Windows to the Street: the Elizabeth Street Gallery Project
This article was originally commissioned by Australian Art Review in 2013.
Car horns blare and traffic is backed up along Elizabeth Street. It is rush hour and a continual skein of commuters fight their way down the hill from offices and high rise to Sydney Central Train Station. For those who lift their eyes from the pavement, or peer through their car windows, there is visual relief from the crush of the hour: photographic visions through to other worlds.
The Elizabeth Street Gallery Project was installed in August 2012 under the cover of darkness, in an act of guerilla beautification and cultural stimulation. The project features the work of six Sydney photographers: Dean Sewell, Andrew Quilty, Nic Walker, George Voulgaropoulos, James Alcock and James Brickwood.
The central aim of the project was to enliven a culturally barren part of the city. The group desired to effect a lasting change in the area, and hoped to avoid the often short-lived hype of Sydney’s various arts festivals. This aim appears to have come to fruition. Within twelve hours of installation the Street Gallery was officially sanctioned by the City of Sydney Council and a motion was passed to keep the works as a permanent art fixture, with the possibility of the site showcasing the work of other artists in the future. During her formal council recommendations on public art in November 2012, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore singled out the initially unauthorized Elizabeth Street Gallery Project as an example of “how public art can transform the ugliest public spaces.”
Dean Sewell says that the site was “beckoning” for something. The shallow alcoves in the brick wall along the Elizabeth Street side of the Goulburn Street Carpark now form niches which display the Project’s photographs. Sewell points out that as the scenes were “gleaned” from the streets it was a satisfying idea to put them back onto the streets. The concept of a Street Gallery provided a way of putting street photography out there, as Sewell notes, contemporary street photography is not a popular genre among Australian commercial galleries.
Walking along the gallery wall, the differing styles of the photographers is immediately apparent. All have chosen works that interact with the exhibition location. Quilty’s series on Newtown reflects the transport function of this stretch of Elizabeth Street, as well as the transitory interaction of commuters with the area. His photograph of the entrance to the Newtown train station is particularly captivating, with an almost tromp l’oeil effect of depth that invites the viewer to step through to this more lively Sydney suburb. In Quilty’s series we find the irreverent, fun-seeking youth of the Newtown streets. All are moving through their current space, shifting from one location to the next.
Brickwood’s Manly images have a similar feeling of a view through a window to another space. He tempts us with escapist imagery of the tranquility of the beach and seaside life; presents us with vast horizons of water and conjures up games of summertime tennis and time spent lolling near the sand.
The perception of depth evident in Quilty’s and Brickwood’s works is contrasted with its conscious negation in the chiaroscuro and blurring of Alcock’s club scenes, and in Sewell’s hegemonic suburban images of Hillsdale apartment blocks in Sydney’s south. Both photographers present a different form of spatial negation. Alcock gives us the intimacy of close-ups seen within the haze of a big night out. Whilst Sewell pictures the claustrophobia of the suburbs through multiple unyielding compositions. The brick structures of the Hillsdale apartments form blockades with every aspect of the composition curling around to hold you captive. There is no distant horizon; even the cloudless sky forms an impermeable plane.
Sewell’s series speaks volumes to the inertia of the suburbs; in contrast, Voulgaropoulos’ Western Sydney images provide visions of cultural permeability. Voulgaropoulos’ works explore the experience of melded cultures for immigrant communities. The interaction of cultures is pithily realized in his chromatically graphic image of a woman wearing a black burqa passing a hot-pink ice-cream van. Aptly, the graffiti that has been added to the image reflects Voulgaropoulos’ under-lying sentiment, as a peace sign and a love heart now float in black marker next to the woman’s head.
Walker’s greyhound racing scenes taken in and around Wentworth Park focus on the seedier side of animal racing. The yellow light saturating the images is reminiscent of cigarette stained walls, and we are given a vision of a basic veterinary room and a muzzled snarl. Portraits of anticipation prevail: images of men waiting for their big win hang alongside a photo of a small girl waiting alone for her ice-cream.
The Elizabeth Street Gallery Project provides us with glimpses of Sydney life. The transportive power of the works truly invigorates this once barren stretch of CBD footpath; it is hopefully the seed for further things to come.
Image Credits, from top to bottom: Andrew Quilty, George Voulgaropoulos, Dean Sewell, Nick Walker