Working Title: Conversations on a lively doorstep

Working Title: Conversations on a lively doorstep


diagram  plane


1.The Lively Plane

Lisa Kelly & Dennis Tan
15 February – 1 March 2008
Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown, Sydney

Inside a small room with white walls and polished timber floors, a plane tree sprouts snug and unassuming from one corner of a raised wooden platform, its top leaves flattened awkwardly against an indifferent ceiling. Also on the platform is a woven mat, a ‘domestic space differentiated from the wilderness’, 1 placed neatly under the shade one imagines might be cast if this tableau were not in fact indoors. The titles of these works (for they are, as it turns out, discrete works by two separate artists), No Street Tree… and Working title: Private space on constructed space on Institutional space,suggest two things that lie at the heart of the objects and actions unfolding from this exhibition: the multi-layered and contingent nature of urban space, and the artistic processes used in interrogating and intervening in that space.

These concerns tend to fold in and over each other at different points throughout the exhibition, the product of a loose collaboration between Sydney artist Lisa Kelly and Dennis Tan, visiting from Singapore. Tan’s month-long residency at ICAN has resulted in a series of thoughtful gestures that respond to phenomena and relations observed by the artists in various urban contexts. As if to prevent an unsightly sag or sudden movement, Kelly’s displaced tree is bound tightly by jute straps stretching taut across the room to uprooted timber stakes leant against the wall. Miniature sandbags bearing images of saplings constrained/supported in the same way, tree prop (circle) and tree prop (triangle), hold open wide, heavy doors. Nonetheless, 1.The Lively Plane manages to quietly evade the gallery space, tumbling gently into the surrounding streetscape in both a literal and figurative sense.

There are multiple perforations and lines of dialogue at work in this exhibition, between the two artists, between the art and the site, between the inside and outside of the gallery. These are traced over with lines of sight, as the room designated ‘institutional space’ opens directly onto the shared living space of an inner-city street … rows of terraces, a café, passing cyclists and a solitary police car, cruising. On this languorous Sunday, a doorstep lined with worn tiles acts as a cosy border zone, a kind of pivot point around which everything else turns. It is where one of the artists sits talking to visitors who engage with the works without necessarily entering the gallery, and affords a view of both the ‘lively plane’ inside and the footpath rolling away with its own broad, sweeping trees straining their allotted concrete plots.

leanon2web ashtrayplanter2web





A handful of unauthorised but plausibly ‘useful’ objects have also landed surreptitiously on this patch of cement – besser blocks containing sand, plants and cigarette butts (Kelly’s ashtray and ashtray – – planter); and a chair with one shortened leg propped up by the doorstep, itself supporting a similarly incapacitated stool that suggests something of an alternate, tiered escape route (Tan’s Lean on). In Diagram (Concrete cover), Tan has inscribed diagrams on the gallery window for a proposed guerrilla amendment to the pavement architecture below, its otherwise unobtrusive ‘telecom cover’ tipped at a jaunty angle. Facing the window here, it is possible to see at once the reflection of the street, the imagined intervention, and the urban (re)constructions inside.

In many ways these works have a tendency to ‘melt into, and out of, the site – not as an art form but as an event, and as a trajectory for events’. 2 The actions they describe have a subversive play about them, as well as a more serious engagement with the politicisation and regulation of public space. Salvaged timber from the nearby CarriageWorks development is recast as raw material; the tree it supports is a species widely loathed for its fluffy seed. As a collection of unstable and interdependent artefacts in conversation with the spaces they occupy, the exhibition creates room for unexpected urban encounters and more fluid modes of art practice – a plane of lively possibilities indeed.

Lisa Kelly’s website –
& Dennis Tan’s –

– Tessa Zettel, 2009


TOP LEFT: Dennis Tan Diagram (platform) (2008), white paint marker on window
TOP RIGHT: Dennis Tan Working title: Private space on constructed space on institutional space (2008), found recycled timber from CarriageWorks and ICAN, roofing spans, nails / Lisa Kelly No Street Tree… (2008), plane tree, jute strap, timber, linen thread, hardware
BOTTOM LEFT: Dennis Tan Lean on (2008), chair, stool, nails
BOTTOM RIGHT: Lisa Kelly ashtray – – planter (2008), besser block, Sydney sand, soil, rubbish plant, cigarette butts, rubber, tape, hardware

All photographs taken by the author

  1. Mikesch Muecke ‘Food to go: the industrialization of the picnic’ in Eating Architecture, eds. Jamie Horowitz & Paulette Singley, MIT, Massachusetts 2004, p. 232
  2. Vito Acconci ‘Vito Acconci/Acconci Studio’ in (The world may be) Fantastic: 2002 Biennale of Sydney, ed. Ewen McDonald, the Biennale of Sydney, Sydney 2002, p. 17