This essay written by Vivienne Skinner, published in the University of Sydney Gazette August 1992, to coincide with the performance of "the TRILOGY" and satellite work for the Sydney Biennale 1992.

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It takes a certain, well, creative nerve to strip down to zero and wiggle oneself down into the rocky crack-line of the San Andreas fault all for the purposes of Art.  But for performance artist, Arthur Wicks, embarrassment, nervousness or fear of making an extraordinary spectacle of oneself do not figure at all in his artistic considerations.


After all, it was Arthur wicks who in 1980 sparked a suicide scare at Glenelg beach in South Australia, when, dressed in a dinner suit he lay down for four hours across the tide line as waves crashed and retreated over him.  The unfortunate police officers on patrol nearby were alerted to this strange sight and, concerned that they were witnessing an unusually flamboyant suicide attempt, moved in to intervene.  Fellow artists watching the 'event' quickly explained that the frigid Wicks was simply 'performing' and would eventually rise again.

Meeting Wicks is a surprise for there is nothing the least bit showy about his everyday self.  With his deliberate manner and pronounced nasal drawl he could easily pass for a farmer just in from the cattle yards.  But it is soon clear that this artist cum performer cum university lecturer is anything but usual and  his art, while seemingly bizarre and at  times ridiculous, is the tangible manifestation of a highly analytical, scientific mind.

In fact, it wad with a view to a future as a scientist that the young Wicks began his degree at the University of Sydney in 1955.  He recalls that one of the very young lecturers (now an eminent scientist) announced to the first year class on their first day that the tenants of science had all been discovered and that, as students, they were to be trained as technicians to add decimal points after the constants.

Although Wicks suspected that this conclusion was false he felt much of the teaching was geared as if it were true.  Nevertheless, he developed a firm appreciation for science.  "I loved the puzzles and seeing gaps filled."

The radical student movement was just emerging, but was, says Wicks, undirected.  "It was an anti-establishment period.  A lot of it was against war and the monarchy.  Each year someone would paint the cenotaph red.  I remember Eric Baume, who was like the John Laws of his day, actually leaving his radio chair to come into the Union building to berate us for acting like hoonish yahoos and wasting the money that our parents had saved hard hard for during the depression and war years.  The students leapt up and zieg heiled him until he fled."

"I'm sure my attitudes were formed during that period at University.  I became an iconoclast.  We were forced to take a strong stand.  There was almost nobody who was lukewarm about issues."

This attitude was reflected in art.  "By the time I began my Dip. Ed. at the Sydney Teachers College, it was like the art movement was awakening out of a deep sleep. I encountered Frank Hinder, one of the grand old men of Australian art, and at the time started reading literature, such as T.S.Eliot and Proust.  This awakening, encouraged by Hinder and the growing liberality around me , was like ripping the scales off my eyes.  I had been handed a life-raft."

It comes as something of a shock then to find that just as his world was expanding, Wicks chose to spend the next twelve years in Canberra analysing numbers for the Bureau of Statistics.  Yet he found statistics strangely satisfying.  It fed his fascination with lines and balance and barriers and opposing forces.  "When you recognise chance as being such a major factor in existence, you start to see the future in a different way."

Throughout this time, he painted when he could and began preliminary sketches of the machines that are now so central to his art.  In 1967, with a wife and two children in tow, he took study leave and followed up an invitation to become the first resident of the University of Sydney's studio in the Cite Internationale des Arts, funded by the John Power bequest.

It was an exciting time for Wicks, made even more so by the student rebellion that paralysed Paris in 1968.  When he returned to Australia in the middle of that year, he had become conscious of the direction that his art would take.  "I realised that I was a realist not a romanticist.  I was interested in documenting and elaborating the obvious rather than the idealistic aspects of reality."

The violence he had witnessed in Paris, the political assassinations in the United States and the Russian invasions in Eastern Europe affected Wicks profoundly.  The futility of war and the inhumanity of the machines of war found a focus in his work.

Not long after his Paris sojourn, Wicks moved to Wagga to take up a position as lecturer in Art at what is now Charles Sturt University.  In 1982 he took leave to visit California's San Andreas fault and travelled its length, firstly low overhead by Cessna and then afterwards, by car. "This was a line that really interested me - a line of ferocious force.  At several points along the fault, I lay naked, creating a buffer between the two plans.  It was as if  I was making  my body vulnerable to these forces."

Again, it was fascination with lines that prompted his tidal "performances" at Glenelg and other beaches.  "It was the invisible line between the water and the earth - forces that were totally uncontrollable.  I was concerned with that destructive edge."

In 1984 came the first 'machine'  - a bizarre, almost pathetic wooden vessel on wheels.  The original intention was to ride Survival Boat across a decrepit steel bridge in Paris.  As he later told the Sydney Morning Herald  "(the bridge) had been opened in 1901..... a triumph of steel and engineering over flesh.  What I wanted to do was develop the irony by having a wooden boat decrepitly working its way over a decrepit old bridge, in full view of the Eiffel Tower.  it was a statement about the 20th century - a big raspberry.  The century was born with such idealism which  we have now recognised as being totally and utterly misplaced."

The French were not sympathetic to Wicks's vision.  Eventually, he rowed his creaking boat along the tram tracks of Melbourne, directed by an Italian tram conductor, before a large and astonished crowd.

Next came the Solstice Observatory, a skeletal flying machine which, with frantic pedalling, activates a rotor.  This ground bound 'helicopter' featured for a time at the Australian War Memorial and then later in the closing scenes of Wicks's performance,  the Escape of the Solstice Voyeur.

And then in 1990, for a performance entitled  the Battlefield, at the Australian Defence Force Academy, he built the armoured car.  Wicks took this strange, primitive tank-like vehicle to Europe, displayed it for a time at Amsterdam's Fodor Museum an then, with  white latex stretched across his face, 'pedalled' it across one of the busy streets in Amsterdam and later through Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

In his catalogue introduction to one of Wicks's exhibitions in 1989 Tony Bond, Curator of Contemporary Art at the N.S.W. Art Gallery, writes, "Arthur Wicks is a phenomena in Australia.  his work and his identity are inseparable..... Most of his work combines elements of absurdity and hope, impossible aspiration, and the conviction of the  attempt.  Not only that but the way the event looks is extremely memorable.  Wicks is a conjurer of psychologically significant images."

Nick Vickers, curator of the University of Sydney Union's collection, describes Wicks as one of Australia's leading performance artists.  "All his work is deeply symbolic and at the same time, deeply entertaining.  He's totally committed, different and adventurous."  Vickers also points out that commercial motives do not seem to drive Wicks.  "Most of his work is not saleable.  And, of course, most commercial galleries aren't able to show his big works":

In 1991, a display of Wicks's machines at the NSW Art Gallery attracted wide media interest and praise from reviewers.  Later this year, Wicks will let loose his most ambitious project yet. - a performance entitled the TRILOGY, as a satellite event to the Sydney Biennale.  "It will be a summation of much of my previous work, a little bit like an unholy marriage between a medieval morality play and Italian Futurist theatre.  The drama will take place throughout the whole theatre, much like a circus."  Will it be serious?  "Well", says Wicks, "it will be just like life, both serious and absurd."

"the TRILOGY", by Arthur Wicks, will be performed at The Performance Space, Cleveland St, Redfern, between 7th and 20th December.

Vivienne Skinner
article published in The Gazette, University of Sydney, August 1992


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