Ten[d]ancy: Artistic interventions for Elizabeth Bay House

Ten[d]ancy is part exhibition, part intervention.

Eight contemporary local and international artists - Gary Carsley, Shaun Gladwell, Hannah Furmage and Jonathan Jones working individually, and Claire Healy, Sean Cordeiro, Martin Blum and Simone Fuchs working collectively - were invited to develop site-specific installations which engage critically with the history, architecture and colonial structures - both social and political - that inform the Macleay family home, ’the finest house in the colony’.

Curated by Sally Breen & Tania Doropoulos

8 July 2006 - 22 October 2006


First published in Insites, Spring 2006

Ten[d]ancy is a contemporary art project that situates artists as interlopers into Elizabeth Bay House. Each artist involved was selected because they have art practices that work outside the clean white spaces of the gallery. They offer us different points of entry into the various histories that thread throughout the life and times of the house.

Elizabeth Bay House is far more than a Regency villa. Located in the most densely populated area of Australia, it is the grande dame of colonial architecture. Designed by society architect John Verge for Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay, the house was at the nexus of the intellectual pursuits of science and aesthetics in New South Wales in the early 19th century. The Macleay natural history collections were revered throughout the British Empire, contributing to and extending the taxonomy of specimens discovered in the New World. Today, the collection stands as an intellectual legacy and adds much weight to understanding the complexities of the natural world. Yet what of the social complexities and the density of competing occupancies throughout the history of the house? If the walls of Elizabeth Bay House could talk there certainly would be some extraordinary stories to be heard.

Ten[d]ancy is a contemporary art project that situates artists as interlopers into Elizabeth Bay House. Each artist involved was selected because they have art practices that work outside the clean white spaces of the gallery. They offer us different points of entry into the various histories that thread throughout the life and times of the house.

Artistic pursuits are not uncommon in Elizabeth Bay House. In fact the house has been the site for much artistic focus, dating back to an 1838 watercolour by Conrad Martens depicting the house from Darling Point as a gleaming white villa emerging from the landscape. The work hangs today above the fireplace in the library – the room that held the scientific collections and discussions during the Macleay tenancy. It’s a curious painting, depicting the house with the intended Doric portico and colonnade, bringing to life the ‘completed’ house at a time when the Macleay funds would not permit it. However, a photograph from 1857 shows the house without the portico in the ‘real’, upholding the notion of the artist as both interpreter and interloper into the structures and histories of the house. In the mid 20th century the house was occupied by a collective of artists, ensuring the space was anchored to a living history. A 1942 sketch by Donald Friend depicts the carnivalesque bohemian milieu of the time, with artists running rampant within the house, working and living simultaneously under the one roof – seemingly indifferent to New World settlement.

The house is an aesthetic wonderland, brimming with a potentiality for artistic intervention. The commissioned artists interlace history, science and architecture across the existing structures of the house, providing an unauthorised biography of Elizabeth Bay House.

Gary Carsley’s Le chamber of M Draguerre reconstructs a singular historical identity of Elizabeth Bay House via the construction of a fictitious artist named M Draguerre. Carsley’s working methodology, what he terms the ‘draguerreotype’, is a remix of the form and function of drag and daguerreotypes. The resulting works are mechanical reproductions that locate the spectacle of social, cultural and political performance as a construction of identity played out via the ideologies of colonialism (a system of imposing one nation’s sovereignty over the territory of another). For Carsley, parklands embody the elements of colonialism as an act of drag, specifically those that are performed by the New World (the Americas and Australia for example) to identify with and mirror the Old World (Europe).

Shaun Gladwell makes subtle intersections throughout various rooms within Elizabeth Bay House in his installation Smoke Machines/specimens. Placing appropriated objects and specimens within existing collections of the house, Gladwell sets up confusion between what is ‘true’ to the Macleay collection and what is intervention. These slightly dysfunctional objects reference the house’s various histories – from its colonial to more recent bohemian status.

The Swiss and Australian artists’ collective of Martin Blum, Simone Fuchs, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro look to sheep as indexical of Australia’s colonial history. Through the act of crochet, a craft familiar to women of colonial times, the artists fashion red merino wool threads into webs of doilies that interlace across various rooms of Elizabeth Bay House. This intriguing intervention folds Australia’s colonial and pastoral history into contemporary concerns about environmental degradation and the construction of nature as cultural necessity.

Jonathan Jones responds to the site of Elizabeth Bay House from an Indigenous position. Jones’s light installation Gurrajin (Elizabeth Bay) resituates the local Aboriginal legacy over the imposition of colonial settlemenT Light resonates human presence through the interplay of rays and shadows. It suggests the complex notion of society through its electrical paraphernalia, while drawing out the spiritual significance of light.

Colonial convict history is meshed into contemporary criminal vignettes in Hannah Furmage’s sound installation Pig town. Located in the cellars of Elizabeth Bay House, whispering voices recount personal stories of criminality. The stones, fashioned and laid by convicts as the foundation for the Macleay family home, resonate with contemporary convict voices otherwise silenced through the prison system.

Contemporary art is more often than not situated within the sanctity of galleries and museums, hung on pristine white walls or situated upon perfect plinths. Works are curated to form particular positions. Political, social and/or historical narratives are tightly woven into threads that represent another time and place. However, much contemporary art practice is actively engaged in operating within the expanded space of site-specificity. The commissioned artists for Ten[d]ancy command your participation to journey through and intersect in the extraordinary and divergent life and times of Elizabeth Bay House.

Sally Breen & Tania Doropoulos Guest curators