I have to admit to not having visited the Fremantle Arts Centre in some time. The last time might have been to hear Cat Empire or attend a wedding. Its multifarious uses still astonish me slightly, and today is no exception. A marquis awning in a state of undress and stretching the length of the high stone wall seems to be the remains or the promise of a market stall. A curtained-off lecture is in full swing in the smaller courtyard. The main foyer sports an enticing array of inky-papery-scented publications that have attracted a throng. Beyond these display tables, a steady flow of workers enter and leave the closed galleries where a new Aboriginal art exhibition “Revealed”, is being hung.
I find myself simultaneously excluded and caught up in the activity. It’s something like being at an old familiar relative’s house with a new generation of children. As it turns out, this analogy is not entirely misguided.
During my childhood, the Fremantle Museum (a.k.a. the Maritime Museum, the Lunatic Asylum, and the Fremantle Arts Centre) was open long hours and was free. It was the perfect place for our mother to drop us off in the morning and pick us up in the late afternoon. We’d take a packed lunch, complete the museum quizzes, and collect the shiny technicolour museum photos that you glued with Clag into a cardboard folio. If the pages weren’t perfectly dry before you closed it, that book was closed for good! The Fremantle Museum quiz books came in different colours indicating gradations of age and difficulty, but we spent so much time among the exhibits, we could all complete the “young adult” sheets standing in the front foyer by the time we were in middle primary. We made friends with the university students employed to check the quizzes, helped other children spell tricky words like “adz”, and ran amok between the shipwreck replicas tethered in the museum grounds.
I am standing in that same foyer with the stone floor contemplating the “Galleries Closed” sign when another patron enquires as to the location of the rest rooms. I decide to follow her out. United in our quest to find the turn-off to the Ladies’, the patron tells me she’s attending a reading upstairs, above the closed gallery. I tell her that the place feels strangely unrecognisable with its recent refurbishments. She’s surprised that I know it; she’s never visited before. Oddly, as it now seems, I recount to her that it was a shipwreck museum in my time, and before that a Lunatic Asylum, perhaps at one time a sanatorium. She remarks on how at one time sanatoriums were everywhere, and yet our understanding of mental health is on the wane. She wonders aloud whether the gallery contains any history of the asylum days, and I point to the wing where once the “cell room” stood.
A remnant of its days as a lunatic asylum, one of the Museum’s rooms housed a padded cell with a drop-down metal bunk (complete with suspension chain), and a shackle and heavy metal links. If that was not enough to set the imagination into a frenzy, the curators had thrown in a straitjacket replete with original sweat marks (and we thought we detected blood stains too), and a solitary threadbare blanket. It was grim! The cell had a heavy metal studded door that was on a working hinge and the temptation to shut each other in the cell was impossible to resist. The cell walls were painted black and there was no natural light. Once you closed the door it was pitch dark. Even as children, we realised it was completely foolhardy to shut the door tight. We knew full well that closing someone in a cupboard, wardrobe, refrigerator or heck, padded cell, was potentially going to require a visit from the fire brigade. We didn’t want to cause a raucous. We just wanted to take turns doing dark time in the cell alone, and to this end it was the job of the siblings outside the door variously to count how long you could last in there, and to position a foot or several fingers in the jamb to ensure that the door didn’t completely shut. To be honest, the Museum had probably taken all necessary precautions, but we didn’t know that, and the excitement was absolutely, one hundred percent, unbeatable! Why the Museum staff never asked us if we’d been abandoned by our parents, or bailed my mother up to reprimand her for using them as a babysitter for four of her kids, I will never know. Collectively we were pretty young; aged between about seven and eleven. Nowadays the department of child protection would have been alerted. In the free-flowing 70s no one batted an eyelid. We came and went and quizzed and “padded celled” to our hearts’ content.
My erstwhile friend makes her way to the reading convinced of a detour to the wing in question, if it’s at all accessible. I head back into the main foyer and turn left. Left was not a way I remember ever being able to turn. I could be wrong, but in my hazy memory the reception desk once extended along the wall and the left-hand door was sealed to the public. Veering left feels exciting and mysterious especially as the current exhibition, “Sensual Nature”, employs sheer white linen in place of solid doors. The corridor to the exhibits is narrow and sterile. There are no corners and an excess of rooms. A broad staircase set into an alcove curves up and disappears suddenly from view.
In every respect it has the hallmark of a healthcare establishment. It reminds me of Heathcote or Woodside, where I was born. Bygone interiors. Initially I reach the limits of the corridor without recognising that the white curtains are invitations to enter. I backtrack and tentatively lift the edge of the fabric. It is cool and light to the touch; I imagine this is how it would feel if one could touch “fresh”. It’s like sliding between clean sheets. I hold the fabric momentarily and sense its almost weightlessness against my fingers. “Sensual Nature” – I’m still handling the linen when I notice the title board. Backtrack again. This method is curiously unsystematic for me, but I’m glad of the information the panel provides.
The exhibition is quite minimalist, and the interpretive description of the intention proves helpful. Twelve artists have contributed; five from WA including Lia McKnight, whose original idea has been realised through this collaboration. The pieces are incredibly lovely and provocative and yes, sensual. The materials are read about not felt, yet the descriptions invoke such texture as can be caressed with the imagination: glass, lead, fur, organza, silk thread, seeds, flowers, resin, hide, wool, tusk, wood, porcelain… A “Please do not touch” bill is adhered to the same wall as a display of clay objects. In this uber-tactile environment, it is a force of will to comply. Folding my itching fingertips against my sides, I contemplate an amazing pastel wall sculpture of tumbling fur and tusk and glass, and wonder at the contrast of this serendipitous encounter with an exhibition I didn’t know beforehand was showing, and yesterday’s deliberate adventure to the Corsini exhibition at the WA Art Gallery. Each one was powerful in its own way and each left its own impression. How important it is to seek art out and to find it when we can around any and every corner, to celebrate the local and the far-flung, the fabricated and the natural, and to revisit old haunts for a new, if disquieting, reinterpretation of the familiar.
Exhibition images courtesy of Fremantle Arts Centre. Photography by Jessica Wyld.
Banner image by Steve Doig Photography.