Feature Article

Fakeology centre stage

Syndicate lll: The Council, by Stuart Elliott explores intentionally-obscure histories and realities in the third commission by philanthropist group the Syndicate.

Lloyd Horn and artist Stuart Elliott in his Hills studio with Syndicate lll: The Council. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Four years in the making, Syndicate lll: The Council by Stuart Elliott makes its debut at Bunbury Regional Art Galleries in November, followed by a showing in Perth at Turner Galleries next April. It’s the much-anticipated third commission by the Syndicate, a group of like-minded philanthropists who offer a selected artist time to focus on a body of work. After being exhibited, each member then receives an equal portion of the work.

Founder-member Lloyd Horn says artists sign a contract with Syndicate members outlining payments, artwork brief (works must be life-sized figures), and contract time. “It’s two years in the agreement, but it’s very flexible. It’s been four years since the agreement with Stuart was signed. The first commission with Simon Gilby was five years in the end, as the exhibition also toured Australia. The second commission with Peter Dailey was about four years from start to finish. Initially, we had no idea it would be any more than one project, but it worked so well, we just kept going. The whole idea of the commission is to give the artist the freedom and time to create. I always impress upon Syndicate members it’s all about the artist, and owning a work at the end of the project is really a bonus.”

Elliott’s commission consists of ten figures, one for each member who signed the contract. Deciding who eventually owns which work is by ballot. The first name drawn out of the hat has first choice, and so on, until one work remains. “It’s worked out really well every time and no one has been disappointed with what they’ve received, right down to the last choice.”

Syndicate lll: The Council, (Leyland, foreground, and Savo at right) by Stuart Elliott. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

For Elliott, it seemed like an interesting opportunity - that is, until he started. “The first one I tried to make, I worked on every day for about eight weeks. It got to the point where I thought, ‘I really hate this thing, I’m over it, and now I have to do it ten times as well?’ So I had a real rethink and went back to some work I’d made a long time ago as prototypes, and used these as a reference. I didn’t like the medium I’d started with, so I junked that, and did some more experiments until I got to the point of building them in a way I liked, which was also do-able for each figure.”

Based on fakeology, in this case bogus archaeology, the ten figures (based on a chess set, plus two) have accessories significant to their character. Elliot added a legal/publicity person and a security advisor to the set. The resulting works reference a myriad of ideas: a Bishop/shaman character titled Magus refers to the John Fowls story The Magus, which explores our need for magic to exist and the generous supply of people willing to sell it to us. Magus’ accessories include a bat, a pocket mace, two wing forms and two bone shapes. At first glance the apparently fearsome creature, baring large teeth, could be very much at home in a sci-fi movie. Elliott says earlier in his 40-year-plus career he went through a stage of including teeth in his work. A stage when he says when he was angry and confused. “Now I’m just confused,” he adds chuckling. “The teeth included in Magus are mostly herbivore’s teeth, and none of them join up. The only thing it could chew would be an outsized lamington. Each figure also has brocade over its clothes integral to its persona. On Magus, it’s modelled after bark trees and lightning bolts. The idea is he connects the turbulence of the sky and the solidity of the ground.”

The works were created using welded-steel framework, mesh, plaster for the body shape, and cotton for the skin. The heads, feet and hands are carved wood. The ten figures, all seated on stools, are accompanied by a suite of wall works relating to each one. He’s quick to point out there are no found objects in the work, with everything being manufactured. “It’s not because I’m some kind of loony DIY freak, but often if you’re actually contriving a situation, as soon as you introduce found objects, which all have a history themselves, then you set up a tension. And that tension isn’t always helpful.”

Arcane in appearance, the hybridised figures allude to a history and reality intentionally obscure. Elliott says he wished to convey a group of people earnestly involved with something unclear to the onlooker. “I like the idea of a group of people arriving at a certain decision by any number of means who are supposed to represent a community. But what does this mean? Often there are vested interests, but then there are also lots of people who are altruistic and idealistic who try to make the world a better place, hence the work became titled The Council.”

Syndicate lll: The Council, (Magus) by Stuart Elliott. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Elliott has exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria, Singapore National Gallery and in Sydney, Darwin, Taiwan, China and Hungary, as well as showing at a number of galleries in WA. Along the way, he adds, he has managed to “artfully avoid excessive fame or fortune.” His works are in collections such as the Art Gallery of WA, University of WA, BankWest and the Holmes à Court Collection.

The exhibition of Syndicate lll: The Council coincides with Art Angel Editions, also on show at Bunbury Regional Art Galleries. The show celebrates 15 years of Turner Galleries Art Angels sponsoring residencies in Perth. Since 2002, through Art Angels memberships, three artists a year have been given up to a month-long residency, and a solo exhibition at Turner. In return, each artist created limited-edition prints for Art Angels’ members.

As for Elliott, he says The Council is the largest project he’s ever attempted. “It was a bit like the forest and the trees to start with, but the lack of pressure to finish was really quite helpful and crucial. In terms of material and focus, it’s absolutely the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”

Syndicate lll: The Council is on show at Bunbury Regional Art Galleries from 25 November until 4 February.

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