Unlike the movement of a plane, there is less of a flight path and more of a series of scattered destinations at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre’s newest exhibition, Flight. The show issues forth a spread of artistic ports, which each offer a different experience of flight. It takes the general idea of flight, and in its strongest moments renders it personal.

“Flight” is a compelling title for an exhibition. The word suggests transcendence. It calls to mind a kind of ideal: the half-formed notion that we could leave the earth, with all of its terrestrial concerns, and float off into the clouds. Weightless. Yet the latest show at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre does not float away. In many ways, it does the opposite, bringing us down to the ground. Within the walls of the Powerhouse, flight is more often than not embedded within the realities of the earthly: our politics, our histories, our futures. In this sense, the exhibition presents a bifurcated gaze, which not only looks to the skies above, but also scrutinises the ground below.

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s imposing sculptural installation, Journey to the West, 2023, immediately stages this dynamic, bridging the gap between fantasy and actuality. Hanging in the Powerhouse’s main hall, their sculpture comprises two Beechcraft Twin Bonanza wings, whose form has been drastically reassembled. Here, the two wings have been positioned beside one another, so that the parts of a plane now form the shape of a kite. The 4.3 by 4 metre work almost appears as a visual paradox: it floats, like a kite, defying gravity, in spite of its obvious weight. The form’s duality as both a plane and a kite are brilliantly amplified by its position. Rather than facing the building’s entrance—as would seem the obvious choice—the work is oriented towards the left. This means that the installation initially appears as a single wing of the plane, before transforming into a kite, as one moves around its perimeter and is able to see more of its fully realised form. The wings remain static, yet are transformed. The work embodies both the idly floating kite, directionless and nostalgic; and the furiously propelled aeroplane, driving the global economy.

Matte Rochford’s Airmail Postcard Network (Casula Airport), 2023, sits only a few metres away, yet could not be more different in its form. Where Journey to the West turns on its imposing physicality, Rochford’s project moves in the other direction, adopting a drastically understated form: the humble postcard. In Rochford’s conceptually driven piece, the postcard is reimagined as an aeroplane and the letter box as the airport. Each card is sent around the world and then sent back to Casula, thereby creating “flight routes.” The work is deeply relational; it turns on the idea of connectivity. After all, there is no instrumental outcome to sending a card around the world, only for it to be sent back. The map on the wall tracking the postcards’ flight paths echoes the feeling of tracking an Amazon parcel across the world. But here, you are not receiving any material goods—there is no commodity to be unwrapped—rather it is about the journey. The success of Rochford’s artwork resides in this simple yet critical shift. It is a work that assumes an almost juvenile form, comprised of scrawled instructions, a hand-drawn map, and a tiny desk. Yet it is all the better for it.

Many of the exhibition’s other works, however, do not look so far afield. Instead, a great number speak to the imminent arrival of the Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport in 2026. Since the 1940s, discussions for a second Sydney airport have started and stopped with administrations on both sides of the political aisle proposing alternatives. In 2014, the Abbott Government concretised its choice, announcing Badgerys Creek as the site for Sydney’s second airport. Its construction started in September of 2018 with the airport scheduled to open in 2026, eight decades after talks first began.

But as the artworks throughout the exhibition make clear, for many, the Western Sydney airport is not an uncontested or settled issue. Entering the Marsden Gallery, one finds a vitrine filled with materials—signs, shirts, flyers—protesting a proposed airport at Holsworthy, alongside images recalling demonstrations from 1996. Next to this historical documentation, hangs Anna Madeleine Raupach’s artistic gesture, Connecting Flight, 2023, which chronicles the names of all the Australian native species that have been recorded at the new airport site, suggesting the unseen impact of its construction.

Opposite, stands Garry Trinh’s video work %$#@&*, 2023, which depicts a plane producing skywriting in the air above Casula. As the title suggests, this writing does not assume a readable form—there is no “Will you marry me, Lucy?” or any other cloying displays of public affection. The skywriting instead slides into abstraction, denying our expectations of legible text and frustrating our eyes. But this illegibility is not idle, nor is it purely inward facing—rather, it captures the inherent difficulty in finding a common language in discussions of such a fraught issue. As Trinh writes, “I have been attending the various community forums related to the new airport, and I am interested in the inability of language (spoken or written) to capture the full range of emotions these forums have brought out in people.” There is something undeniably compelling about this focus on Western Sydney and the foregrounding of issues that are important to the local community. It is almost as if the exhibition itself represents an extended rejoinder to Trinh’s statement.

Yet this focus is not sustained throughout Flight. The exhibition begins to flag in several moments, when one wonders what it is that is binding all of the art together. Of course, the works all connect to the idea of flight, yet the idea of flight itself is not really advanced nor developed in a meaningful way. It remains a theme rather than a concept. Within the exhibition, one finds an eclectic mix of works that seem to embody a “more is more” mantra. The success of this approach is precarious, however. The choice, for instance, to include model/toy aircrafts in display cases does not end up evoking fun nor whimsy, but rather suggests the unfocused and free-associating nature of the exhibition. Likewise, the presentation of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Yam Dreaming, 1991, is an awkward curatorial move. While Kngwarreye’s work always has a redoubtable presence, its inclusion here is justified on the basis that it was selected to be part of Qantas’ livery in 2018, more than two decades after the artist’s passing. A quote on the wall plaque from Qantas CEO Alan Joyce states, “the striking artwork is intended to encourage more people to explore the Indigenous elements that form part of ‘the Spirit of Australia’.” Of course, this is a fundamentally desirable sentiment—but when the painting is framed with corporate-speak and neatly pinned to the airline’s slogan, it sits less comfortably within the space.

Yet, even so, there is still something undeniably compelling about the exhibition, in all of its sprawling glory. One of the great ironies of Flight is that in taking us away from the concerns of the ground, it brings us closer to them. This is the exhibition’s greatest strength: the moments in which it alloys the transcendent with the earthly, the personal with the universal, and allows us to witness all of these elements folding into one another.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63.

21 Januaury – 11 June, 2023 
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney 

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