Stephen Vitiello: Better Out Than In

Posted on August 15, 2010

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Steven Vitiello, The Sound of Red Earth, 2010. Photo: TC.

Perky interior designers on the telly are fond of talking about “bringing the outside in.” Now I like a pot plant in the lounge room as much as the next person, but in the case of the latest Kaldor Public Art Project at least, the outside would have been better left out.

American sound artist Steven Vitiello was invited to create Kaldor Project number 20. His piece, The Sound of Red Earth, is at Sydney Park in St Peters. Kaldor kick-started his philanthropic public art project back in 1969 when he brought Christo and Jean Claude to Sydney and they wrapped the coast of Little Bay.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Coast – one million square feet, 1969. Copyright Christo 1969. Photo: Wolfgang Wolz.

Kaldor Project number 1 was by all accounts amazing. Even the photos are impressive and people of a certain age, who were lucky enough to see it or even volunteer on the project, still go on and on about it. Wrapped Coast became a pivotal moment for the Australian art scene, and a hard act to follow.

Vitiello’s installation doesn’t come close. He presents a highly mediated encounter with nature installed in the domed rooms of the brickworks which resemble darkened tunnels, like man-made caves. Vitiello went to the Kimberly and came back with recordings of birds, water and wind. Each room is colour-coded thanks to bright RGB lights that would look more at home in a police disco circa 1982. The red room has bird songs (and bells, somewhat inexplicably) and red dirt on the floor, the yellow/green room plays water sounds with sand underfoot, the lavender room has wind recordings and grey gravel. It’s all pleasant enough, but (aside from the bells) just so obvious. In fact, given our impending ecological meltdown, the ‘for whom the bell tolls’ bells are kinda obvious too.

Art thrives on ambiguity. Without it there is no space for imagination. Vitiello’s piece is about as subtle as being hit over the head with a hammer. It’s like poetry without all the poetic bits; pointless.

And, all lack of  subtlety aside,  I can’t shake the niggling thought, “We are in a park. If we want to hear nature why not just step back outside?”

One little fern really did bring the outside in. Photo: TC.

But I did find one poignant element in The Sound of Red Earth, made all the more moving by the fact that it had nothing to do with the artwork. In the darkened dome of the lavender room a single fern has taken root in a crack in the bricks. A real piece of nature, not mediated by culture, but existing in spite of it, in defiance; nature’s reconnaissance scout on a mission, poised to reclaim her territory.

Tracey Clement

Steven Vitiello‘s, The Sound of Red Earth is on at Sydney Park in St Peters until September 12, 2010.

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Posted in: The Ugly