Art Unit Sydney 1982-85 ...
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A Sleeper's Dream in the Tomb of the Unknown Human. This single image of Jack Cheslyn asleep in the midst of a set for a theatrical production at Art Unit came to typify all that the place was. It became the single most powerful image of that time and place.
Art Unit was an extraordinary experimental art space and artist facility that emerged in Sydney in the early eighties. It was a site for collision and collusion of artistic practice and incorporated several exhibition venues, a performance venue, a darkroom, silkscreen printing studio and a sound studio.
The origins of Art Unit began in 1978-79 in both Sydney and Adelaide. The Experimental Art Foundation (EFA) in Adelaide was the site of extended performance programs by a hard-core group of artists and students. In Sydney, Side Fx in Darlinghurst was operating intermittently as live in studios, cabaret venues and was presenting shows by a large loose collective of artists.
In 1980 as a final year thesis at the South Australian School of Art a model was hypothesized by Robert McDonald that would locate itself between both operative artists projects – anonymously to be called ‘Art Unit’. The model was determined for operations in Sydney in the early 1980’s. Most of 1981 was spent working in factories to raise a working capital and the research locations of Art Unit.
By 1982 two adjoining derelict factories were found in Alexandria and Robert McDonald, Juilee Pryor and friends commenced initial renovations. Art Unit opened its doors on Good Friday 9th April 1982. It closed its doors finally on the 3rd of February 1985. And in-between it raised the roof on a regular basis.
The artistic/political practice of Art Unit coupled with its extreme street appeal and popularity with artists, performers and musicians and the ease with which it produced its own propaganda immediately brought it into confrontation with the funding bodies who controlled the cultural industry of the times.
The energy of Art Unit was exceptional and to this day it remains an unrepeatable achievement. It could be said that music was its heartbeat and more that 60 bands played at the venue during the three years of its existence. Encapsulating experimental music, punk, music/performance, rock and roll, jazz, orchestral and ethnic song and dance.
Along with the music came the art with more than 870 artists exhibiting their work during this same period and there were several large scale theatre productions as well. Art Unit’s printing facilities were well used during this time with some 55 original posters being designed by the best and most original artists of the time being produced.
Art Unit’s printing facilities were well used during this time with some 55 original posters being designed by the best and most original artists of the time being produced. More than 10,000 hand pulled posters and tee shirts were printed for our own events including the distinctive triad poster and the skull tee shirt that both became synonymous with Art Unit.
This photograph of my sister and I was taken just a few weeks before Robert and I opened Art Unit for the first time. We were both working in factories in the western suburbs of Sydney to raise the start up capital needed while we established contacts and scouted out likely buildings.
Robert's energy was critical to getting Art Unit going while Juilee's perception shaped the project right from the start. This image shows Robert in 1983 manning a stall at an independent music festival in Sydney.
Jack was a legendary performer and painter who was completely involved in all aspects of Art Unit right from the very start in early 1982. He sadly passed away in the late 90's in Sydney and is greatly missed.
Mandy Pryor was a legendary singer/songwriter with many bands but most notably 'The Real Fucking Idiots' in Sydney in the early 80's. She lived at Art Unit for a short while and was involved in many performances and activities there. Sadly she passed away in late 1983 of a chemical overdose and is greatly missed by all.
Gazing out the upstairs window over to the old railway goods sheds and the city beyond took up a bit of time and always there was the reassuring sight of our old station wagon.
Originally Art Unit was only the one factory at number 84 Henderson Road and this is what it looked like. While it was a fantastic space we were in quite a short time getting submissions for such ambitious works that by the end of the first year we were ready to expand into the vacant factory next door at number 86.
Art Unit quickly established itself with a cult like base of fans and the iconic skull tee shirts and posters we created seemed to give that great power. This shot is of some skull posters drying on the floor of Art Unit before being posted up all over the city ...
During our first birthday celebrations Anthony Becker staged a brilliant mock tribute to Easter called the Passion Play. This is him up a ladder as the Jesus man.
Anthony Becker continues his brilliant re-interpretation of the myths told around Easter and the death of the Jesus man.
Cathy McKinnon held her final post-graduate exhibition at Art Unit in October 1982 with themes of textiles and dressmaking dominant.
A detail from Cathy McKinnon's final post-graduate exhibition at Art Unit in October 1982.
The poster for the final post-graduate exhibition for Cathy McKinnon along with the artwork it was taken from.
The All Out Ensemble headed by Nick Tsoutus were early and committed users of the facilities of Art Unit. In this image Jack Cheslyn is shot during a performance of Situation Normal: Cut Up in June of 1983.
Robert McDonald performs during the season of Situation Normal: Cut up at Art Unit ... it was a sensation with sell out audiences every night.
Jonathon Mustard provides the music during the sell out season of Situation Normal: Cut up a story of drugs and corruption in a small city.
Nick Tsoutas stands among the drying posters during a season of performance by The All Out Ensemble at Art Unit in 1983.
Nick Tsoutas and Peggy Whallah and the crew during a poster run for the All Out Ensemble's season of performances at Art Unit in 1983.
One of the many brilliant posters designed and printed by Art Unit. This one is for the All Out Ensemble at the Performance Space in Sydney in 1983.
Art Unit was very interested in current trends in pop culture as well as all things silk-screened and this small early exhibition of hand painted tee-shirts typified this.
The posters generated by Art Unit were striking for their designs and also their distinctive triad shape. This one was on the wall in the printing workshop and got stenciled during a Crass Art exhibition.
During one of the Crass Art exhibition's people were free to experiment with their stencil designs on the walls of Art Unit.
Every summer the Anarchist Collective would host an exhibition of the art of the legendary British group Crass. This image is of a punk group providing the entertainment during one of the openings.
Another view of the performance during the opening of the Crass Art exhibitions held at Art Unit every summer. This group was a jam by members of several leading punk rock bands at the time.
A selection of Art Unit posters by Tom Ellard and Crass Art and local band Kill the King.
Music was at the very core of what Art Unit did and there were more than 60 bands who performed over the three years of it's existence. This is a jam by Louis Tillet and friends with Mandy Pryor on the mic.
Mandy on the drums during a free form jazz performance led by the brilliant musician Louis Tillet.
Robert and I lived upstairs in the factory of number 84 Henderson Road and below us was the main gallery and the darkroom and silk-screening workshop.
Robert at work in the silk-screening workshop at Art Unit. Art Unit’s printing facilities were well used during this time with some 55 original posters being designed by the best and most original artists of the time being produced. More than 10,000 hand pulled posters and tee shirts were printed for our own events including the distinctive triad poster and the skull tee shirt that both became synonymous with Art Unit.
Part of creating a great vibe was always found in the quality of the hospitality offered. One of the legends of Art Unit was the redoubtable Wart shown here manning the bar during an event.
Portrait of the late and legendary Ian Rilen and his wife Stephanie just before performing at Art Unit.
A pensive Ian Rilen waits upstairs at Art Unit before a performance by his band Sardine V.