Flat Earth Society

What could an art exhibition titled ‘Flat Earth Society’ begin to consider? In a cultural sense, we are invited to question the artworks, the title framing a way to view the art in a different lens. Flatness is the first element – a pivotal movement in art history and returning to materiality, which inspires ideas of truth and purity of the canvas. The second element of a show titled ‘Flat Earth Society’ reflects on the aesthetics of conspiracies, in the tech world, low-fi and digital – on truth and its position on the Internet.

Josephine Skinner and Megan Monte have curated the exhibition at Cement Fondu so that it plays with and against both the art gallery model and also the YouTube and Twitter home of the Flat Earth Society conspiracies. The curation introduces ways of seeing through painting and how painting can extend into sculpture and performance. Skinner shares, it’s a way of ‘looking at painting from expanded sense… technology has expanded the possibilities of painting on the canvas.’

Naomi Oliver, Selected Errors, Closed on Monday virtual gallery, screenshot. Courtesy the artist and Cement Fondu, Sydney

‘Flat Earth Society’ is anything but low-fi or ‘techy’ – it’s a beautiful show; it’s slick and superficial, like an Instagram feed of airbrushed images. ‘We can’t rely on what we see online,’ Skinner adds. ‘The images that we constantly engage through visual devices; we don’t know what’s been retouched, what is real, what pertains to false information.’

Can art galleries successfully contrast the images we see day-to-day on our screens? Our sense of perception in the sheer qualities of being in a physical space, using our physical bodies, extends the ideas of art beyond a two-dimensional image.

Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel’s two artworks in the exhibition, both titled Kapi Wankanya (2018), are a stunning example of how viewing artworks in the flesh can offer a different sense of depth. Mipantjiti Lionel is an Indigenous artist born in Alice Springs, who interprets the messages in her dreams through expressive mark making on canvas, with pastel blues and greens. The paintings are presented lying horizontally, rather than on the wall, mirroring how the artist paints. It continues the physical actions, the artworks evidence to that. Yet, the closer you peer, the more the painting seems to be telling a narrative, in a glitchy, tech sort of way.

Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel, Kapi Wankanya, 2019, acrylic on linen, 200 x 122cm. Courtesy the artist and Cement Fondu, Sydney

Michael Staniak paintings line the walls, from the series, Oxide Paintings and Nature Paintings (2018-19). They offer models of resistance to the online feed with physical definition, textured with acrylic, iron oxide or synthetic vinyl polymer that needs to be seen in person. While Jonny Niesche and Rochelle Haley have brought newly commissioned installations to ‘Flat Earth Society’, both which play off Instagram-friendly soft pastel hues. The former with mirrored steel totems, the latter with blue painted arches that extend from the wall and an acrylic bead column hanging from the ceiling, dropping from pink to blue.

Haley’s The Invention of Depth (2019) becomes activated by a partnership with dancer Ivy Wawn, whose body continues the line of the paintwork into physical space. Haley reflects, ‘[I] encourage people to think about moving inside of a painting and changing the compositional shapes and objects and forms as they move around.’ And yet, performance is a fleeting moment, captured for most on a live feed or the flatness of an image.

Jonny Niesche, new artwork commission, Cement Fondu 2019, printed Myla balloon. Courtesy the artist and Cement Fondu, Sydney

Niesche’s totem works Untitled (2019), mirror the audience within his colour-gradient motif, and moving into the back of the gallery sees another installation, And Yet It Moves (2019). The title of the work is inspired by Galileo’s theory of a spinning earth. The work is made up of silver balloons printed with Niesche’s painterly hand, similar to Andy Warhol’s ready-mades and the idea of the factory. The installation is activated by the audience moving through the works, floating through the gallery. Niesche says of the works ‘It’s about relationships, and how they relate to each other — what they create and how they evoke sensation and feeling.’

Upstairs we find the virtual gallery ‘Closed on Monday.’ Curated by Lilium Burrow, it’s an alternative version to ‘Flat Earth Society’. The visitors to the gallery are invited to sit down and explore the online gallery on a projector, which reflects the aesthetics of the physical gallery — but you can also do this from home, providing you have a computer and Internet.

Instagram seemingly emerges as a measure of the value and the truthfulness of art with likes and follows; the virtual perception of success. But is this more corrupt than the more traditional methods of grading art — art schools, art prizes, judges, state galleries — perpetuating outdated models that are rooted in gender and race bias? The online, digital presentation of art opens accessibility and access to time, yet offering a physical space provides a venture into IRL, to engage with a societal narrative. ‘Flat Earth Society’ provides both and endeavours new ways to question art, in its materiality and relationship to the audience and spatially.

Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based art writer.

Cement Fondu
Until 8 December, 2019
Sydney