Absence of Occupation is not Rest

On Friday night I went along to the Heathcote Museum and Gallery – the old Heathcote Reception Home overlooking the Swan River in Applecross – for the opening of an exhibition by Paul Caporn and Kate Gregory. This was especially exciting because it was an art exhibition (Paul is the artist) using as inspiration and responding to the archival and ethereal history of the site dug up and contextualised by an Historian (Kate is the historian). While Kate insisted that it was really Paul’s show, the gentle hand of her knowledge and skill was evident in the responses he created to the history of the complex.

I’m way more the Historian than an art buff so while I can appreciate the ways art works to suggest meaning, I really need help to work out what an artist is trying to do. The speech on the night and particularly Kate’s catalogue essay provided the help I needed to understand the way Paul had worked with layers of meaning – something I love thinking about in the history research I do – that operate at the site. I was particularly taken with the ways some layers were visible and represented by text (archival words explaining the official views and beliefs about the purpose of the reception home) and others were so silent and fleeting – as Kate says “elusive traces…glimpsed in peripheral vision”. Paul’s grandfather’s shed, the door ajar as if he’d just stepped out, partially encased with a clear ‘ghost’ shed – the hovering war-time memories kept out by the occupation of industry in the shed that keeps the madness at bay. The layers working to keep a mind ‘sane’ and a person ‘well’. The blank cell shaped room with the barely visible text ‘this is not an empty room’ at eye level across one wall. Initially missed and ignored but then noticed to break the spell of ‘looking for something to look at’ that can define a visit to an art exhibition. Standing in a room in which the silent histories could only be imagined and to be reminded that those histories are there was eerie and wonderful.

In the final room, layers and layers of official signs pointing and acknowledging nothing, and text – often breaking down and unreadable, layered the room in a cacophony of words meaning little and a lot at the same time. Sort of like a museum exhibit where we expect all the words should be read – they must be important – and yet, not able to read or understand them or have a context for them made this traditional process impossible. The feeling of being locked out of something you know you should be able to do was poignant. Then, the playfulness of an archive broke through occasionally with surprising, funny and out of place words lifted from history.

There was more to the exhibition that you need to visit to explore for yourself. Open Tuesday to Sunday. Take a picnic so you can also enjoy the views.


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