For more than a decade, artist run initiative MOP Projects was a well-known fixture in the Sydney art scene. It closed in 2016, but the images and essays in the book MOP Projects: 2003–2016 preserve the legacy of this influential gallery. In ‘M4 to MOP,’ reproduced with permission below, writer Ann Finegan traces the links between the artists of western Sydney and the inner city ARI.
M4 to MOP
by Ann Finegan
Before MOP opened its doors in inner city Redfern in 2003, the word was already out at the art school at the University of Western Sydney where artist Maria Cruz was lecturing. A friend of would-be MOP directors George and Ron Adams, Cruz was part of a close-knit Sydney scene that included artists Mikala Dwyer and Sarah Goffman, but was equally tight with the many brilliant artists graduating from the University of Western Sydney (UWS). (1) A strong camaraderie was generated through the school among students and teachers alike. The art school existed in an unlikely suburban setting with paddocks on one side, in many respects remote from the usual malls and shops. On one occasion, a group of art students transformed an abandoned drive-in theatre that had been absorbed by the campus into a gallery, but, apart from that, Z-block, a large multi-purpose shed with various workshops attached, was where everything took place—a far cry from the city galleries.
In its day, the UWS art school had an impressive list of full, part-time and sessional lecturers, many of whom, like Daniel Mudie Cunningham (teaching in art and design theory), were to return as staff. The list is too long to recall in full but included Caleb Kelly, now an international scholar of sound art, luminaries Eugenia Raskopoulos, Julie Rrap, Anne Graham, Joan Grounds, Hinterding and Haines, Terry Hayes, Robyn Backen, Sarah Goffman, and many more. Z-block was a place where people bonded and continued to work and associate together well after art school.
Among them, lecturers Maria Cruz and Daniel Mudie Cunningham were to curate a fair swathe of the Western Sydney crew in several solo and group exhibitions over MOP’s incarnations. Many of these Western Sydney artists were to bring their affection for the suburban west. Given MOP’s 2003 Elizabeth Street address, itself the beginnings of the Redfern gallery fringe, there was a shared sense of identifying with the margins, and the Western Sydney artists fitted right in. Cruz co-curated with Reuben Keehan the strangely suburban What Form Would a Life Take? (2006) featuring works by Sarah Goffman, Paul Greedy and Robin Hungerford. Cunningham, likewise, curated Dress Code (2005) and Multiple Personality (2007) with a distinctly westie flavour. Across both shows, artists included Liam Benson, George Tillianakis, Sari TM Kivinen and Robin Hungerford. In turn, The Motel Sisters were to curate the sprawling group show Becos I’m Worf It! (2008) including Drew Bickford, Daniel Green, Marius Jastkowiak, George Tillianakis and Anastasia Zaravinos.
Performance, sound and installation largely characterised the Western Sydney contribution to MOP, with an impressive roll call of artists and strong queer representation. Liam Benson, Naomi Oliver and Sari TM Kivinen, performance video artists, frocked up outrageously as self-professed ‘anti-socialites’, The Motel Sisters. Alongside Tillianakis and Cunningham, they were all independent performance artists in their own right, and had cut their teeth on unabashedly westie themes and a diet of television and music cultures. Kivinen’s many personas included the permanently drunk and wasted Starella, who was to become something of a performance regular at the early MOP. The multi-talented Tillianakis, whose many collaborations included Politikal Graffiti with Jemima Isbester, brought some of the earliest punk rock sensibilities to performance, incorporating killer guitar riffs into his own compositions, while channeling his fan fetish for grunge stars like Courtney Love through queer suburban experience.
Like Tillianakis, painter Marius Jastkowiak unashamedly celebrated his home ‘burb of Blacktown. With his accomplished technique of carefully fuzzy paintings, Jastkowiak captured the neon signage of suburbia’s ubiquitous and instantly recognisable franchises in Neon Objective (2009). Accurately conjuring the vacuity of contemporary shopping strip culture, his remnant of the Blacktown streetscape resonated with Chippendale’s own streetscape, connecting the inner west and the outer suburban sprawl.
On a more frantic note, the somewhat ironically titled group show Frenzy! (2008), organised by Drew Bickford, played upon the notion of a suburban spinout of over-stimulation: neons, heavy metal and tattoo parlours. Featuring Jastkowiak and Bickford alongside Luis Martinez, Rene Christen, Nana Ohnesorge and Sherna Teperson, Bickford’s contribution of fine ink drawings was wildly over the top and tongue-in-cheek. His eponymous Frenzy was an explosion of a neighbourhood’s worth of pet dogs graphically entwined with skulls, stray limbs, body parts, the odd weapon and exquisitely illustrated weeds morphing into ganglia or nerve endings torn out by their roots-—a seething mass of hallucinated spawn emanating from the monotony of untended suburban blocks. Continuing the canine theme with equally explosive graphics, Bickford’s solo show, Mongrel (2009), drew from the putdown of being called a ‘mongrel’ to explore notions of identity and origin.
