WindWells: Channeling and Divining, 2010. Mixed media, detail of installation.

Pat Hoffie and the Sublime Impossible

In a lush Japanese forest, adjacent to the Yokohama Zoo, Pat Hoffie’s Harvester for Disappearing Dreams of Wildness invited participants to trap and share the essence of captive animals’ dreams. Gathered in remote funnels placed throughout the forest, these dreams, caught by viewers standing on a mechanism powered by bodyweight, connected animals and humans through the potent need for freedom. During a 30-year career, Hoffie has thus evolved into a postmodern bruja, conjuring work along the fluid boundaries between art, science, and magic, fact and fiction, past, present, and future.

Much has been written about Hoffie’s work in terms of cross-cultural, first and third world relations in the Asia Pacific region. As an Australian artist dedicated to interpreting the transition from cultural to capital economies and to shedding light on histories of unfair labor practices and social injustice, she has succeeded in offering an “aesthetic of challenge that wants to antagonize and rebuild connections between art and life.” Just as important is the role of her collaborations in providing pathways for reintroducing disconnected elements of the past back into present parlance, thus reordering hierarchies of art history and cultural interaction. Her ability to create alternate worlds woven from collective memory, contemporary tropes, and emotional longing, combined with wit, irony, and forceful visuality, makes her inquiry anomalous—all the better to create “a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit.”

Harvester for Disappearing Dreams of Wildness, 2009. Mixed media, detail of installation.

Hoffie considers it a badge of honor that a “willful mistranslation” of accepted canons characterizes much Australian art, supporting a community of eccentric, progressive contrarians creating in many fields. The Australian version of Modernism bypasses most of the purity and formalism of Greenbergian aesthetics as it reigned in the U.S. because the type of exclusivity pursued by Greenberg doesn’t appeal to the “famous Australian taciturnity [that] would seem to embody a profound skepticism about generalized explanations of any kind.”3 Australian artists have traveled and worked in Europe, the U.S., and in Asia. Some returned, others became ex-pats, but on the whole, they have fashioned their own unique journey through the maze of 20th-century art movements, Eastern and Western.

While the Australian art world has been an active, though distant, participant in international dialogue, globalization has brought the rest of the country face to face with the past, as well as with the need to develop a voice within the world community.

In Hoffie’s universe, the Euclidean is just another system of organization, and the non-linear holds sway. By destabilizing the sequential and decentralizing normative uses of space—all within a mode of play that becomes serious, but freed from making a “claim…[of] authoritative completeness”—Hoffie has most recently pursued issues such as the origin of knowledge and the formation of cultural identity.4 The seduction implied by Hoffie’s work—and it is seductive—is not a re-aggregation of community or self, but the possibility of creating an engaged state of being that will satisfy that longing, or hope. Any stasis is denied: movement, chaos, and imaginative play are the sustaining attributes chased by Hoffie—for herself, her collaborators, and her audience.

WindWells: Channeling and Divining (2010), which brought together a huge group of people and resources from the State Library of Queensland, culminated in a site-specific installation celebrating the state’s use of windmills to access water. An exploration of magic, 19th-century spiritualism, and showmanship in colonial Australia, the installation presented the physical result of research undertaken at the library’s archives. Set in a darkened room the size of a small airplane hangar, projected archival film footage showed factory workers fabricating windmills. Hoffie also installed a full-size windmill, gramophone-like amplification bells connected by velvet-covered pipes, arcing Jacob’s ladders, and cylindrical “wells” consisting of hundreds of stacked, fanned-out books. Water diviners spun circles on refitted turntables, while a soundscape of gears and resonating guitar tones filled the room, and viewers’ silhouettes were flung against clouds that evolved cinematically on the walls, evoking departed spirits. In referencing historical public figures who served as conduits between the believable and the bizarre (including Professor J.H. Pepper, who played the first gramophone in Queensland before a paying audience and who attempted cloud-seeding with dynamite), Hoffie set up a metaphorical mirror questioning assumptions about truth and fiction, as well as the norms that fall somewhere between the two on the spectrum of belief. She also underscored the ironic fact that indigenous cultures have long held the secret to finding water—and that such knowledge was overlooked or destroyed to support a different cultural knowledge and identity.

“Planet Ueno: a Cross-Cultural Exchange Project,” Hoffie’s 2009 collaboration with Queensland College of Art and Geidai University of the Arts in Tokyo, sought to “actively cultivate…mistranslations as fertile places for play and imaginative interpretation.”5 Acting on the notion that gaps in understanding are an “inevitable part of any cross-cultural or transnational experience,” Japanese art students explored the streets of Tokyo’s Ueno district, treating the experience as if it were a first encounter with a new world.6 During their reconnaissance, they documented their findings against a checklist of anthropological touchstones in an effort to revisit the empirical methods of information gathering employed by colonialism and ethnography. As a serio-comic meeting with the Other, “Planet Ueno” produced responsive artworks outside the categories of normal production, including a slice of dried fish (which participants mistook for a piece of beautifully carved cedar) and a series of images documenting structures at a Shinto shrine that appeared to be centuries old, but were recent additions built in an effort to pass down traditional values of craftsmanship, order, and place. A visit to a graveyard resulted in a soft fabric sculpture of a grave marker, which led to a comparison between Eastern and Western practices, shocking Japanese participants when they learned that not all cultures ritually visit and honor dead ancestors on an annual basis.

