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Simon Cavanough’s Escape Plan

A Review of Simon Cavanough’s “Clouded Signals” (Gallery Barry Keldoulis, 4-27 November, 2004)

Kirsten Seale


In a studio on the fringes of Sydney Airport, where, if you stretch your fingertips skyward, you can tickle the steel bellies of the 747s, Simon Cavanough is devising an escape plan. Ever mindful of the machines that fly overhead, Cavanough’s work is fuelled by a dialectical desire to achieve the poetic dream of flight, while also fulfilling the artist’s political obligation to remain “on the ground” in order to challenge the imperatives of commodification and conformity.

Clouded Signals is a show which plays with notions of the material and immaterial. Hatching the Escape Plan is a rocket to another sphere, one assembled from the matter of the everyday. The clouds of Cavanough’s Transmission series are not nebulous formations but are structured from silicon. They are tangible objects with delineated contours. It is unclear to where the miniature rungs of one of Cavanough’s models, titled Ladder to, lead—perhaps to the ineffable, transcendent realm of art? As suggested by its title, Ladder to climbs to no particular destination and ultimately remains anchored to the reality of the detritus from which it is manufactured.

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Cavanough strives to illuminate the poetry of the physical world, the world of things. He plays with our expectations regarding the proper use of objects, using them in illogical and unintended ways. Cavanough uses found objects gleaned from surprising locations to fuse together his inventions. The hardware store is transformed into an art supply shop. This improvisational dimension of Cavanough’s work effects a playful rearticulation of the pieces he appropriates. Favourite Bird, a section of piping formed from synthetic substances, rehearses a form borrowed from nature by mimicking a bird.

Cavanough is driven by the epistemophiliac impulses prevalent in our society—“our need to know how things work, how they fit together.” He is as fascinated by the process as by the end product, how the diverse pieces he has collected will be organised, how the mechanics of the piece will operate. Through these connections to science and technology Cavanough’s inventions seem to speak of the positivism of these discourses. They appear to belong to the domain of the functional, yet charmingly, stubbornly, his machines and models refuse any conventional notion of utility. He defies the prescribed logic of consumer culture, inventing machines that have no respect for the order of things. His models shaped like tiny transmission towers are not intended to pick up any signal. In Hatching the Escape Plan he has assembled an apparatus which produces what can never be quantified: the pleasure of artistic creation and artistic spectacle. It is paradoxical invention—an ornamental machine.

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Italo Calvino writes that in a consumer society the “task of removing the residue of yesterday’s existence is surrounded by a respectful silence, like a ritual that inspires devotion, perhaps only because once things have been cast off nobody wants to think about them further.” Cavanough has no such reverence for the obsolete commodity and contends the serious business of consumerism by reminding us of refuse’s materiality. Sardine cans and lost bits of wire return to haunt us. Of course, the appropriation of the found object is hardly radical art practice in itself; Cavanough can be situated within a tradition of art which incorporates refuse. However, his engagement with refuse has a particular resonance within the context of contemporary culture, which has an inexhaustible need to consume. Cavanough’s artistic rearticulation of the discarded commodity contains a potent reminder of the material consequences of consumer culture.

For Cavanough there are no rules governing the provenance of creative media. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman this is what his practice shares with play. “Play is free,” writes Bauman—free from regulation, and from rationality. The true role of art resonates in Cavanough’s impulses towards play. Art should be gratuitous. This is not to say that art lacks any serious intent, but to position art as something separate from the demands of the market which have increasingly encroached upon its territory. It should not conform to any conventional trajectory of production, distribution, and consumption. It should refuse the logic of any official economy.

Cavanough is homo ludens—he who plays. His art revels in the ludic, playing with our expectations about the function of everyday objects. It disorganises the order of things. Materials are appropriated and reinvented, applied in ways for which they were not designed. Cavanough’s Clouded Signals do not work to orientate us, to produce communication informing us what is, or is not, art. Instead, the transmissions have become pleasurably scrambled, confusing our expectations in the most delightful way.


Kirsten Seale is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. Her thesis is on British writer Iain Sinclair and how his work engages with the overlapping notions of refuse and refusal.