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PETER HENNESSEY

The satellite in the room

by Monty Dipietro

The NSAT-110 is a Japanese telecommunications satellite built by Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems and launched in October 2000 from French Guiana on an Ariene 4 rocket into a geostationary orbit some 35,000 km above Indonesia.

Plywood, as you probably know, is a bonded-composite wood product widely used as a building material.

Bringing the two together is Peter Hennessey, a 39-year-old Australian artist whose solo show at the Project Space Kandada is dominated by a life-size plywood model of the NSAT-110.

“There’s a whole huge network of communication systems today that we don’t ever see,” the relaxed and personable Hennessey told me at his opening reception last Saturday. “Everybody uses a mobile phone but they don’t think about the world that allows them to use a mobile phone. This installation is partially about that, and it’s also, like all my work, partially about the difference between the presence of a physical object and a picture or representation of it.

“I believe there’s something special about the size of these things that cannot be understood or imagined through a representation — just that sheer and simple experience of the physicality of a large object in a space, in a world that is increasingly experienced at a distance through representation, is a reality I find interesting to reintroduce to people.”

“My NSAT-110″ is the latest in the artist’s series themed on low-tech and outer space, which also includes the plywood “My Voyager” (2004) and “My Lunar Rover” (2005). The main structural element of the piece is a roughly rectangular box, about the size of an automobile. This has been decorated on one side with sheets of patterned paper found in the trash bins of a nearby printing company. Protruding above is the satellite’s relay dish, once again executed with recycled paper. An array of solar panels, which span more than 26 meters when deployed in space, take the form of a pleated plywood lattice, awkwardly warped against the corners of the room.

The primary strength of the work is of course its size — although Kandada is a relatively large space, there is no single vantage point from which to view the entire installation, so the viewer must make their way around the gallery perimeter — an experience that physically emphasizes it’s presence.

But equally effective and charming is the careful but boyish execution, what Hennessey calls “the DIY aesthetic,” achieved by using materials that could be bought in any hardware store. It wouldn’t be surprising if Hennessey put together model cars and ships or balsa wood airplanes when he was young.

In this regard, “My NSAT-110″ revisits childlike wonder at “the big world,” and explores modern man’s relationship with physical objects that exist beyond his ability to directly experience. It’s no accident that Hennessey takes as his subjects things that are not accessible, that hover somewhere between what we call reality — what we can see and touch — and what we take on faith.

In Kandada’s second room is a 5-minute video, “My Moonwalk,” in which the artist, dressed in a homemade spacesuit and tethered on a spring to an overhead rail, simulates weightlessness as he bungee-bounces back and forth. His Lunar Rover model can be seen in the background, but no other props or postproduction treatments attempt to disguise the fact that the action is taking place in a big white room. Hennessey makes no attempt to simulate spaceman activities such as the gathering of Moon rocks, but rather simply revels in the enjoyment of it all.

There is a discernible lack of pretension in the work of contemporary Australian artists such as Hennessey, his occasional collaborator Patricia Piccinini and Tokyo-based Kristian Haggblom — a refreshing sense that art should be fun. This reflects a notion that while creative pursuits probably won’t change the world, artists can — especially when not taking themselves frightfully seriously — succeed in shifting perspectives, stretching horizons and coaxing the viewer into coming along for the ride.