Gems in the Sewer by Dr Ashley Crawford

‘Shit That I Like.’ Ben Aitken doesn’t exactly mix words here. What he says is what you get. For those of a more conservative ilk, including a profanity in an exhibition title remains unsettling, a rebuke perhaps, a streak of the anarchistic, a tad ‘punk,’ a ‘Man the Torpedoes,’ ‘No Prisoners’, ‘Do I Look Like I Give a Damn’ moment. It is a million miles away from the pseudo-intellectual, well-bred pretensions of contemporary curatorial studies or polite theoretical linkages. Damn, Aitken doesn’t even quote a French philosopher to excuse his bad manners. It’s just Lock ‘n’ Load, Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In other words, it’s almost excruciatingly honest.

There are no rules here. Generations are treated with indifference, thus a well-established Jon Cattapan or Sam Leach sits happily alongside younger artists most of us have never heard of until now. Somehow, almost accidentally, it’s weirdly politically correct. There’s an equilibrium of genders and sexualities, a fair dose of the indigenous, there’s multi-culturalism alongside multi-media. There are artists with professional, high-end gallery representation and others who have barely crawled out of their bedroom-studios. There are huge works by Phaptawn Suwunnakudt, Cyrus Tang and Fiona Lowry alongside the tiny and intimate. Aitken’s curatorial strictures have more in common with British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) when he proclaimed “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

Indeed, with its’ liveliness and zeitgeist feel. Aitken may have something to teach the ‘professional’ curators with their B.A.s.

But this show is NOT curated. Aitken states this in person with vehemence. “I am not a ‘curator,’” he proclaims, thus describing his role as more of a programmer. He’s acting like a DJ playing his favourite tracks. If you don’t like the music, you can always leave.

OK, he may not be a curator as such. But he seems not to mind when I suggest he is acting more like a ‘curate,’ a clergyman who helps the priest in caring for their congregation and the process of being together a group of worshippers. In this case their God is Art and, like the Gnostics of old, God takes whatever form seems most apt. Aitken’s congregation here embraces both the artists and the audience. Their sacraments are paint and stone, metal and multi-media.

But, and here’s the rub, whether consciously or not, Aitken’s has indeed, indisputably, curated ‘Shit That I Like.’ There is, to highly varying degrees, a distinct aesthetic running throughout this show, a restless, youthful energy regardless of generation, a kind of urgency, even panic in the modes of expression as though time is running out. There are moments of playfulness, of wilful naivety and devil-may-care anarchy. There are strange contrasts and surreal outbursts. Indeed, as a whole, there is only one person who could have curated this raggedy horde into one space, only one person who could juggle this mercury and herd these cats.

Ben Aitken, to his credit, has not allowed himself the egotistic opportunity to hang his own work here. He is hovering just to one side of such hubris, although clearly his own work would have sat comfortably amidst this chaotic assemblage.

Aitken’s title may be provocative, even slightly transgressive for those of an ultra-conservative, rigidly ‘proper’ mentality. You may not ‘like’ some of it. I may not ‘like’ some of it. But Aitken sure as shit likes it and given a free space and a free hand in the creative process, well he’s simply going to show the shit that he likes and the result is a myriad cornucopia of styles, images, techniques, media and miscellanea only one person could have ‘curated.’

– Ashley Crawford