Robin Hungerford, whose undergrad show at UWS consisted of a large, glass-walled architectural model cum aquarium filled with live mice going about their daily activities at home (running rampant over miniature sofas and cavorting in mice-sized double beds), brought his strange sensibility of liveness to MOP. His contribution to What Form Would a Life Take? included a breathing curtain-like form that transposed a distinctly uncanny lounge room from the outer suburbs to the city. Hungerford was a master of manifesting a certain blandness even as his installations exuded unheimlich—that sense of not quite being at home even when at home.
Daniel Mudie Cunningham likewise stayed true to the unassuming sensibility of Western Sydney—though his Newington Armory tribute to Bette Midler, Oh Industry (2009), captured aspects of the ‘burbs that were luridly pop. His first iteration of Funeral Songs (2007)—literally a playlist of what people would like played at their funeral — valued and showcased pop culture and the taste of his participants in a way that managed to be equally show-off (a brilliant idea) and as low key as listening to the radio. With affectionate dagginess, Funeral Songs interrogated identity, taste and music culture in what amounted to an innovative series of sonic portraits.
Many of the MOP works by Western Sydney artists addressed issues of body, self and identity with this characteristic lack of pretention, though some performances could only be described as seriously hard-core. Tillianakis, Benson and The Motel Sisters blended high camp with a fondness for the ordinary and unremarkable. In his solo show, Execution & the Shadow (2010), Tillianakis interrogated his queer self in a performance with his own shadow cast against the wall of a suburban mall, described in his artist statement as a prison of his own making. Anastasia Zaravinos, now going by the name Adonis, exhibited one of her boldest video performances at MOP. For Numb (2007) she bound her breasts in humble red string tighter and tighter until they turned purple—an extraordinary performance addressing the painterly through sublimated bodily abjection. By contrast, Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward—with the Parachutes for Ladies—mapped out ideas of spatial and sonic territorialisation in an ode to cinematic musicals like West Side Story and Houseboat in the exhibition Small States (dancellations) (2008).
After the closure of the art school at UWS—teaching was phased out in 2009—MOP expanded its Western Sydney association through Parramatta Artist Studios (PAS), under the direction of Michael Dagostino. (2) Adding a new generation of artists to MOP’s Western Sydney core, PAS artists exhibited widely at MOP: Dagostino curated When Good Curators Go Bad (2011); Marian Abboud collaborated with partner Dagostino in Next to God (2011); Linda Brescia presented Life and Death (2012); Tom Polo undertook the mock competition solo, The 2009 B.E.S.T. Contemporary Art Prize for Painting (2009); and David Capra exhibited in group show Talk Show (2013) and as one half of Prophetic Initiatives—a spirited collaborative with Leahlani Johnson—in their show Laughing Conference (2011).
In this later period, some of the most remarkable exhibitions in MOP’s Chippendale premises engaged with historical hubris. Both Benson’s performance video and photo series The Pioneers (2011) and Daniel Mudie Cunningham’s Rhymes with Failure (2010) (a video scored by Tillianakis) revisioned Australia’s British settler history. In the grander scale of world history, Blue Mountains artist Michael Butler incorporated drawing and collage with great delicacy. His 2010 solo show He who has butter on his head should not go into the sun (#1) punctuated patterned motifs of home furnishings with soldier’s silhouettes and skulls as multilayered icons of totalitarian regimes.
Working within an expanded drawing practice, Ben Denham’s camera obscura installation, IOU in Material Thought (2014), used the passage of light within a bespoke mark-making apparatus to ‘draw’ the passing of the Abercrombie Street traffic on the gallery wall. Technological installations incorporating sound were also admirably represented by Paul Greedy’s immaculate minimalism (2006) and Vicky Browne’s offbeat re-makings of music machines and sound sculptures (2003, 2005, 2007, 2010).
MOP, in turn, afforded opportunity to artists from Sydney’s western suburbs. This played a crucial bridging role in integrating many UWS and Western Sydney artists into the inner-city art community, through the group shows which were, for many, a key introduction to the Sydney art scene and a generator of solo shows at MOP and other inner city venues. Lastly, the MOP exhibition experience also consolidated the strong bond among Western Sydney artists, many of whom continue to exhibit together and collaborate.
MOP Projects: 2003–2016 is available for purchase in good bookstores and online from Formist Editions.
1. In 2015 the institution was rebranded as Western Sydney University.
2. Following his tenure at Parramatta Artist Studios, Michael Dagostino took up the Director position at Campbelltown Arts Centre, while Sophia Kouyoumdjian moved to PAS after having worked with numerous western Sydney artists as Curator and later Acting Director at Blacktown Arts Centre. Originally trained as an artist, Kouyoumdjian was curated by Dagostino into When Curators Go Bad in 2011.