Darwin as ‘Hell Theme Park’: the art of Eileen Song

I met Eileen Song a few weeks ago at Darwin’s Roma Bar to chat about her exhibition Cliffside showing at Darwin Visual Arts (DVA). I wanted to make the effort to find out more about her and her practice when I came across her work Hit Me on the Street in an earlier group show Fluidity at DVA. This work intrigued me, so I resolved to check out her solo exhibition on my return from Melbourne.

The Roma Bar is where I start my mornings when I am home. It is where the hundred hellos begin. Here a small but critical mass of the local population meets. It is one of the few Darwin cafes where a common memory vault is shared. By noticing the appearance of regular customers, I have witnessed myself grow old.

“I came from Taiwan, stayed in a hostel on Mitchell Street, and thought: is this the best capitalism can offer?”

Song and I meet for lunch but take a sandwich to the gallery so we can chat about her work in situ.

We quickly establish origins. She’s from Taiwan, arriving in Darwin three years ago. Now she is getting ready to return home, joining the perennial throng of people from all corners of the globe, who come and go through Darwin talking of Michelangelo and then disappear.

It was most unusual to meet a traveller and a conceptual artist from Taiwan who decided to stay in this part of Australia for an extended period of time.

“Why Darwin?” I ask.

“Taiwan’s popular backpacking guides to Australia say very little about Darwin.” she replies. “I was interested to find out why. I came from Taiwan, stayed in a hostel on Mitchell Street, and thought: is this the best capitalism can offer?”

Mitchell Street is Darwin’s tourist hub, mixing humidity and heat with lust and alcohol and drugs turning this bitumen strip of nightclubs and backpacker hostels into a carnival of senseless violence.

I have represented so many men and women whose charges resulted from a Mitchell Street brawl. I have watched all hell break lose captured by CCTV and animated on multimedia screens. I know where every CCTV camera is located in that city and it is in this hell hole that Song found herself in for three years.

I wanted to tell her: “Darwin’s real soul is found inside its suburbia, which swarms with ordinary but fecund life. This is where you find the locals socialising in the backyard on a chilly dry season night yarning and playing the recorder around a bonfire,” but I hesitate. Some of the long-term locals I know avoid connections with transient types, tired of investing in relationships that do not last.

Cliffside is installed inside a small room that was once an office. Its walls are hung with multi-media work across a range of materials, arranged according to a restrained rhythm. Song has pencilled exhibition notes on frosted glass, along with her brief artist statement and a sketch of instructions.

The exhibition is constructed as an installation composed in parts, a theatre set presenting humanity on the cusp of clinical precision, silence and ambivalence.

This installation plays on tensions between hand made and automated, readymade artifact, art and craft, material and imagination, tradition and innovation, native and alien, forensically psychoanalysing the transit lounge inside a transit city.

“My creativity does not come out in a logical way,” Eileen Song explains, “I say a small part, then leave it to the audience to complete the story.”

I am relieved to have some time alone with artworks, with nothing else competing for my attention I examine carefully.

A panoply of figurative ink drawings hangs on one wall. On another, Hell Theme Park, a large cotton and fabric paint wall hanging. A miniature screen composed of four hinged wooden panels rests on a low plinth, a series of three limited-edition books, an A/V flat screen and Hit me on the street, this time arranged along a different display rationale.

Song brings a plastic chair from another room and positions it in front of the audio screen. This is a weird experience, for my ten second concentration span barely allows me to begin, let alone complete, most video art.

Take a walk in the dream, a 15-minute dream animation begins. As the hand-drawn (via Photoshop) and stylus and caricatures develop, Song explores the theme of premonition, reconstructing the dreams of her protagonist when she falls asleep on the plane after take-off.

I too, experience prophetic dreams; liquid dreams in which I exist in-between time.

Much of my time is spent inside liminal worlds: tram stops, train carriages, streets, foyers, transit lounges, airplane cabins, taxis and uber cars, in a state of suspension, where everything is anticipated but nothing happens. It is inside my mind that I find escape from stasis and experience a time devoid of obligations.

Oblivious to consequences, I am detached, mindful only of the murmurs of engines, swishing tyres, propellers, turbines, the humming of fluorescent tubes, inside the cacophony I hear music which as if by some miracle gets to my heart, and I enter into a meditation of sorts, moving across the planet, a molecule in universal scale, a split second in universal time.

Eileen Song (Sung Ai Ling, b. 1987) graduated in 2011 with a BA Fine Arts at the Taipei National University of Art. She has worked in art and design and in the film industry as a writer and illustrator. She has undertaken international residencies in Amsterdam and in La Platta capital of Buenos Aires and has participated in group and solo shows in Taipei and now Darwin.

Song’s works reflect her relationship with the world. “I wrote two of my dreams down four years ago,”she explained.“When I revisited my writing again, I got a sense of déjà vu.”

Song has been drawing from an early age, graduating from art specialist primary and secondary schools. Influenced by Chinese calligraphic and the Japanese comic and animation traditions, she executes her mark making, mixing naïve with masterful strokes. With the economy and refinement of the painterly line she restrains her abstraction into expression. She does not wish to imitate the real world, but to capture the reflections in her mind.

She refers to her experience writing for film, where narrative construction relies on the subjective meaning-making faculty of the viewer.

She cites influences as far and wide as Tibetan art, the internationally renowned Japanese manga artist Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989), particularly his influential comic works Black Jack (1973-1983) and The Phoenix (1967-1988); the French conceptual and installation artist and writer Sophie Calle (1958-) and medieval tableaux of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)  whose fantastical illustrations and absurd creatures, shaped representations of heaven and horror of hell.

“My creativity does not come out in a logical way,” she explains. “I say a small part, then leave it to the audience to complete the story.”

She takes me through the large fabric work hanging on the wall. She laughs and points out that the seams are hand-stitched because her sewing machine broke down. Hell Theme Park, she explains, represents her experience of Darwin as a place.

She recalls walking past the Woolworth’s bus station, surrounded by drunks fighting or passed out and thinking that a person could die here and no one would care. “A premonition,”she said. She recalled the incident recently reported where a man died in the centre and consumers moved about oblivious to the corpse.

After I drive away from the gallery, I found myself waiting at the traffic lights on the corner of McMinn and Daly Streets aware of the indicator ticking. I looked out the car window towards the Palms Motel where a gunman, a killer, opened fire a few weeks ago, searching through the motel rooms firing bullets from a pump action rifle.

My car hovers over the location where the killer was arrested. Footage was released of him squirming as blood poured out of multiple knife wounds. I recall the rumours: “One of his victim’s stabbed him just before he was shot dead at point blank range”.

My mind flicks through thousands of forensic photographs. The anatomy of wounds, deaths by blunt force trauma, when I drive past the Buff Club. “There the victim was made to beg for his life on his hands and knees before being shot execution style”.

I visited my ageing parents. They were inside their suburban home, in the small bedroom staring at the flat screen television in bed. I sat at their feet and watched ed the evening news in silence. As I became alert to the air-conditioner and the dog barking next door, I began to stitch together my impressions of Song’s most captivating and illuminating exhibition Cliffside exploring allegories of violence as experienced in a small tropical town.

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