Submitted Review

Justin Shoulder ‘AEON†: TITAN ARUM’ at 'The National 2021'

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales • New South Wales

  • 25 March—04 September 2021

  • Scott Elliot • Published 10 May 2021

  • Commissioned Article

Justin Shoulder’s latest performance project is an immersive seasonal ‘garden’ presented in a four-part cycle. In the first season of AEON†: TITAN ARUM at the Art Gallery of NSW, as part of The National exhibition, three large-scale inflated sculptures glow in the centre of a darkened gallery. Their strange and resplendent forms wobble, touch and change colour to the rhythms of an ambient soundscape.

Shoulder revels in the carnivalesque: his forms are monstrous and creepy, mesmerising and seductive. In AEON†: TITAN ARUM, they look like sluggish phosphorescent insects, or colossal plant specimens. One form, ringed by giant petals with feeler-like tips, has a black stamen protruding from its centre. It has the menacing air of a Venus Flytrap, while its jaunty surface of red diamonds evokes harlequins and pageantry.

‘Shoulder’s performances are refreshingly accessible and can mesmerise child and adult alike.’

The sculptures reflect Shoulder’s urban-recycled aesthetic, which draws on the flexible properties of simple materials to make the improbable and the marvellous. The giant black stamen, which flops ridiculously like a phallus or a lazy tongue, is a mass of inflated black foil bags. Other forms are dressed in tulle, a material that becomes luminescent in coloured light.

Early in the half-hour show, our attention is focussed on the emergence of a blue bubble at the top of the tallest sculpture. It inflates and deflates, suggesting the breath of a lung, the growth of a head, or a strange spawning process. Later on, this form bends forward to touch the giant stamen, as if pollinating it. Shoulder’s schtick is that he’s always buried in there somewhere, and at the end of the performance he nimbly emerges from inside the bubble sculpture. He briefly reprises a role as a white-masked cyborg, that looks around with whiplash movements and surveys its surroundings.

Shoulder’s performances are refreshingly accessible and can mesmerise child and adult alike. He occupies an unusual cultural space, straddling the seriousness of contemporary art, the rigour of performance and lightness of pure spectacle. AEON†: TITAN ARUM is partly inspired by the Panagbenga, a Filipino flower festival renowned for its elaborate and colourful flower costumes. The work’s other origins are in the queer underground, where Shoulder’s practice first evolved. AEON†: TITAN ARUM is a camp celebration of floral splendour, and a very queer reimagining of the botanical order. It encourages us to consider alternative worlds, and to celebrate the truly weird and wondrous one we already inhabit.