War Ears, 2011. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

Ultimately, for Hoffie, “all art-making brings you home.”7 But instilling a sense of magic while simultaneously confronting the dark side of Australia’s past is no easy feat. Her 2009 performance at Fort Lytton, Troop Drill, was staged at dusk on the mouth of the Brisbane River. Built in 1881 and used for the defense of Brisbane until the end of World War II, the fort occupies a site with a complicated history. Once a traditional crossing for Aboriginal inhabitants, then the mustering ground for Queensland’s far-flung light brigade regiments, it is now a national park. The concrete structure’s pentagonal plan creates a natural, grass-floored amphitheater, and Hoffie used this space to choreograph the thundering entrance of 16 horses, accompanied by the sounds of didgeridoo, bagpipe, and electric guitar. As hundreds of spectators watched the horses and riders move through their paces, archival footage of the Australian Light Brigade was projected into the live performance, creating a visceral, eerie meeting of past and present redolent with the anarchy of ’60s Happenings. Nostalgia was not the goal: Hoffie sought to use the power and bulk of the animals, the anachronism of a leisure-time reenactment of defense training, and the site’s potent aura to give participants a connection to place: “So many aspects of the site are powerful—the indigenous heritage, the idea of a ‘ruin’ in a place like Queensland, the reminder of the futility of ‘keeping out’ anything…the fact that things surface many years after a war that somehow are conducive to community.”

Hoffie’s kinetic works draw an immediate connection to the sculptures of Jean Tinguely. But while Tinguely’s work assumes a cool, Modernist stance of dry wit and intellectual remove, Hoffie’s constructions resonate with warmth and humanity—though a strong dose of steampunk sets them in an ambiguous, almost fantastic timeframe that remains difficult to pin down. Madame Illuminata Crack’s Phantasmagorical Armchair Invention for an Ecologically Sustainable Future (2008), fabricated from discarded gym equipment and old violins, was designed and built to endlessly saw a tune. This Rube Goldberg-like contraption sat before a slideshow of hybridized Constructivist graphics morphed with 19th- and early 20th-century archival photographs of indentured laborers (most of whom were “blackbirded” or kidnapped) working Australian sugar cane fields. Since Hoffie’s work comments on leisure activities as an outgrowth of free time, it has been described by Australians as “bolshy”—partially because of its direct take on injustice, but mostly because it stands out from the crowd, not pulling any punches in a culture that holds deep respect for the polite demur from strong, publicly stated opinion when the desires of the majority are openly questioned.

Carnivale Extremis (2010) and fugue for submerged memories (2010) were installed at the Woodford Folk Festival as part of the “Utopia/Dystopia/Disturbia” visual arts and performance project curated by Hoffie and others. These kinetic works celebrated Bakhtin’s carnivalesque ethos, the former with acrobatic medieval imagery of demons, animals, and angels, the latter mysteriously summoning up a fugue-state or “refuge in an in-between realm… between the rational world and a dream.”9 fugue consisted of two partially submerged pianos fitted with insect-like appendages that continuously clacked out a mournful tune; scattered across the pond, the strings of 32 violins vibrated in the wind. At the festival’s end, fugue was set on fire and blazed on the water’s surface before eventually sinking.

Disastabah, 2011–12. Mixed media, dimensions variable.

In Hoffie’s installations, space is crossed and felt through physical structure, narrative, and imagination. The participant’s journey not only resembles the multi-layered processes of life, but also activates the installation, providing the energy necessary to transform the coordinates set up by the artist into a whole, turning the historical context of the work into what Paul Carter calls a “spatial history” in which events unfold, rather than a diorama to be viewed.

Hoffie offers no empirical cause-and-effect rationale: her work combines the intellectual and the formal, the feral and the poetic. Consistently rebellious, refreshing, and thought-provoking, it tackles what it really means to be alive today—to synthesize the vast deluge of interdependent bits of media, imagery, information, and cultures and to come to terms with an understanding of community and one’s place within it.

Hoffie has recently installed a major sculptural work, Disastabah, at the Woodford Folk Festival and War Ears at the Swell Sculpture Festival. you gotta love it, her January 2013 installation at Artspace in Sydney, once again saw her stirring the pot. She commissioned Balinese wood carvers to replicate a series of crude bumper stickers popular with Aussie tourists vacationing in Bali. Phrases such as “Harden Up Princess” were combined with stereotypical tourist imagery, while “Fuck Off We’re Full” was accompanied by an emu and a kangaroo, Australia’s official animals. Here, the desirability of traditional craft was transformed into ugly truth, and faux souvenirs became complex objects embodying the inevitable missteps of cultural exchange.

Carol Schwartzman is a writer living near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia.