When I ask my inner artist on a date to Carriageworks to see Francesco Clemente’s exhibition Encampment, my critic says dryly, ‘How imaginative! Taking your artist to an art space.’
Does my critic ever wonder why I never invite her?
I plan it carefully. I’ve never been there before. Train from Museum Station to Redfern and a short walk from there. The taxi my artist hails dropped us off at the door.
Carriageworks takes up disused railway sheds. Clemente’s exhibition includes six family size tents pitched inside a very industrial cavernous space, and there’s still room for a cricket game.
My artist heads straight into the first tent before she’s even read the artist’s statement on the wall.
‘We don’t know what this tent is supposed to represent,’ I say.
‘Try to feel it,’ she says. I feel she thinks I’m a bit of a pain.
One of the gallery guides gives me a catalogue but my artist won’t let me look at it. She takes my hand and we walk around each tent, noting the words and symbols embroidered in gold thread, from the prehistoric hand-print to suits from a deck of cards, and woodblock printed fabric in a pattern that remind me of army camouflage.
Inside the tents my artist makes me stand and look at the tempera washed walls for longer than the 4 seconds studies have shown is customary for viewers. The Angel tent gains a new angel.
The Devil Tent is full of disturbing men in Victorian dress and top hats with erect penises. My artist has a theory about why I think Victorian males seem particularly evil but I forbade her tell you about it. But the overwhelming fear for me here is about powerlessness.
Then we move on to the Taking Refuge Tent. It is dark and frighteningly secretive inside. No moral Australian can fail to read a fitting metaphor here and not feel shame. My artist suddenly wants a stiff drink at the bar near the entrance but I drag her on.
My spirits are so lifted by the Pepper Tent I can’t stop smiling. The sun comes through the skylights and shines on the ceiling making the colours luminescent. See those two sneaking a kiss behind the pole?
In the bar we try to make our own sense of what Encampment is saying. It makes me think of moving through Jung’s rooms that represent aspects of our personality. From rooms where our shadow selves live into places of lightness. It’s about impermanence, my artist says, tents pack up and move on. It’s like a constant journey.
We read the catalogue.
For Clemente the work is about moments of transition. His work demands that the viewer moves from suffering to joy, from place to place, from physical to spiritual ecstasy. Never settling in one place, or on one interpretation. ‘It’s never supposed to be a beginning or an ending; it’s supposed to be a transition.’ Like the substance of life itself.
Like the best short stories, my artist says.
We stroll through the lanes of terrace houses in Redfern to the train station, holding hands, dreaming about what an encampment of short stories could look like.