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Maxxi Minaxi May, The light crystals (detail). FSC wood and plastic rulers, glue. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

A Forest of Hooks and Nails is a joyous exhibition about the art of hanging art

Review: A Forest of Hooks and Nails, Fremantle Arts Centre for Perth Festival

Several years ago, when being shown around an exhibition under preparation with a Nobel prize-winning guest, an academic colleague asked what one of the install crew was doing high above on a scissor lift.

When told he was moving a speaker 5mm to the left, my colleague scoffed and asked if that was necessary.

His guest boomed in, “I would never have been awarded a Nobel Prize if I hadn’t taken that level of care.” Duly rebuffed, they moved on, and the work proceeded.

The Nobel Prize winner and the young man installing the work were well aware of the importance of attending to the small details that make a difference.

Indeed the install crew at any art gallery is typically a group of talented and committed young artists. Their job requires attention to detail, complex problem solving, respect for the integrity of every artwork, and a willingness to respond to changes of mind — no matter how close to the deadline.

Hugh Thomson, Pyramid Scheme (detail). Wood, copper, leather, nails, electrical components, synthesizers. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

Of course, it must be a little frustrating for artists to install the work of others when they would ideally be preparing their own works for exhibition. So, this year for a Perth Festival exhibition, the Fremantle Arts Centre has made their dreams come true.

Tom Freeman, the gallery’s install coordinator, has curated an exhibition of the work of 10 of his install staff, allowing them to take over the walls, floor, and gallery spaces as artists in their own right.

Phoebe Tran, Moss lounge for contemplating gallery spaces. Moss, wintergreen couch grass, sun lounge, geotextile fabric, found stones. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

Among their work is a small altar to installation, a shelf on which the tools of their trade are laid out in a row of implements and accessories.

Wall plugs of different sizes and colours, rolls of tape, paint cans, a laser level, a paint stirrer, and the cleverly folded paper dust collector used when drilling are aligned together alongside signs announcing “PLEASE DON’T PAINT THIS SECTION,” another “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.”

The installation is a homage to former gallery director Jim Cathcart, who described the middle of an install as like entering “a forest of hooks and nails”.

Freeman conceptualised the exhibition as an opportunity to showcase the talents of his remarkable crew, but also a chance for staff to reveal “the bones” of the building, built by convict labour in the 1860s for use as the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum.

Making magic

Rob Kettels’ work is an act of imaginative transformation. Occupying the small gallery to the rear of the building, his installation, Mineral Rites, uses salt, lighting gel, audio, and acrylic paint to create a magical environment.

Based on his 2016 experience of trekking across the dry salt-lake Wilkinkarra/Lake Mackay, one of Australia’s remotest places and our fourth-largest lake, Kettels investigates the ambience of the salt-infused environment and deploys those sensual cues within the gallery to shift our consciousness.

A room washed in pink.
Rob Kettels, Mineral Rites. Salt, lighting, gel, audio, acrylic paint. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

The juxtaposition of the seductive salt crystals covering the floor and the soft leaching of pink colour up the walls toward the blue sky is completely absorbing and convincing.

Within that space, we are transported to a different reality where everything is subsumed or inflected with the heat, the piercing light, and the brittle dryness of that remote site.

The work of the gallery

Other artists in the exhibition have found inspiration in their roles as install assistants.

Maxxi Minaxi May’s marvellous, fugue-like variations on rulers, set squares, measuring tapes and assorted plastic protractors are both witty and aesthetically intriguing. Despite the fact she lists her favourite install tools as the scissor lift and drill, she mines a great deal of visual impact from assembling these measuring devices into sculptural forms.

Maxxi Minaxi May, The light crystals. FSC wood and plastic rulers, glue. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

Deployed within the gallery, they throw interlocking shadows against the wall, mix colour through refraction, and re-articulate the space in surprising ways.

Tyrown Waigana is similarly inspired by installing — painting walls, unpacking artworks, and the inevitable cleaning up. His delightful digital animation documenting the unpacking of each new artwork on arrival in the gallery is enthralling.

Two figurines paint.
Tyrown Waigana, Painting. Wire, aluminium, polymer clay, acrylic paint, fabrics. Fremantle Arts Centre/Rebecca Mansell

In combination with his sculptural portrayal of wall preparation, we are given an insight into the attraction of install as professional engagement for an artist.

Not only do these artists get to work with the materials of their craft — in itself a great joy — but there is also the pleasure of engaging with the work of artists you admire.

Perhaps that is why this is such a joyous exhibition. The works of these ten artists fill the galleries of the Fremantle Art Centre with their creative energy, with their delight in transforming spaces, and their enthusiasm for sharing the pleasure of encountering artworks for the first time.

A Forest of Hooks and Nails is at Fremantle Arts Centre until 14 March 2021.

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