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Biggles, Crop Duster Pilot

Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects #2

Installation by Malcolm Bywaters

“My father was a tail gunner in a B24 ‘Liberator’ bomber in World War II. I was one of those little boys who grew up in the shadow of a great war. Like Malcom Bywaters, I was fascinated with the idea of flight and also read Captain W.E. Johns’ Biggles books voraciously so the inclusion of this installation in the Kelly’s Garden Curated Program has deep and special significance for me.

Male childhood in the fifties in Australia was dominated for me by the twin ambitions of becoming either a pilot or a Test cricketer, or both if possible – Biggles could certainly have achieved that. My nights were spent absorbed in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, that bizarre and eclectic collection of scraps of knowledge from every source and of course the ‘Boys Own’ Albums. It was all very British, all very gung ho, fair play and morality expressed in physical action. The same romantic vision which produced these cultural templates also underpinned the World War I recruiting poster exhorting young men to join up with the catch cry, ‘To Arms, Play the Game’ stressing the ‘sporting’ aspect of involvement in war. This was the crudely romantic appeal that demonstrated the huge gulf between the dream and the reality of mud, guts and pointless slaughter on the Western Front and Gallipoli.

Aviation was less than 5 years old at the start of World War I and hardly even a viable means of transport at the time. By the War’s end it was a refined and deadly instrument, its development accelerated by the pressure of need. Planes were first used for reconnaissance and observation, until someone dropped a brick from one at another, a small act but a huge conceptual leap at one stroke destroying the ‘innocence’ of the aeroplane, implicating it into the world of weapons.

As boys we admired the rapid technological advance of aviation and its products such as the Supermarine Spitfire, even the dreaded Messerschmitt ME 15 and the seductive form of the Vulcan Jet. There was something special about those early planes. The flimsiness yet reliability of the Sopwith Camel and later the Tiger Moth, which was somehow closer to us. Their construction utilised canvas, plywood, wire and ash. They were made of readily available materials. These craft were in fact ‘organic’ in their nature, flexible, creaking, tough, raw – at the same time incredibly delicate and vulnerable. The Tiger Moth, the ‘model’ for Malcom Bywaters’ sculpture in this installation, was the one we knew best. It was the one that became the flight trainer after the war, the one that landed on the local recreation ground, the tough little stayer, often lasting many years longer than their expected life spans. This was the one we got to sit in at the country show, awed by the raw solid simplicity of the controls, the pared-down minimalism of its design. It was also the one you could make a model of yourself, out of many of the same things used to construct the actual plane. This plane was the least thing one could have to be airborne, it’s essentialism, it’s aesthetic of necessity, it’s ‘honesty’ was it’s charm.

Malcom Bywaters has fixed on this object for many reasons, certainly an abiding nostalgia drives his vision but the realisation is as much about the sculptural issues inherent in the subject. The Tiger Moth exemplifies the Bauhaus principle of form following function, like most aircraft, but it is the reductionism of it which provides it with that essentialism which creates an archetypal form. Unlike modern aircraft the relation between form and function in the Tiger Moth is at all times completely visible, with no disjuncture between what it does and the means by which that is achieved. It is in effect a completely ‘transparent’ object. It creates no mystery, it’s bones are as obvious as its skin. It’s operation and interconnections are all quite visible. It is an object which has not yet been removed from our sphere. We can know it, we can fix it, we can therefore ‘own’ it in every sense, and I suppose we can trust it too and be responsible for its ongoing reliable operation. This form of interaction with technology has all but gone.

The significance of this should not be underestimated. This object speaks of a time before the disjuncture between technology and the average person. Technology is now the province of others, we partake only as consumers, we know our machines and tools only as operators, that’s where the engagement ends. They break, we throw them away, they wear out, we replace them. Our ambivalence towards contemporary technology is therefore inevitable. We love the new toy while it works, we hate it when it does not. We cannot intervene to know and work with it, it remains the ‘other’ – removed from our field of action and knowledge, we can never ‘own’ the products of technology in the same way again.

In this way it makes perfect sense when a person loves an old car or plane. Because a relationship is occurring, one can invest oneself in it, one trusts one’s life to it. The person and the machine are therefore tied at a very deep level, and one is truly an expression of the other.

Bywaters’ planes express themselves as sculpture through a number of mechanisms. The scale is about two-thirds life size so that they carry a clear sense of the visual impact of the motif yet are clearly not a facsimile. The scale is large enough to remove it from the idea of simply being a model. The uniformity of colour and surface also stress that this is sculpture as it allows us to concentrate on more purely formal considerations. Finally the materials stress something of the ‘can-do’ contingency of the era it evokes. Sitting in a walled space there is a hint of the magical, the collision of the concepts of freedom as evoked by the plane and containment imposed by the space. The incongruity of this relationship adds a poignant note to the installation. Is that a bridge to the nostalgic, are we left longing?

Childhood passes and its evocation through such installations as this are worth consideration. The revisiting of past obsessions in this way is not revisiting the past, it is more a visit to the world of the past imagination. If the child remains alive in the man then giving voice to the obsession with archetypal forms such as this allows that connection to remain open. Is there pathos in this method? Perhaps, nostalgia is always longing after something that probably never was. There was no golden dawn, no alligators were slain and maybe no-one got to soar above the clouds but there was belief through imagination and the death most to be feared is the death of that imagination.”

 – Seán Kelly, Curator

Friday 6 February – Friday 6 March 2009
Monday – Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm

Friday 6 February 2009 @ 5:30pm
Exhibition to be opened by Seán Kelly

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Biography : Malcom Bywaters

Malcom Bywaters is presently undertaking a PhD with The University of Melbourne researching the use of the home and domestic space in Australian visual culture. In the past twenty five years he has held fourteen solo shows and been selected for numerous group exhibitions. His work is in the collections of Artbank, Bundanon Trust, Ballarat University, Wesley College, Camberwell Grammar and Scotch Oakburn College. He is presently the Director of the Academy Gallery and Drawing Coordinator in the School of Visual and Performing Arts, University of Tasmania. Malcom Bywaters is represented by Gallery 101, Melbourne, Victoria.

Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects is an initiative of The Salamanca Arts Centre and made possible through the generosity of Aspect Design and fundraising from SAC’s Supporters at the SAC Quiz Night. This Project was assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for Tourism and the Arts.

Image Credits: Fiona Fraser

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