Oliver Harlan and Jen Denzin are not children.
But they’ve never lost their imagination.
Denzin, a sculptor, and Harlan, a performer, have combined their talents, and imagination, to build a fascinating show, Argo Pacifico, which opens at The Lock-Up on Saturday, December 8, at 5.30pm.
Denzin is a maker of quirky assemblages, emphasising fun and colour. Encouraged by The Lock-Up director Jessi England, Harlan connected with Denzin for a cup of coffee to discuss the project and his possible involvement, taking on DJ duties at the opening.
That chat, more than two years ago at Suspension Espresso (latte for Denzin, long black for Harlan), evolved into a much bigger project.
“Jen’s artwork is abstract, but not emotionally abstract,” Harlan says. “It’s very like, joyful, and she was really capturing the essence of this ship as a joyful experience. What I thought I could capture was the actual ship. What if we turn The Lock-Up literally into a cruise ship . . . “
So a plan was hatched.
As Harlan recalls: “After that first meeting, Jen ended up saying, ‘you should just do this with me. You should have half of this show’.”
Harlan has never been on a cruise ship – you can figure that as a plus or a minus. But it means his vision of Argo Pacifico comes straight out of his own brain (and Denzin’s creative mind).
“I like to build worlds,” he says. “I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. World building is something I do a lot. So I just started creating back story and lore and reasons for this ship to exist. Who is the captain, who are the passengers. What was happening.”
The bearded captain of the Argo Pacifico doesn’t have a name, at least he didn’t last week. He’s Italian, loves pasta and is fixated on a certain mermaid living in the sea around him.
The captain’s private quarters on the ship will be one of many open to the public during the exhibit at The Lock-Up.
Other rooms on the ship include:
- the Embarcation Station (for new arrivals),
– the Happy Room,
- the Warning Room (think “conspiracy vibe”),
- the Mountain of Origin Room,
- the Spoopy Room (a favourite word of Harlan’s, borrowed from his brother, closely related to spooky),
- the Looking Up Room,
- the Art Gallery (featuring several intentionally less-than-spectacular works specifically made for the show),
- The Buffet (“featuring a cornucopia of delights”),
- And a mysterious Hidden Ballroom.
Harlan promises plenty of glitz and gold all around. A friend in Montana is working on a soundtrack of “bad bossa nova” music.
All told, there will be works by more than 20 Newcastle artistic collaborators, including portholes by Harlan’s mum, Nicola Hensel. Artist Sally Bourke has painted a portrait of the mysterious captain, and Harlan’s housemate, artist Lucas Grogan, has created the ship’s bridge.
To say it is an ambitious project is an understatement. No one will know what it’s truly going to look like until the installation is complete.
“My current self is cursing my two-years-ago self for the level of hot glue gun burns on my hands and the amount of work I’m doing right now,” Harlan says. “But it’s a joyful process. Like most of my art, it is a chance to reach out to people, and express something hopeful and joyful. And honest.
“Jen and I honestly believe this ship is real. Believing in the reality of it is really joyful. We are not refracting through it as a show in a gallery, thinking academically.”
Indeed, The Lock-Up is a hallowed space, previously serving as the Newcastle Police Station and listed on the NSW Heritage Register. Many of the exhibits in the space have acknowledged its dark back story and its connection to Australian history.
But this show breathes artistic freedom, which is another of the key tenets of The Lock-Up. It is a place that often challenges the status quo, triggers the mind to think about connections and sense of place. Reconfigured as a floating wonderland of mystery and intrigue, The Lock-Up heads into new waters once again.
As Harlan says, “I want people to walk into the space and go, ‘What the hell is this! I’m confused’ and leave, or ‘Oh my god, this is amazing, i want to stay forever.”
Harlan is an artist of many talents, including film production and performance. He’s just finished the second album of his pop band, Miami, and has been putting a lot of energy into his instagram page (oliverharlan, which features a daily original dance and performance routine).
Harlan will be performing at the Argo Pacifico launch on Saturday.
The show is family friendly, too.
Denzin and Harlan will lead workshops at The Lock-up over the summer while the exhibit is on, under the title, Argo Pacifico Kids Club. The workshops include subjects like Chandeliers on the High Sea, Deep Sea Dancing, Beginners Ukulele, Beginners Dungeons and Dragons, Hakuna pintara, Code Breakers Club, Collage, and Making a Short Film on Your Phone.
Argo Pacifico at The Lock-Up, December 8 to January 27