For her first solo show in London, Bianca Hester approached The Showroom’s gallery space as an ‘expanded studio’, a ‘base camp’ from which the young Melbourne artist aimed to develop a series of collaborations. While such descriptions of the two-month exhibition-cum-residency sound a little dry, the related programme of lively talks, recordings and building projects was actually anything but, with the latter activity culminating in a makeshift raft being used to navigate the nearby Regent’s Canal.
A collection of plain-speaking materials – plywood, breeze-blocks and flat-pack furniture – was scattered across the floor of the gallery in apparently provisional configurations. Modified everyday objects and instruments, such as a clock and a cymbal, were attached to wooden supports and, in a corner, a strip of fabric and an empty water container hung from the simplest of wooden struts. These motley assemblages were taped or tied together, while heavier constructions of wooden beams were gently propped up. In fact, Hester’s hybrid sculptures suggest ‘props’ in two senses of the word, in that they provide support for individual structures while also playing an active part in the performances she organizes. Although they often look delicate, these objects are too familiar to seem precarious: they have the robustness of instruments or furnishings, appearing ready to be employed for any number of uses. When I visited, the artist moved energetically around the space, upending or adding to different works, yet her quasi-architectural interventions were so subtle that they went almost unnoticed. A section of plywood was installed to raise one area slightly while an unobtrusive mat was actually a silicon cast from the floor of Hester’s former studio. The back room was given over to a basic stage, next to which a well-presented archive of previous projects rested on office tables, and various cables wove around supports that sprouted occasional microphones and cameras.
There was no final presentation of a completed exhibition, and, in a familiar muddying of production and display, the show focused on the organically evolving conditions of the works’ reception. Hester refers to her practice as a ‘proliferating event’, a strategy that is firmly rooted in two frequently cited texts: Rosalind Krauss’ essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ (1979) and Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction (2000). In the former, Krauss discusses sculpture as ‘an expanded and finite set of related positions for a given artist to occupy and explore’, while Bourriaud argues for an object that is less the end-point of the creative process than a ‘generator of activities’ formed by a flow of contributions. Indeed, the sometimes gratingly idealistic – even New Age – element of Bourriaud’s cheery definition of ‘relational aesthetics’ certainly wields an influence on the most breathlessly earnest of Hester’s collaborations (the exhibition’s title was ‘projectprojects’).
Hester’s communal practice works towards a downsized revolutionary event rooted in the local area: 2006’s actual transformational [winters end] was a 24-hour project focused on a platform in a Melbourne courtyard usefully fitted out with a workbench and hotplates, while the more recent voyage down Regent’s Canal in London wasn’t in search of anything more miraculous than good times – a sweet endeavour still. There is something endearingly brave, even ludicrous, about the relocation of Australian outdoors pursuits to wintry east London, yet ‘projectprojects’ gestured towards some investment in the local without ever making entirely good on the promise. A found image from the London Canal Museum was taped to the gallery wall like a memo, showing two men lying with their feet over the sides of a barge, ‘walking’ the narrow boat through a low tunnel. While obviously related to Hester’s raft, which she launched on the same stretch of water, in the context of the accompanying programme of public events the photograph seemed more like a motivational icon than a considered engagement with the local area, a championing of back-to-basics collaboration over fancy tricks.
It is obvious that all dialogue is not necessarily fruitful, that all collaborations are not blessed and worthwhile. ‘Utopian’ is an adjective often reached for when describing collaborative practices such as Hester’s, before it is remembered that the term translates to an unattainable ‘no place’ as much as it does ‘good place’. Yet the strength of ‘projectprojects’ was that it allowed for different levels of engagement; with all this talk of participatory activity and collaborative strategies, attention should not be diverted from the results Hester gets from even the most prosaic of building materials.