Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters
22 Aug 2009 - 4 Oct 2009
A exhibition which combined archival material with commissioned works by 10 emerging artists responding to the TV series Sylvania Waters.
Bursting onto television screens in July 1992, Sylvania Waters simultaneously redefined television and placed the suburb firmly in the public consciousness, both locally and internationally. Arguably, the first big Australian reality TV series, Sylvania Waters documented the lives of an Australian family, the Donahers/Bakers, with all the drama and romance of a soap opera. Commissioned by the BBC for a British audience, and co-produced by the ABC, the show caused heated critique about documentary ethics as well as the politics of representation, seeing that for many, Laurie & Noeline Donaher in particular were being portrayed as ‘typical’ Australians for a UK audience.
Two years in the making, the exhibition Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters examined the impact of the series through the work of 10 contemporary artists/collectives who were commissioned to make new artworks that responded to Sylvania Waters. Each artist was invited to undertake a residency at Hazelhurst throughout 2009 to assist in the development of the work. To aid research, the ABC generously granted access to episodes of the series, as well as archival media material that included news and current affairs segments. All commissioned artistic outcomes interpreted Sylvania Waters from various perspectives and in ways that reveal how visual arts practice often blurs with popular forms of media and entertainment.
For artists John A. Douglas and The Kingpins, Noeline Donaher was an inspiration. Douglas’s video artwork depicts Noeline fading in and out of swimming pool water, accompanied with sound edits that see her as a wise advice columnist. Art group The Kingpins presented an inventive installation that saw Noeline as an exemplary alpha matriarch.
For Carla Cescon and Mitch Cairns, the dynamics of family communication was the subject of their work. The Macintyre Crescent house in which the Donaher family lived was the key inspiration for Luis Martinez and artist couple David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton. Martinez presented a large drawing of the house with another of the Cabramatta house where he resided while the series was on TV in 1992. Lawrey & Middleton re-created the house as a miniature scale model with ghostly figures appearing around the house.
Archie Moore and Holly Williams made work that examined the way ‘reality’ plays games by manipulating participants and viewers in contemporary reality TV shows. Artist collaboration Ms & Mr (Richard & Stephanie nova Milne) presented a video featuring the Archibalds of Glebe, one of the families short-listed to star in what became Sylvania Waters. Elvis Richardson created four billboards for the Hazelhurst garden that referenced personal and media archives from then as well as now. Also included in the exhibition were selected episodes of the series as well as Peter Cooley’s quirky ceramic portraits of Noeline & Laurie Donaher – made in response to Sylvania Waters in 1993.
Curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham.
Image: Luis Martinez, Macintyre Crescent 2009, graphite pencil on Stonehenge paper, 45 x 76cm. Courtesy the artist and Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney.