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  • Writer's pictureKoulla Roussos

Ash Keating's Metaphorical Flames

Ash Keating, China Town intervention 2. Pic: Koulla Roussos, 2021

It was in the infancy of the pandemic last year, before reality was stripped of all illusions, when I took myself out of the house on a stroll through Carlton Gardens to Little Bourke Street. The city’s buildings towered above: cold and brutal, dense and tall. The restaurants of Australia’s oldest Chinatown were empty. In the streets, idle taxi drivers stood hunched over on pavements, smoking or scrawling on phone screens. I forced a reckoning by photographing some of Chinatown’s signs (written in one of the world’s oldest continuously used systems of writing).

I captured an empty lazy Susan; the hum of empty aquariums; unopened letters scattered across shopfront entrances. I took my phone camera around the narrow lanes, with garbage bins and graffiti-covered surfaces stained by air pollution and cooking oil sludge.

As I approached the Shark Fin Inn, I felt an ominous force hovering out of eyesight and tilted my head to look across an empty block, once a carpark – now PARK, an open-air garden bar – to find a high wall draped in luminous paint. I noted the soft pinks and blues, lavender hues, bleeding and sliding. Perception itself is slippery. It seemed like a hallucination.

Baracco+Wright Architects were the driving force behind PARK’s design. The concept was inspired by Linda Tegg’s Grasslands Repair, part of the Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, which recreated Melbourne’s indigenous habitat using more than 10,000 plants. PARK was to spearhead the role vacant sites could play in activating the urban ecology of a city, foregrounding earnest commercial and artistic partnerships combating the political issues presented by colonialism and climate change.

The painted wall held my attention. The beauty of abstract painterly forms served as the perfect backdrop to the native tree and shrub planter bags: the vegetation that would have grown in pre-colonial Melbourne. The artist’s enchantment with the universe evoked Helen Frankenthaler’s exuberance. Almost whimsical if it was not for its scale, nevertheless utopian, there was an interplay of colour, an airiness and breathing quality, revealing a method intuitive and accepting of chance. It assimilated all external contexts. A firmly manipulated painterly effect suggested emotional serenity, a powerful evocation of poetic tranquillity.

Positioning my camera, I reflected on all the laboured intensity required to achieve such an effect in a world where anything designed to evoke sensual beauty in public space is quickly demolished in favour of expediency. I did an online search and discovered the installation was by Ash Keating (born 1980, Melbourne). I posted an Instagram picture and tagged him.

Ash Keating, China Town intervention 1. Pic: Koulla Roussos, 2020

Nine months later, in January this year, I received a message from Keating about a second iteration of his Chinatown intervention. I invited him for dim sum and found myself walking back to the same location to check out his new work. Entering through the archway, I wondered whether meandering in urban space for pure enjoyment was still possible: battery-operated feng shui lucky cats waved through shopfronts; BBQ ducks and char siu pork now hung in windows; crammed shellfish were again suffocating in aquariums bubbling with the hum of neon light, while ornamental buddhas laughed away notions of eternal prosperity. And there it was: Keating’s new towering installation covered two adjacent walls, splattered in fiery red and yellow.

Over a simple lunch upstairs at the Crystal Jade, we discussed the artist’s developing oeuvre – from waste assemblage installations to large-scale wall and canvas paintings – as he repeatedly searches for the essence and purity of forms in colour, paint and application. To enter the world of Keating’s imagination, one should first think of him, not as a graffiti artist, nor as a muralist. His overarching aim is to take the ethos of abstract expressionism off the museum walls and into the streets. He is a painter pursuing a form of spectral and textual autonomy for the image. He blows paint using a fire extinguisher, a type of action painting requiring sheer power and muscular physicality.

‘Silence is so accurate,’ Rothko once remarked. Unlike Pollock, whose paint dripped over canvas across the floor, Keating blasts it onto walls, paying homage to the American action painters, and the artists of the colourfield tradition who explored the limits and potentiality of paint as it related to flatness or two-dimensionality.

There was something deliberate in Keating’s choice of red and yellow. These are the primary colours of Little Bourke Street, and Australia’s Chinese population were among the first to feel the effects of COVID-19. From the moment the media began to report news from Wuhan, the virus became ethnically tinged. Keating turned 40 during Melbourne’s bleak second lockdown in July 2020, and in the Chinatown intervention’s new iteration this year, he told me, he wanted to scorch all the hysteria around a culturally constructed virus. The colours and method of application invoked a cataclysmic furnace. It was as if the 2019–20 bushfires were now inside the city and, in an ironic twist, Keating’s fire extinguisher was transformed into a flamethrower, searing all in its wake.

PARK closed for renovations early last year. More than a year on it lies ramshackle, with planter bags overturned and ripped, decomposing rubbish, and native grasses becoming tumbleweeds. The native trees of pre-contact times have shed their leaves. Pigeons fly from exhaust pipes and air-conditioner vents to dying branches, enclosed by Keating’s bonfires.

As predictions about climate change, pandemic infection and disruption become our daily reality, we find ourselves amid a danger of biblical scale. The pervading paranoia exposes our vulnerability. Realising that history never really ended, however whimsically or earnestly we tried, Keating’s metaphorical flames torch all prevailing illusions that the world as we precariously knew it has survived.

Koulla Roussos, Melbourne

Ash Keating, China Town intervention 2. Pic: Koulla Roussos, 2021


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