Sister wives in Sydney

May 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm

If you’ve ever met artist Angela Ellsworth and her wife Tania Katan, you will not be at all surprised to learn that they have taken Sydney not by storm but by equal parts talent and charm.

The first performance of the media preview day, on the first floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was Ellsworth’s “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” As cameras whirred and clicked, eight sister-wives in their modest prairie-pastel dresses and bouffant-with-long-braid-attached hairdos danced a serious Electric Slide that was almost sinister in its precision and lack of emotion — and eerily without music, as if the women were repeating steps the origins of which they no longer remembered.

I’m not sure what general knowledge of shows like “Big Love” is here in Australia, or of Mormonism in general, but with or without the background, the crowds were mesmerized by the spectacle itself. (I did hear a report of one well-heeled woman who was simply annoyed that she couldn’t get through the crush of people and on to the next gallery, but there will always be at least one of those types at an international arts festival. They tend to miss entirely what David Elliott referred to in his opening comments as “the symphonic effect” of  all the various pieces and venues taken in concert, and one wonders why they’re here at all.)

Ellsworth’s magnificent “Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense” occupy an entire gallery on the first floor of the MCA, where their sheer numbers (there are perhaps a dozen; I didn’t count exactly but I’m willing to bet that Ellsworth knows all too well, as each one required endless hours of construction) and their distance from origin unleash a power that was only hinted at when a few of them first appeared on display  at Scottsdale’s Lisa Sette Gallery.

I vividly recall the first time I saw Ellsworth’s work, in a long-gone downtown Phoenix art space, and in particular I remember her pearl-tipped corsage pin masses, random elegant growths that were at once organic and artificial, and altogether seductive. It’s profoundly satisfying to stand in a gallery on the other side of the world and watch as Ellsworth talks to the Australian media about the current incarnation of those corsage-pin masses. To come back to David Elliott’s musical metaphor, Ellsworth has taken a shiny, haunting little melody and worked it into a cycle of songs with sophistication, depth, and staying power.

After the performance of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” we kept running into sister wives out of costume but with their bouffant hair intact, as they were scheduled to perform again in the evening and that part of the “do” was too difficult to re-do. They are mostly graduate students, some imported from Arizona, some culled from the local art schools; seeing them out and about and drinking in the Biennale provided a refreshing companion impression to the rigid, almost sleep-walk nature of their morning “Slide.”

Some sister wives out of context:

Sister wife Eleanor (yes, art fans, that is Enrique Chagoya in the background, with his wife, artist Kara Maria.)

A sister wife takes in Australian artist Rodney Glick’s work.

Sister wife Brooke at the snack bar on Cockatoo Island.

– Deborah Sussman Susser

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