Visual Art

An eclectic collection at UNSW Galleries explores human interaction with working models, as they straddle the divide between the imagined and the functional. By Patrick Hartigan.

A Working Model of the World

Tony Mott’s Model Train Show series at UNSW Galleries’ exhibition A Working Model of the World
Tony Mott’s Model Train Show series at UNSW Galleries’ exhibition A Working Model of the World

Walking out of A Working Model of the World, curated by Lizzie Muller and Holly Williams at the University of New South Wales Galleries until July 22, my pencil begins doodling then circulating as if needing to re-enter the exhibition elliptically. Kenzee Patterson’s Money Spinner (2016) starts to take shape. The yellow fibreglass funnel, about a metre in diameter, rests on the ground at one pole of the exhibition while its accompanying video projects onto the floor at the other. In the video, time is both granted and refused: one second – one revolution of the coin around the mouth of the money spinner – perpetually looping.

The sound of the coin frozen in its second of motion provided the beat of the southern gallery spaces. The coin linked back to the entry into the darkened spaces, its constellation of ideas beginning with an orrery – a mechanical model of the solar system – and two models of gold nuggets, all created mid-19th century. It sounds and looked simple – another display about Reason – but somehow this juxtaposition of earthly abstraction and celestial hunger produced sheer magic. It is a profound moment in a show that brings together an array of artistic, scientific and historical models or artworks made in response to models. As I read in the accompanying text, “Models are the causeways between imagination and reality, they are things that bring things into being.”

A less hinged human project loomed nearby, in Ian Burns’s Model of a Model of the Spread of Ignorance (2017), a fittingly crude portrait of Donald Trump. The jumble of wooden and electrical refuse, piled on a wooden antique stand similar to that of the orrery, might have been assembled on a building site by a bored, inventive child. Revolution here comes in the form of a pair of sleazy coin-slot eyes pasted onto squares of plywood, rotating with the lethargy of a funfair target.

In between the main spaces, an open foyer area presents models overtly architectural, including a couple of shell-decorated Sydney icons by Esme Timbery. Timbery comes from a line of Bidjigal women who made souvenirs and artefacts from shells collected along the shores of Botany Bay before selling them to tourists and suburban white women at “The Loop” in La Perouse.

Recalling her Shellwork Sydney Opera House (2002), my pencil, surrounded by the likewise small oval shells of my fingernails, begins sketching arcs. I’m looking for the architectural form I’ve spent my entire life looking at and taking for granted, one that came to life a few months ago when a student informed me that its arcing gestures had taken shape while Utzon dismantled a mandarin.

The mandarin I sketch beside the Opera House looks like an apple. This brings me back to the collection of Six model apples, made of wax and probably painted by Charles Toms between 1899 and 1900, according to the wall label. Casually arranged on their plinth, they appear as real apples might beneath a tree. Though with those identification tags and tattoos they’re more like prisoners, mingling in a yard, secured by a Perspex hood. Somehow in line with this show’s extrasensory charm was the experience of one of their engraved numbers, 317, becoming a LIE when viewed from the other side, all the while hearing the spin of el presidente and the undead coin.

If night-time is where we model, project and own our thoughts and futures, daytime is where we are modelled, projected onto and programmed. From the northern light-filled spaces my pencil finds difficulty recalling the exact shape of Peter Hennessey’s Overlooked (Streetview capture apparatus) (2014), a 1:1 plywood model of an apparatus, like any, in charge of our views while itself remaining hidden. As if trying to find a way into the design of this machine my pencil starts drawing an easel: the tiny one found a couple of metres away in David Eastwood’s 1:15 scale model of Morandi’s Studio Model (2013), I soon realise.

In keeping with an exhibition that operates as one vital whole, I stand beside the viewing structure while catching snippets of two other works: a conversation in Sascha Pohflepp and Chris Woebken’s video The House in the Sky (2015) about bibliomancy, which is the act of divining the future by interpreting a randomly chosen page from a book; and a collection of photos depicting train model enthusiasts. A couple of Tony Mott’s Model Train Show series (2012-14) have the edges of their stage sets decapitating the creators’ heads in ways that continually have me looking over my shoulder in these spaces.

