In Your Dreams

Sama Hugo

At Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, 15 contemporary artists delve into the imaginative world of fairy-tales and altered realities.
In Your Dreams

Kate Shaw, Asdis (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Fehily Contemporary

Dreams, fables and imaginings are often regarded as childish distractions from the real world. In this exhibition at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, fifteen contemporary artists delve into the imaginative world of fairy-tales and altered realities.

 The creation of otherworldly landscapes link works by Stephen Bush and Kate Shaw. Bush’s Hold up the ladder to the glory land (2008), a large oil and enamel canvas, incorporates wildly coloured abstraction with realist elements of caves, alpine scenes and a watermill which all hover at differing depths to produce a hallucinogenic vision. Similarly Kate Shaw’s Björk (Birch) (2013) and Asdis (Goddess) (2013) reference real geographical formations of lakes, plateaus, and mountains and reimagine them in unnatural technicolour.


The strange associations that spring from dreams and the subconscious mind serve as creative inspiration in artistic movements like Surrealism and Dada. Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison operate in this mode playfully using a myriad of elements in their installation. Collages of nostalgic images of animals, circus performers, postcards, drawings and found objects are combined in whimsical and uncanny ways. Exotic fish float through sundrenched valleys while a hyena guards the steps of the Temple of Love at Versailles.

Fairy tales often serve to deliver cautionary warnings to children by incorporating dark and sinister subjects. Steaphon Paton’s bark sculpture Urban Doolagahi (2011) is a mythical figure from Victorian indigenous culture, a big-foot like giant with red eyes who steals children if they go wandering at night. Paton’s work reflects on his childhood memories while introducing an urban audience to local indigenous stories.

Transformation is often the crux of a good fairy tale. From a frog to a prince or a man to werewolf, the archetype of change appeals to our imagination. This is explored in You Were In My Dream (2010), an interactive stop motion animation, by collaborators Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine. Viewers become the lead character in a choose-your-own adventure style romp through an enchanted forest beautifully crafted from cardboard and felt textures. The viewer’s face is captured on live camera and transposed onto a young girl whose adventures see her morph into a bird, a snake, a monkey or a rabbit, and either eat or be eaten, fly, climb or dance, depending on the choices made by the participant.

An epic transformation also occurs in Night Walkers (2009), an animated projection work by Yandell Walton in collaboration with Tobias Edwards. Using the traditional visual mode of shadow puppetry, an atmospheric rain-swept night turns into a thriller-type scenario as a man in a hoodie walks on screen and changes into a fantastical monster with a long toothy snout and sharp pincers. 

As in fables, animals also feature heavily throughout the exhibition. Sally Smart is known for her multi-layered collages that create intriguing associations for the viewer. In her collage Performativity (in her nature) (2011) a spider-headed woman emerges, made up of many different elements. Defying categorisation, she steps forward out of the canvas as straight lines tumble away from her. Refusing to be caught within a frame, the work is a poignant reflection of imaginative conceptions of self.

A dreamlike animal kingdom materialises from the artist Kate Rhode’s imagination, creating visual spectacles with Rococo excess. In her resin sculpture Atlantis Fountain (2012) candy pink water flows down crystal encrusted blue and purple tiers. A serpentine-necked gazelle with long pointed horns gracefully perches on top, like the deity of a lost civilisation. Tarantula (2009) is an intricate diorama in which the Rhode has created pink and purple spiders and a glittering bird skeleton surrounded by silk flowers. The luridly artificial scene is encased under a glass dome commenting on traditions of classifying and examining lifeless specimens.

Sharon West’s Cook encounters a very large cane toad (2014) and Cook encounters a Koori woman and her child and their giant Budgies (2014) play with scale to create visual jokes with a serious undercurrent. West’s work responds to often fantastically imagined origin stories of Australia through her own absurdist narrative of our colonial history. Working with model making kits and photography, West re-constructs early contact stories between indigenous Australians and the British explorers mimicking historical dioramas found in museums. With these stories, West encourages us to reflect on the constructed narratives we were taught in our school days and ultimately to question their validity.

The curatorial theme of In Your Dreams is one that children will respond to, and for this reason there are didactic panels specifically addressing a younger audience. For adults, the exhibition is a chance to rediscover the stories of childhood and think about their continued significance. 

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

In Your Dreams
Curated by Edwina Bartlem and Victor Griss
Artists: Stephen Bush, Michael Doolan, Daniel Dorall, William Eicholtz, Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison, Dylan Martorell, Steaphan Paton, Kate Rohde, Kate Shaw, Sally Smart, Van Sowerwine & Isobel Knowles, Yandell Walton and Sharon West

Counihan Gallery in Brunswick, Brunswick Civic Centre, Sydney Rd, Brunswick
9 May – 8 June

About the author

Sama Hugo is a Melbourne based writer.