Kit Wise – Where the city meets the sea

December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, Arts, December 29, 2009.

Inspired by the giddy delights of St Kilda, artist Kit Wise’s new video works turn idealised resort towns into surreal dreamscapes, writes Dan Rule.

As beautiful as it is, there’s something uncanny about this scene. The sky is such a vivid blue it almost borders on iridescence; the sand radiates the purest of white glows. It’s only when we focus on the beachgoers milling about on the sand, or scan the bordering hillsides dotted with beachside hotels and opulent coastal homes, that the flawless symmetry of it all becomes – almost eerily – apparent.

The video frame of this Marseilles beach scene is split down the middle; its vibrant summer scene duplicated in a seamless mirror image, its sequence set to short, repetitive loops. It’s a characteristic common to each of the eight video works that comprise Summertime, the new installation by British-born artist Kit Wise, which runs until the end of summer at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s satellite gallery, Mirka, in St Kilda’s Tolarno Hotel.

Inspired by his fascination with St Kilda, the 35-year-old’s “hyperreal” coastal vistas offer an augmented view of some of the world’s most famed coastal resort towns and cities. Drawing on footage garnered from Getty Images and other open-source online archives, and playing out on variously scaled LCD screens, the works “mash up” images of Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema, Monte Carlo and Waikiki, among others, creating perceptibly constructed and accentuated composites of the various spectacular sea and landscapes.

“I’m very interested in this idea of arcadia and these idyllic natural spaces and where the city meets these spaces,” says Wise, a senior lecturer and acting head of fine arts at Monash University, who arrived in Australia in 2001, later settling in Elwood with his young family. “In Australia, and particularly in places like St Kilda, that sort of beach culture and coastal, waterside way of living is a big part of that. Coming from England, the palm trees of St Kilda kind of represent this exotic paradise for me.”

Themes of paradise and the spectacle can be traced throughout Wise’s work, which has seen him complete residencies in Rome, Paris, New York and Tokyo, and is currently on show in Taiwan as part of the 2009 Asian Art Biennial.

His 2006 exhibition Superhappiness comprised a fantastical reinterpretation of Tokyo’s flashing neon cityscape, while in 2007’s Rhapsodia he created a glittering, utopian city bordered by the most spectacular of natural landscapes – however altered. Natural Disaster in 2008, meanwhile, featured footage of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2006, duplicated and mirrored to create an equally beautiful and horrific mutation of the gigantic waves striking the land.

While Wise sources imagery that promotes widely held notions of the idyllic, his subtle manipulations result in outcomes that prove as unnerving as they do pretty. It’s no mistake. “The beach, for example, is something we’re fascinated with and something we idealise and it saturates the media,” he says. “But underneath that is the fact that at the same time as consuming nature as this glamorous spectacle, we’re destroying it.”

Wise sees Summertime, with its mirrored beachside images, as a gentle reminder of such a paradox. “Symmetry is a classic device for describing perfection, whether that’s in architecture or constructed landscapes or the human face.”

When such qualities are applied to images of nature, Wise explains, a shift takes place. “There are moments in each of these works where they flip from being really beautiful to being really kind of wrong.”

In one of Summertime‘s works, a duplicated Waikiki beach borders either side of the frame, while the ocean fills the centre like a lake. Ocean swells emerge as a single rising lump in the middle of the frame, only to rupture and roll off towards opposite, mirror-image shorelines. While filled with familiar signifiers, the image is alien. “You could see it as quite … disturbing or even quite monstrous if you wanted to,” says Wise.

This evocation is at the heart of the exhibition’s St Kilda setting. “St Kilda is sort of the epitome of hedonism and pleasure and consumption,” says Wise. “Whether it’s the beaches or the cake shops or Luna Park, it’s sort of saturated in pleasure.

“I don’t want to criticise it at all, but underneath all of that one has to be aware of the price of all that pleasure and consumption, not just on a local but a global scale … Living in Elwood, I know all about things like water levels rising because it’s front-page news every few months.”

That said, Wise understands Summertime as celebratory. “I love the way this part of Melbourne makes you realise we live in a coastal city. I want the work to celebrate all the pleasures that brings, but I hope it can also remind people of the price.”

Summertime runs at ACCA Mirka until February 28.


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