I’m picking up my tiny figure and moving it across the space, to the outer edge of lightness, before the work I now intend to review. A vitrine with two balls: Model for the Eye (undated), an antiquarian medical school aid, and a Precision Silicon Sphere made by the CSIRO. I zoom in to inspect the model label: “Until recently every kilogram measure in the world has been related by a chain of comparisons to the International Kilogram or Big K – a cylinder made from platinum-iridium alloy kept in a basement vault in Paris. Over time, however, this ideal kilo has been slowly changing, and is becoming an unreliable measure … The Avogadro Project is an international effort to redefine the kilogram to a specific number of silicon atoms – changing the model kilo from physical object to concept.”

I turn myself around, face a screen and put on headphones – every object is important, carefully modelled here – and watch Jeff Preiss’s video document of Andrea Fraser’s 1991 performance May I help you? Fraser’s speculative time travel meets my own: she’s playing gallery director of the Orchard Gallery in Manhattan, the blade of her monologue trenchantly double-edged. “You know, some people come in here and they want to invest and then they haven’t got the time. Imagine. They haven’t got the time to be personally interested. On the one hand investment and, on the other, total incompetence. If you stuck a piece of shit on the wall it would be all the same to them as long as someone told them the shit was worth money. That’s the nouveau-riche approach.” The monologue is curiously overplayed; surrounded by eyes and viewing devices, I’m suspicious that the joke might be on my behalf.

Back at home I read the exhibition text more closely, pausing on this: “The line between Proof and Prediction depends on different models of truth and thresholds of uncertainty … Climate change models predict the consequences of our actions buffeted by a perfect storm of complexity, high stakes and vested interests.”

My thoughts turn to caraballo-farman’s Object Breast Cancer (2013): cellular mutiny, the body system disrupted. The work is a piece of jewellery on a shelf beside a video, the silver brooch cast from Leonor Caraballo’s breast cancer, described by her aesthete oncologist as “beautiful”. The video shows the tumour brooch on a series of headless female torsos; here, imaging and diagnosis hold hands with fashion shoot and the shamanistic processes of molten casting. I don’t know exactly what I’m rewatching here. In a bucket, a grey substance is being stirred, round and round like the coin and the crazed eyes I can again hear; now a plaster void is being filled with red liquid by men in work gear, their hats yellow and hard like the coin spinner. Just beyond the partition sit those tumour-like nugget models – one titled ‘Beauty’ found Kangaroo Gully 1858 – and the orrery stand.

A Curator’s Last Will and Testament is a page of notes written by Nick Waterlow, who was the director and curator of these spaces before being killed by his son almost a decade ago. It hangs anonymously where an evacuation map might, at the outset of the Northern UNSW Galleries spaces. No. 7 on the list catches my eye: making possible the altering of perception. It occurs to me that while we like to speak of a singular artwork’s power, very few exhibitions, as living and breathing wholes, manage to induce perceptual change. With its broad range of objects and experiences A Working Model of the World provides a painstaking thesis on the instability of truth, contextualising art within broader human and imagining practices rather than taking the thing we call “art” for granted. To be drawn into this mind-altering model is to be awakened to the strangeness and boundlessness of reality.


Arts Diary

CINEMA Revelation: Perth International Film Festival

Venues throughout Perth, July 6-19

VISUAL ART Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, July 5-October 8

PHOTOGRAPHY The National Geographic Photo Ark

Melbourne Zoo, until October 1


Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until July 22

MUSIC Big Red Bash

Birdsville, Queensland, July 4-6


Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until August 6

CULTURE Melbourne Magic Festival

Northcote Town Hall, July 3-15


Arts Centre, Melbourne, July 3-15

VISUAL ART Builded Remnants | Berndnaut Smilde

The Goods Shed, Perth, July 6-August 31

Last chance

CULTURE Oz Comic-Con Melbourne

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, until July 2

CLASSICAL Melbourne Youth Orchestra Concert 2: New Worlds

Melbourne Recital Centre, July 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2017 as "Model service".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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