'The Water Works' exhibition review / by Travis Kelleher

Another kind of Merman, decal transfer on recycled Wembley Ware porcelain (c 1950), 12 x 20 x 2 cm, 2013



Andrew Nicholls: The Water Works at Turner Galleries, by Thea Costantino, 2013

Australian artist Andrew Nicholls dredges the queasy aesthetics of sentiment for its submerged ideological content. In an ongoing thread of his practice, he locates the ideals and practices of British imperialism in the kitsch, seemingly innocuous world of 19th- and 20th-century ceramics, disrupting this historical narrative with traces of the otherness otherwise repressed in the imperial worldview. He subsumes his viewers in an undertow of horror and desire.

His latest exhibition The Water Works at Turner Galleries features a body of aquatic-themed drawings and sculptures in which the maritime environment serves as a spawning ground for all manner of fantastic inversions of the so-called natural order. With characteristically acerbic humor, Nicholls re-situates ancient depictions of the ocean as a site of monsters and wondrous perils in the context of mass-produced ceramics, eroticized male bodies, and mainstream Australia’s hysterical anxieties about invasion via its maritime borders. Amid ships on the verge of being wrecked and views of the glories of the deep, audience members clasp seashells to their ears only to hear water-themed excerpts from the artist’s music collection—the stylings of Destiny's Child bursting this exquisite dream bubble.

Of these somewhat marginal sound works, Nicholls states an interest in “exploring humiliation through my practice,” wanting to “trick my audience into feeling slightly embarrassed for me.” His glee in squirm-inducing effects is likewise embodied by the shark-man pinup sprawled across a ceramic serving dish, Another Kind of Merman, with his predatory roar, sprinkling of leg hair, and lovingly rendered genitalia.

Nicholls' work touches on national shame in the nautical dinner set Australia Sinks, referencing the 2001 'children overboard' scandal when the then-ruling right-wing Liberal party concocted the great lie that a sinking boatload of asylum seekers had thrown their own children into the water in an attempt to force a rescue. This work reads in relation to the Libs' recent return to government under PM Tony Abbott, whose great election promise, other than to prevent same-sex marriage, was to 'stop the boats' and thus protect Australia from the perils of giving aid to the displaced. Staging this debacle on an entree and dinner plate, Nicholls pillories the bourgeois conservatism that Abbott and his ilk espouse.

The Water Works, in spite of its enticements, is thus an exhibition with barbs, flaunting the lavish colours of deadly creatures like the blue-ringed octopus, whose tentacles caress the sinking figure in A Coral Room (put your hand over the side of the boat and what do you feel?). Both drowned man and wet dreamer, this casualty of the deep exemplifies Nicholls' deployment of eroticism to explore a range of historically situated anxieties and desires.