by Sonya Gee in New Events on Sunday 17 May 2009

Somewhere in a Sydney park, exact location undisclosed, sits a custom built wooden house fit for one. And if you happen to stumble across it, you simply lift it up, climb into the hole dug underneath it and make yourself at home. The makeshift shelter, which loosely resembles a human-sized kennel, is the latest work of Sydney art collective the Bababa International. The trio, consisting of Stephen Russell, Ivan Ruhle and Tom Melick (fourth member Giles Thackway has temporarily absconded to Mexico and is probably wearing a protective swine flu mask at present), say there are plans to install a radio at some point to make the shelter more homely and install similar constructions in parks across Sydney. And they reluctantly offer some hints of this particular houses’ location, saying it’s located in a park in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, past a hedge and close to a tennis court.

The wooden park house, though highly unusual is not inconsistent with the work of Bababa International who have shown that there’s still beauty in the slow reveal, in curiosity, playful investigation and discovery.

A past Bababa work took the form of homemade curries, delivered for free direct from a kitchen under Sydney’s Kudos gallery by the hard working, bike riding Bababa members. But only to a curious few. The exhibition, entitled Possible Curries was ambiguous to navigate. Curry ingredients housed in wooden crates were mounted on a wall, eggplants, cans of coconut cream and potatoes all on show. A bicycle ramp ran down the middle of the gallery and another wall housed a list of people’s names and addresses, which were then pinpointed on an oversized map of Sydney.

An otherwise esoteric spectacle for the passive viewer, it was only the audience members who ventured down a small flight of stairs into a concealed space that housed a kitchen and makeshift ordering station who were rewarded with a home delivered curry. Bababa member Stephen Russell proudly reflecting that the artwork was both physically and conceptually warm, filling bellies across Sydney and bringing unexpected joy.

The three laugh about one particular woman, who had wandered into their show and ordered a curry, only to squawk hysterically in delight when Bababa made their delivery. Other recipients, despite ordering curries and arranging delivery times were surprised that the collective actually came through, having mistaken the exhibition as a rouse. The project itself was an elaborate operation that became full-time operation for the three involved. There were curry ingredients to be bought, cooking to be done and constant deliveries to be made. And it wasn’t without a hiccup, Ivan spent most of his time in the underground kitchen, pumping out meals after he broke his hand when a ute hit him after his first bicycle delivery.

Next up for the philanthropic three is a trip to Hong Kong to set up a nail salon within the Para/Site Art Space in Sheung Wan. The boys, who will be tending what they dub the ‘pamper zone’ have been doing their research, arriving fresh from a manicure and pedicure session and keen to inspect broken nails.

Bababa International are super hands on in their creations and even in unknown territory, outsourcing doesn’t apply. The three agree that they always start with a semblance of a plan, which only solidifies once the installation starts taking place. For their nail salon in Hong Kong, they plan on building all the furniture themselves from materials found upon arrival and envisage lo-fi feet-powered pumps for the foot spas, with Tom enthusiastically miming just how he’ll pump bubbles with one foot whilst tending to a manicured hand. Though he is quick to point out that although their works have involved a high level of physicality and some extent of endurance, they are not performance works. Instead, the projects pursued by the collective all aim to create experiences for an audience that they would not encounter ordinarily, events that go beyond stunts and challenge people to engage and interact with the work to give it meaning.

And whilst a nail salon run by three boys still learning the basics of nail care seems all entertainment and novelty, the project has intriguing socio-political undertones. The collective are targeting Filipino maids to pamper on their day off, the salon inspired by an entry Ivan came across on Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s blog (http://journal.davidbyrne.com/2009/01/011709-hong-kong-the-future-of-no-future.html). Byrne noted whilst on tour, the women congregating on Sundays in an underpass to have a picnic of sorts, sitting on tarpaulins and sharing food and stories, the space being one of the few places the women of low socio-economic means could gather on their day off, given Hong Kong’s public spaces. The salon, tucked away in a gallery will target this hardworking ethnic minority with nail files and foot spas all in the name of art.

Those in Sydney can catch Bababa International at the Creative Sydney event, part of the Vivid Sydney festival. Stephen says sadly that their initial idea to ‘install dog houses throughout the room and release them nearing the end of the performance, allowing them to lick, hump and pee on whomever they wanted’ got shelved for logistical reasons but promises but their next idea is probably better.

Upcoming shows:
8-9pm June 11: “New Dogs, Old Tricks” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
6-8pm June 18: Exhibition at Para/Site Art Space, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong