This essay written by David Hansen in 2002, published in Art monthly Australia June 2002, coincided with rooftop occupation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the duration of the winter solstice 2002. Images from the rooftop were relayed to a space inside the AGNSW with the technical assistance of Mick Baker. Coinciding with this performance an exhibition of "Notes from the Solstice Voyeur" at the Hawkesbury Regional Art Gallery signalled the start of their tour Northward to Cairns and back again.

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DEUS EX MACHINA, agnsw 1992


I am writing this before the event.  It may yet not happen.  It was meant to happen more than twenty years ago.  In a publicity flyer for that first attempt in 1981, Arthur Wicks described the project succinctly: "I will be living on the roof of the Art Gallery of New South Wales between noon 20 June and noon 21 June to witness and record the winter solstice, using landmarks in the Sydney area."  The project never got off the ground (or onto the roof); it was cancelled by Gallery authorities.  The artist will say only (and with a laugh) that it "ran foul of protocol at the time".

But I have money on a successful outcome this time around.  It is all a matter of probability, of reference to artistic actuarial tables.  Wicks began his career as a scientist immersed in statistics, and his works always leave a courtesy space for the unexpected deviation, the random fluctuation, the flap of the butterfly's wing in the Amazonian rainforest.  Fortuna repays the compliment; as often as not, chance operates in the artist's favour. 

In 1988, in an abandoned limestone quarry in Mt Gambier, he built two chimneys, the largest a two and a half metre pyramid above an old lime kiln.  These were stuffed with dry leaves and branches from the surrounding scrub, and were to be ignited as part of a performance in which the artist, dressed in a suit and with his face immobilised by a mud mask, "recited" a paranoid-prophetic-luddite Armageddon monologue, through a cassette player in his pocket and a small speaker in his lapel.  As it happened, the performance was scheduled at the end of a dry summer, on the final day of a period of fire bans.  Until the last minute it seemed possible that the district council would deny permission; in the event the performance had to be attended by two local fire units. 

Not only was permission finally granted, but in addition to the pyrodrama of Wicks' blazing Volcanoes and other primal vents and the eco-psychodrama of his rant, we also got the theatre spots of the fire trucks' headlights, the yellow strobe of the flashing lights on their roofs and the props and extras of throbbing engines, large machines and men in hard hats and orange overalls.  Behind the pre-recorded tinny demagoguery issuing from the artist's suit, fire service radios crackled.  All of these additional special effects were unplanned, but perfectly in harmony with the performance's mood and metaphors.  Arthur Wicks is lucky.  (click to Vulcan Wing)

This is why he can laugh at supposed failure.  In its very non-occurrence, that first attempt to get on top of the Art Gallery of New South Wales served only to consolidate and enrich his persona as the "Solstice Voyeur”, a kind of slipshod slapstick shaman.  Over the past two decades Wicks has adopted this role on numerous occasions, perhaps most notably in 1983 in a performance for the summer solstice on the roof of the Hamburg Kunstverein, and another, for the winter solstice following, at the Berlin Kunstlerhaus.  Such “occupations” (the language of warfare is relevant; Wicks' artistic space-takings have often borrowed tactics and imagery from the military-industrial complex) involved a busy, besuited artist scuttling about, taking chaotic, fractional, fractal readings of time and place.  From the collected experience, data and images Wicks then constructs a panoramic vision of the host city, but with the horizon as a circle.  Through this mandala-lens, Wicks describes shortest and longest days, the extremities of the earth's orbit, the turning points of the world. 

Wicks once explained his 1992 performance Trilogy (Performance Space, Sydney, December 1992) as both "a summation of much of my previous work" and as "a little bit like an unholy marriage between a medieval morality play and Italian Futurist theatre”

There is certainly a medieval element to the Solstice Voyeur project.  It is a temptation of Christ scenario, as described in Matthew's gospel (4, 5): "then the Devil took him to the Holy City, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, 'if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'he will give his angels charge of you', and 'On their hands they will bear you up’…"  But Wicks is neither Saviour nor Devil, more like one of the Desert Fathers, a sunstruck anchorite in a Syrian clifftop hermitage, muttering and cackling to himself as he goes about his daily ritual devotions, checking his altar, his cross, his global positioning satellite, his weather monitors, his computer, his telephone, his food supply, his waste bucket. 

    During the Middle Ages, European cartographers imaged the known world, from Ireland to India,
    from the Arctic to the African Desert, as a circle, with the Holy Land at the centre.  The way Wicks
    maps the view from the roof onto a globe recalls these Ptolemaic mappae mundi.  The sphere of the
    city recalls the concentric spheres of Aristotelian cosmology, the crystal balls studded with sun, 
    moon, planets and stars. 

    Moreover, Wicks's scopic fish bowl is imaged in two dimensions, halo and  communion wafer, the
    perfect form of plane geometry, the circle, the unity and the zero and the eternity of scholastic
    sacred mathematics, the eye of god. 

    Like Piero Manzoni's sculpture Le Socle du Monde (Pedestal for the World), it implies and implicates
    the whole of the world, the planet, by reference to a single point.  Like On Kawara's date paintings, 
    it implies and implicates the whole of history, all time, by reference to a particular day.          

    Like Hans Haacke's exposures of the nexi of New York slum landlords and the Guggenheim
    Museum, or of Margaret Thatcher, the Saatchi brothers and the Tate Gallery, it implies and
    implicates the entirety of culture (and its politics) by reference to a particular art institution. 

    But what of the Italian Futurist theatre?  In medieval manuscript illustrations of the pre-Newtonian
    cosmos, angels turn the crank handles of the revolving heavily spheres.  In the Futurist universe,
    angels start the engines of the Maseratis.  Raucous modernism is the cross which counters the
    medieval nought, the clock hands which circulate, mark and slice the eternal "O".  Arthur Wicks’s
    spokes in the wheel, armature of angles, machinery, absurdity, spectacle of the dehumanised actor, 
    amplified noises and non-linear performance structures are pure avant-garde cabaret.  The solstice
    photo-mosaic, the edited image and lasting document of the art action, is assembled
 according to the supremely modernist principles of cubism.
It has the fractured and collaged spatiality of art in the age of the photographic image;  it shapes the visible to the frame of the idea.  It has the fractured and collaged temporality of art in the age of cinema; it shapes the action to the frame of the day.  The fact that the images can be actually from photographs taken elsewhere and at another time – the AMP Tower in Sydney, for example, or the Springer Verlag Building in Berlin – merely adds another modernist frisson, that of epistemological uncertainty. 

As the Solstice Voyeur, Arthur Wicks shows us the earth not as a blue-green planet spinning in space, but as a blue-grey cultural artefact fixed on paper or screen.  Same shape, same world, different viewpoint.  Different as night and day.


David Hansen
May 2002


“The Quarries: An Archaeology”, Riddoch Art Gallery, South East Cultural Trust, Mount Gambier, 1989

Performance Space, Sydney,  1992

Quoted in Vivienne Skinner,  “Man + Machine = Art”,  The Gazette (University of Sydney),  August 1992














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