Rafaat Ishak’s exhibition, Chicken River, is an extension of Ishak’s ongoing artful narration on creating and understanding identity. What is striking about Chicken River is the use of scale in the pairing of a colossal installation with a suite of small, detailed canvas paintings. The intricate paintings repeat a mosaic like set of shapes that are superficially unrelated and obfuscate clear connection. However, ultimately, the experience of consuming and making meaning of these pieces as a singular work mirrors the artist’s enduring commentary on the formation of identity, and meaning, through diverse and far-removed origins.
The first piece, and the exhibition’s namesake, is Ishak’s faulty staircase in timber, coated in bright white acrylic paint. The hefty structure rises mightily from the floor to the gallery’s ceiling. The staircase, an overdetermined architectural structure, is fraught with cultural and psychological symbolism. The Penrose Stairs, featured in M. C. Escher’s Ascending and Descending (1960) portrays an interminable commute; invoking futility for its subjects who traverse the unending circuit. In the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel represents pride and arrogance in humankind’s attempt to ascend to heaven. Inarchitecture, not only can stairs be a cosmetic feature, they can play into the philosophy of vertical circulation and catalyse considerations of accessibility and equality. For Organisation for Future Good Steps (2008), Ishak installed a set of stairs into a public laneway in central Melbourne. The staircase was lodged up high, unreachable and missing multiple steps and a handrail. The inaccessible staircase represents both movement and immobility; ascent and descent.
In Chicken River, the faulty staircase leading to nowhere evokes both the spectre of ascent or progress, and its apparent futility. The absence of steps and missing balustrades in Ishak’s staircase foreshadows faultiness and error. On the underside of the staircase, affixed below the uppermost step, is a chicken-shaped coin bank. This small, concealed element of the installation only greets the discerning viewer. It is tempting to interpret it as a footnote containing underhand fine-print inviting levity. Other than a conspicuous reference to the work’s title, and a hint of farce, the poultry piggybank evokes an element of commerce or consumerism hidden in the under crevices of the artistic display. This impossible staircase, with elements of absurdity, looms large over the balance of the exhibition.
A suite of eight paintings flank the installation. The disparate scale of the paintings against the colossal staircase is provocative. The physical scale of the works lends a surreal element to the viewers’ experience. Without a rational or literal link initially offered between the bold singular architectural structure and the intricate repetitive images it accompanies, the imagination works to decipher meaning. The eight images depict a disorderly mosaic of overlapping objects on each canvas. The objects are familiar subjects, which Ishak has explored in many of his works, including those exhibited at Withdrawal Courtesies (30 June 2018 – 28 July 2018) at the Sutton Gallery – which were like preliminary drawings for Chicken River.
Searching for familiarity in the canvas reveals columnar structures, entablatures and pediments reminiscent of Greek architecture, revived in the United States and Northern Europe in the late 18th and early 19th Century. Evocation of this architectural movement brings with it the notion of a contemporary identity appropriated from another time and place. Vying for space is the Australian Air Force badge represented as a roundel and a wedge-tailed eagle in flight, silhouettes of an emu and a kangaroo emblematic of the Australian coat of arms, and a stencil-like rendering of an Australian warplane. A sense of great national pride is attributed to the Australian warplane industry historically. The symbols recall a colonial narrative that Australian identity has somehow been forged on foreign battlefields, remote and removed from where it exists.
Each canvas bears the name of the biological elements of a chicken: Eggs, Wings, Thighs, Offal, Breasts, Feathers, Bones, Manure. This precise and elemental moniker infuses the work with a sense of anatomy. The word ‘anatomy’ derives from the Greek words ‘ana’ meaning ‘up’ and ‘tomia’ meaning ‘cutting’. This fits in satisfyingly with the totality of Ishak’s work: its repetitive symbols, its contrasts and contradictions and its surreal scale is an intricate experience that invokes a rumination on the cutting down and building up of the anatomy of a whole.