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Undaunted by Archibald controversy, Agatha Gothe-Snape has two new art projects

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What a difference a fortnight makes. 

Two weeks ago, artist Agatha Gothe-Snape was in the midst of an uproar when a portrait of her, painted by partner Mitch Cairns, won the Archibald Prize and was immediately slammed by former winner and judge John Olsen as the worst decision he had ever seen.

Now Gothe-Snape has opened two new projects of her own in Sydney – an inventive sound-based work called Rhetorical Chorus at the Powerhouse Museum and a permanent public work in a Surry Hills laneway.

In the midst of double opening night excitement, Gothe-Snape said she and Cairns found themselves “pretty resilient” to the criticism that followed the Archibald win – helped by avoiding the controversy on social media.

“I know that the painting is extraordinary and I also know that Mitch is an extraordinary painter so it didn’t really shake us,” Gothe-Snape said. “We just buckled down.”

The couple also saw criticism by Olsen as reflecting a generational change in Australian art.  

“The Archibald has always represented a particular world of painting and portraiture and perhaps that world is becoming more soupy and things are more connected now than they used to be,” Gothe-Snape said.

She also saw a positive coming out of the controversy – people all around the country were suddenly talking about art. 

In Rhetorical Chorus, part of a new exhibition called This Is A Voice at the Powerhouse, Gothe-Snape has worked with composer Megan Clune to translate hand gestures into a form of music. 

She studied online videos to see how the hands of one of her favourite artists, American Lawrence Weiner​, transmitted information as he spoke. 

“I was watching people talk and use their hands a lot,” Gothe-Snape said. “Imagine if we could just stop listening and they were actually conducting this choir as they were talking.

“What’s the inadvertent soundtrack which we’re all playing all the time?”

The system of translated hand gestures is displayed on flash cards in the exhibition. And a choir, conducted by American composer-performer Joan La Barbara, will perform the work at Carriageworks in October.

“There are some hand gestures that are almost a form of drawing in space – to demonstrate a physical idea,” Gothe-Snape said. “There are also moments when a hand gesture emphasises the crystallisation of an idea.

“Sometimes hand gestures empathise a moment of empathetic connection and they show the rising or the subduing of energy …

“They demonstrate both the emotional world of the speaker and also their desire to connect.”

This Is A Voice explores the power of human and artificial voices.

The exhibition includes a “talking machine” from 1845 that produced sounds by typing on a keyboard; a prototype artificial larynx; a sound sculpture that features uploaded wishes by exhibition visitors; a video of an “accent removal training session”; an analysis of a police transcript; and, in a program of performances, a 24-hour concert by a “citizens choir” at Sydney Observatory.

Curator Katie Dyer describes it as an acoustic journey. 

“People are very used to relying on their eyes,” she said. “A huge challenge in this show is to lead people by the ear – to get to them to focus in on their hearing.” 

Gothe-Snape’s other new project is Here, An Echo, a permanent public artwork in Wemyss Lane, Surry Hills, that was developed as part of a collaboration between the City of Sydney and the Biennale. 

Over a series of daily walking performances last year, she came up with words and phrases that reflect the city’s past, present and future.  

“I thought what a beautiful place to have an open-ended poem that you can walk through,” Gothe-Snape said. 

This Is A Voice is at the Powerhouse Museum until January 28 next year. Here, An Echo is open in Wemyss Lane, Surry Hills.



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