Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the West End had been declared a quarantine zone since October, 2017. Bold yellow strips adorn the streets and buildings in an apparently random design from the Round House to the Town Hall. From street level, the saffron bands sneak up onto the façades like sunrise breaking onto the town, and streak the eaves like neon headbands. Yet as is true of many of life’s great epiphanies, going “up to the mountain” reveals an entirely new perspective. In this case, the vantage point is located on the eastern side of the Round House, facing back down High Street, where all at once, the arbitrary stripes coalesce into concentric rings of colour and light. If one is not already puffing as a result of mounting the steep stone steps onto the rudimentary landing, the glorious sight that opens up before the viewer is certain to leave one breathless.
This is the Arc d’Ellipses, an ambitious work by Paris-based artist, Felice Varini (1952 – ). Spanning 800 metres and taking a month to install, 25 heritage buildings in the West End have become the erstwhile canvas of this talented artist, known internationally for marrying the elliptical with the architectural. According to the Fremantle Festival website, this is Varini’s first major Australian commission and his largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The assignment formed part of the inaugural High Tide 17 that saw a number of local and international artists join forces in the Fremantle biennale, using the unique West End landscape as a backdrop. The High Tide event “host[ed] the best in site-responsive art”.
Indeed, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Arc d’Ellipses installation is that not only is it responsive to the environment in terms of the manner in which is cascades down High Street like light through a tunnel, but also one needs to be physically situated at one of Fremantle’s most iconic landmarks in order to make sense of the sunny lines that at ground level form almost no meaningful shape or purpose. This is in fact no accident, as Varini is famous for his urban artworks uniting from a single vantage point, ‘from which the viewer can see the complete painting (usually a simple geometric shape such as circle, square, line), while from other viewpoints the viewer will see ‘broken’ fragmented shapes’. The whole picture is however, vital to appreciate as Varini stresses the importance of both the complete shape and the fragments. For Varini, what matters is “what happens outside the vantage point of view”.
Astonishingly, Varini doesn’t begin or end with the viewer in mind since according to him, he has no idea where a viewer might stand to view the work. Even Varini himself tends to contemplate the proposed angles from eye level, without direct reference in the beginning to the vantage point. The abstracted manner in which the lines or partial shapes play on the buildings hold far greater interest. Viewers may be aware of these abstractions; may view them and try to decipher pattern or meaning, may seek out the vantage point or ignore it, or may pay no heed at all. For the artist it is all the same. It seems that absenting oneself from the abstraction is as much a response as immersing oneself in it.
Newly armed with this research on Varini’s approach to his work, I head back to the streets with my camera and a refreshed perspective. Rather than wandering towards the Round House, I stand between Cliff and Mouat Streets before heading west towards the railway crossing, doubling back after a time as far as Packenham Street, trying to hold the word “fragments” at the forefront of my mind.
At first I notice nothing very remarkable; rectangles that are more or less narrow, elongated triangles indicating round corners, balcony railings lined up like jaundiced barber poles sashed and slashed with golden bands.
Fragments … fragments …
A stray stripe like an arrow head streaks across the pavement. The paint has chipped off leaving a jagged edge. The sole of a runner is imprinted across it in dust. Its once bright veneer is dull against the red brick paving. By contrast, still-bright rays stream from ground to gutter on the nearby chapel wall like a vector.
I begin to recall reported facts about Varini’s method – that he considers himself a painter rather than an installation artist, and that he contrasts himself with other painters who begin with reality and seek to reproduce it, whereas he begins with the reality of the landscape, paints onto it, and then lets the landscape shape different aspects of that reality according to the space and light. As I consider this, the backwash of the setting sun casts a gleam across High Street. Varini’s arc is semi-bathed in patchy light. The splashes of formerly uniform colour adorning the very tops of the buildings seem variegated, with tones ranging from pale lemon to deep gold. This is an altered perspective. It is a collection of fragments united in a burst of light. It is a momentary insight into the wonder of examining parts as they contribute to an understanding of the whole, though the whole may remain unknown or unseen.
Walking back up High Street I reflect on the broken lives of the convict inhabitants who created the more permanent installation across the railway line. I wonder if even one of them gazed from the vantage point of Arthur’s Head back towards the land, and saw a future coalescing into a pattern full of shape and light.