El Anatsui: Five Decades
The problem with Sydney’s real estate is old news to most of us – not enough affordable housing, the ensuing ‘bubble’ thanks to overseas investors, etc etc – but nobody seems to be talking about the other real estate problem in this city, the problem of inadequate exhibition spaces.
With recent extensions to the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art barely addressing the issue, Sydney remains bereft of great big spaces in which to put monumental works of art and show them to their best advantage. Which is why Carriageworks stands as some kind of savior (and a relevant one to this review, I promise).
The works of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui are all about scale. His famous expansive sculptures cascade from walls and flow onto floors, spanning impressive square metreage, and demanding enough space to let them each spill out as they must. A bit of breathing space between them is essential to the effect – and Carriageworks, thankfully, delivers in abundance. Works from over five decades (as per the exhibition’s title) are spread across three large exhibition spaces, affording the viewer a chance to consider each work as its own entity and allowing space for each sculpture’s ‘aura’ to resonate.
While El Anatsui’s works are comprised of repurposed and recycled materials – bottle tops, printing plates, food tins and copper wire – their effect is that of priceless regality.
In the wall piece, Blema (2006, above), gold, red and black bits of metal take on the awe-inspiring solemnity of Vatican vestments, knightly chainmail or a huge Glomesh handbag, undone and splayed out. Look closer and the circular pieces that make up the work are golden coins; look even closer and their true identity – bottle tops from rum and whiskey bottles, referencing Ghana’s colonial history of trade and consumption – becomes apparent.
The refuse chosen by El Anatsui for all of his work is significant in the same way: defunct printing plates bear traces of newspaper obituaries from the past, and the graphic design of tinned (and imported from the West) foodstuffs are partially recognisable within the assemblages. Through these impressions, El Anatsui’s work reads as a record of his country’s history and the impact of Westernisation on its people and culture.
Which is not to diminish the virtuosity of craftsmanship in this work, which is as intricate as it is cobbled together. Cutting and folding the metal and plastic rubbish into five or six different shapes (rosette, strip, circle, tile and rectangle) the artist pieces them together in different ways, using wire. Depending on the shapes used, or the way in which they have been bound together, El Anatsui is able to manipulate colour, texture and density to evoke in works such as Stressed World (2011) and Garden Wall (2011) the delicacy of a fine fishing net, or of moss creeping up a wall. El Anatsui also works with his material’s rigidity, bending each piece so that it emulates drapery, confusing the viewer’s sense of what is soft and what is hard.
Five Decades also features a number of charcoal drawings, wooden sculptures and ceramics. While interesting within the context of his practice (the sculptures and ceramics are made, like his wall pieces, from recycled materials: industrial lasts and broken pots), these smaller, quieter works struggle for attention amid the larger, shinier wall works.
Regardless, Five Decades is an exhibition that feels complete and completely at home in its spacious surroundings, sprawling and special, as it should be.
El Anatsui: Five Decades is A Schwartz Carriageworks project in association with Sydney Festival.
7 January – 6 March 2016
Top to bottom:
Adinkra Sasa, 2003, fabric, aluminium and copper wire
Blema, 2006, found aluminium and copper wire
Awakened, 2012, found aluminium and copper wire
Stressed World, 2011, found aluminium and copper wire
Garden wall, 2011, found aluminium and copper wire
Tiled Flower Garden, 2012, aluminium and copper wire
Courtesy the artist and Jack Shaman Gallery, New York.
Images: Richard Garner
Amber McCulloch is a Sydney based writer, editor and arts administrator. McCulloch has worked as an editor for various commercial magazine publications, most recently Art World and runway magazines. In addition to this, she has written for a number of titles including, Empire, Australian Art Collector, Vault and Foxtel. McCulloch produced the prestigious Realise Your Dream competition through British Council Australia and is currently running Communications and Audience Development at Australian Centre for Photography.