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June 9, 2021

A moment of catharsis

Sidney McMahon’s 'Of sorrow and release' exhibition is born of deeply personal experiences, but stands as an invitation for its audience to process and then gloriously liberate their own complex emotions.

  • Pictures: Supplied
  • Main image: Andrew Curtis

The Of sorrow and release exhibition begins and ends, curiously, in the club.


Of sorrow and release
Now until Saturday, 3 July
ACE Open
Lion Arts Centre, North Terrace, Adelaide 5000
‘Release’ closing party: 9pm, Saturday, 3 July
More info

This article was produced in collaboration with ACE Open.

But neither the closing event – a queer late-night party to be held on 3 July – nor the references to euphoric nights on the dance floor found in the installation’s blanket of heavy blackish-green light and pounding video soundtrack, should be read as signs of frivolity.

Instead, they are a counterbalance. In the show, artist Sidney McMahon is exploring emotional transitions. The works embrace the contrasting, yet sometimes simultaneous, heft and weightlessness that comes with processing nuanced feelings.

Of sorrow and release is about, how do we release a feeling when it is such a vague territory?” says Sidney. “A feeling of sorrow – I don’t experience it to be something I can ground.”

Sidney’s desire to make work about the complexities of grappling with something intense yet intangible emerged during the Black Summer of 2019/20, when unprecedented bushfires were raging across Australia.

“At the same time, the bushfires were happening and I was also changing my name and my gender,” says Sidney. “And for me, there was this feeling of needing to really breathe through these points of anxieties and this sorrow that was coming up.”

Sidney McMahon in their studio at Parramatta Artist Studios. This image: Jacquie Manning


Sidney’s art often aims to capture and communicate abstract experience. Of sorrow and release extends their use of motifs and materials seen in earlier works, including 2019’s Of doubts and dreams, which dealt with the slipperiness of memories – in particular those related to Sidney’s childhood sexual abuse.

While both bodies of work incorporate floor-to-ceiling black sails engaged in repetitive machine-driven movement, Sidney says Of sorrow and release brings a new gentleness to the aesthetic.

Of dreams and doubts used these hefty motor lifts to lift and stretch these pieces of leather that were drilled into the ground,” they says.

“This work presented here [at ACE Open], has a similar structure and a reference to something being hung, being suspended, it having a sense of movement – it doesn’t have a stability.

“But the sculptural material, these sails, collectively weigh about 2kg and the air is the thing that holds them. The air has volume, but is perceived to be weightless… It’s something that is almost nothing. How do you make something like that big and reduce it to nothing again?”

Alongside the kinetic black sails that embody the ever-shifting nature of feelings like sorrow, Sidney presents a video work that offers another interpretation of the ebbs and flows of emotional transformation.


In both the video and material elements of the exhibition, references to club culture are accompanied by layered and intimate nods to myriad other personal touch points – from The Matrix and environmental ecosystems, to bruising. The video footage borrows from the pantheon of computer processing to elucidate Sidney’s inner world.

“There’s this relationship with this character in the video where it’s like a computer restarting constantly,” they says. “And this bot is trying to search for something in the cloud and then it finds it, and it’s this anxious happening of, ‘Oh shit, it’s found out too much.’

“So, you want to process something, but it’s also overwhelming and it’s about acknowledging that as a reality that happens too.”

Featuring footage of the character searching around their mouth with their fingers, there’s a visceral stress induced by watching the videos, which comes with a strangely humorous edge. The immediacy of this audience response speaks to Sidney’s ability to tap into a universal language, even when exploring individual thoughts.

It’s this investment in communal understanding that gives the exhibition, and the party that will close it, real power. While Sidney uses the artworks as opportunities to reflect on their own emotional processes, the pieces also act as a structure via which others can do the same.

The closing party – which transgresses gallery norms and broadens inclusivity by turning ACE Open into a late-night club venue – is designed as an invitation to communal catharsis.

“For me, the release of this emotion is often held in that space,” says Sidney. “In this sort of communal queer party atmosphere of being able to physically exorcise an emotion in an environment where you’re surrounded by people who have an understanding of that feeling, but there’s not necessarily a conversation about it.”

The black sails rise and fall like breath, the disconcerting search through the mouth continues, thoughts overwhelm audience and artist, but on the dance floor, we all might be lucky enough to discover a moment of relief.

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