map, an office desk, the newspaper) removed and made strange from their everyday contexts. Situating the viewer in the centre of the work, Office of Australia extended an open-ended invitation to reconsider the interplay of mythology, public memory, and representation from the unique – maybe unenviable – position of the ‘seat of power’. Also bodily implicating the viewer in the work was Stephen Russell’s Super Vanitas, in which patrons physically negotiated both a bell-rope and the intermittent arcs of swinging pendulums. These rhythmic forms set in motion the work’s ambiguous redrawing of the relations between knowledge and taste, and, in the process, mimicked the ongoing processes of historical revision, recombination and revelation.

Chiromancy also subdivided the space, with the installation of David Spooner’s assemblage of interconnected materials and objects in the form of a sculptural bat. While this work has a lot of resonance, it’s perhaps most potent when allowed to allegorise the practice of artist organisations, such as Boxcopy, which provide key opportunities for artists and curators to engage with innovative and experimental practices; the effect, like Spooner’s suspended bat, is a softening and subtle refashioning of previously hard vectors through material linkages, exchange and processes of association. The utter (inter-) dependency of these networks upon each individual link manifests throughout Spooner’s intricate knots and dropped stitches, and in the work’s delicate tension between collective strength and ineradicable contingency. Ardi Gunawan’s practice is also activated by a sense of precarity, as shown in Material formations and body movements, where the artist and committee members re-assembled normally sturdy building materials and other found objects into carefully balanced, self-supporting forms. The delicate equilibrium of the structures contrasted with the sturdiness of Gunawan’s commitment to the concepts of indeterminacy, improvisation and the relinquishment of authorial control, highlighting the dynamic potential of the relationship between stability and ‘letting go’.

The apparent weight of bodies is also at the heart of Tim Plaisted’s work in Extra Fins. A suspended model aircraft, perfect but for impossible sets of additional wings, and a video of the artist immersed in water, referred the viewer to the sensations of weightlessness possible in air and water, as well as the eternal dream of flight. The prospect of liberation from quotidian reality, however circumscribed, also concerned Courtney Coombs, who, in Patronise Me, re-imagined the Boxcopy white cube in a series of playfully exorbitant incarnations. Though small in scale, Coombs’ models engaged the viewer’s perception of the space in its immediate present, wryly probing the dimensions of its immutable physics, and offering quaquaversal conjecture on its potential. Coombs’ work suggested what all the works, in differing ways, seemed to suggest: that the real potential of this building itself is its portal-like capacity to transport us into deeper questioning of the very issue of dwelling, questions that can enable us to ‘bring dwelling to the fullness of its nature’.6

As the enclave of Frogs Hollow provided for ‘the uprooted, the deprived and the outcast’7 in rapidly-growing late nineteenth century Brisbane, in contemporary cities dominated by commercial interests and large institutions, the necessity of ‘quieter’ spaces for the practice and dissemination of experimental and innovative art becomes increasingly evident.8 Boxcopy have summoned important questions about art’s power to discover new truths and revisit old ones, and have provided, in place of answers, the enlargement of experience and the creative renewal of possibilities.

by Danni Zuvela

1. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper Colophon, New York, 1954 (1971), p. 154.

2. Rod Fisher, ‘Old Frog’s Hollow: Devoid of Interest, Or Den of Iniquity?’, Brisbane in 1888: The Historical Perspective, Brisbane History Group, Brisbane, 1988, pp. 16-461.

3. Ross Woodrow, The Brisbane Line [exhibition catalogue], The Narrows, Melbourne, 2009.

4. Sally Breen, Future Frontier, Ph.D thesis, Griffith University, Queensland, 2004, p.80.

5. Chris Healy, From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p.2, p.7.

6. Heidegger, p.161.

7. Fisher, p.21.

8. Jackson, M.R., Kabwasa-Green, F., Swenson, D., Herranz, J., Ferryman, K., Atlas, C., Wallner, E., and Rosenstein, C., Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure of U.S. Artists, The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C, 2003 and McCarthy, K.F., Ondaatje, E.H., Zakaras, L., and Brooks, A. Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts, Rand Research in the Arts, Santa Monica, 2004.

© Copyright 2010. Boxcopy and the writers and artists. Not to be reproduced without permission from Boxcopy.