Alex Wisser

photocentric

Category: Writing

A Sorrow full of Happiness and The Happiness of Sorrow

by Alex Wisser

a review of Vienna Perreno’s “Rainbow Connection” and Yiwon Park’s “Personal Mythologies” at DNA Projects

For a two person show of work developed independently, the exhibition of Vienna Perreno’s “Rainbow Connection” and Yiwon Park’s “Personal Mythologies” at DNA Projects has a surprising continuity.  This surprise arrives across the evident disparity between them.   Yiwon’s work, a collection of drawings, paintings and small sculptures at the front of the space, is melancholy in tone, while Vienna’s installation at the back can only be described as cheerful.    Despite these differences, their combination does not produce the impression of  contrast.  Instead, the two bodies of work coalesce, drawing on a level of sympathy that exists below that of their evident contradiction.

Everythingism. installation.  Mixed Media. Vienna Perreno 2012

“Rainbow Connection” is a composition of a wall text, two umbrella frames, and an arrangement of small brightly colored arrows crawling across three walls of the space and collected in a pile on the ground in one corner.  The installation of colored arrows is perceived on approach, swarming over the walls in bright crèche colors like ants of childish aspiration, all headed eagerly in different directions.  It resembled a chart describing the currents of weather systems, except the arrows can’t seem to agree on which direction to indicate.  The eye follows these arrows happily around the walls, effusive and energetic as children, as they lead you, eventually, to the pile of arrows on the ground.  The pile presents a sobering conundrum. Despite, or more to the point, because of the profusion of arrows, you cannot tell whether the arrows are proceeding from the pile up and outward in their optimistic vector or whether they have fallen, exhausted from their manic distraction.

Vienna Del Rosario Parreno, 2012, Bones, installation, size varibale, WEB

On the wall opposite, the words “Happy as Kite” are written in plastic fabric, each letter of a different color or design, and all of it as optimistic as the arrangement of arrows.  Two umbrella frames stripped of their canopy (it is this material that has gone to make up the text), lean against another wall, their neatly machined black ribs slightly splayed around their spines, topped by wooden handles painted in the same cheerful colors that inflect the rest of the work.  These skeletal remains, reduced to purely formal objects, are at once beautiful and useless.  They remark upon the relationship between weather and mood evoked by the metaphors circulating in this work: these umbrellas stripped of their protective capacity to serve an expression of joy.   This tension between the text and subtext runs throughout the work, disturbing the effusion of its happy surface with an awareness of its precariousness, its fleeting nature, and the costs of those disappointments we face in its pursuit.

Vienna Del Rosario Parreno, 2012, Everythingism, installation, close-up 2, size varibale, WEB

The result is a work that, in all its elements and parts, is an expression of joy, but a joy sobered by what is not there.  The reality principle, informed by painful experience, that says one must protect oneself from bad weather, is excluded in these objects of optimistic abandon.  And yet, from its position of absence, it speaks all the more potently, not to contradict the joyfulness of its expression, but to temper it like an alloy, into something strong.  It makes of this happiness an act of courage, a kite that flies because it sails into the wind.

Vienn Del Rosario Parreno, 2012, Happy as a Kite, installation, size varibale, WEB

Yiwon Park, on the other hand, has produced a series of objects that emit an atmosphere of melancholy.  Her small, sculpted objects, drawings and paintings all share an affective tonality that spans the disparity of medium and content.  An egg with human legs, the drawing of a crystal and what looks like a dropped handkerchief,  a greenish glass brick with the texture possibly of water, and a series of larger drawings of the human figure or body grafted to the leafless branches of a plant.  Despite the range of material and content, these works all inhabit the same delicate universe, glowing with a grace that is sometimes perceivable in the awkwardness of serious children.  Such children, caught in the conflicts of their transformation, execute their small, vastly consequential failures; their dropping of precious objects and their continuous falling down, with a grace that derives from the natural certainty of their metamorphosis.

Yiwon Park,2012, I was there, mixed media on cotton, 100 x 100cm (1)

Yiwon Park,2013, unknown familiar story of us3,mixed media on paper, 25x35cm.jpg

This theme of metamorphosis is treated in a series of drawings depicting plants grafted to the human body.  The plants themselves are bare of fruit and leaf and it is uncertain whether they are living or not.  One of these drawings depicts such a plant with all its joints taped together as though it was composed completely of grafting.   Eventually you notice that the plant is standing on a single human foot.  The joints of these grafts are all brushed with a wash of red watercolor, rendering them as wounds, as bruises.  The plant stands there apparently barren, awkward, and wounded, the product of a creative endeavor that is either the futile taping together of sticks or the crafting of life itself into a form that will produce the dreamt of fruit.

Yiwon Park, 2012, I was there, mixed media drawing on cotton,120 x 90cm

The figure of the egg, usually with human legs, also features in this body of work.   In viewing this figure, the mind wants to see the legs emerging from the egg, but they do not.  This is a fully formed being and yet, despite its obvious mutation, it has not yet transformed.  It is almost as though the figure, instead of transforming into the creature it was intended to be, transformed into the figure of transformation itself. The egg stands blind and mute, awkward, tentative, and nervous, in a world of which it is not properly aware.  Like that child, it is wounded by not knowing the context of its condition.

Yiwon Park, 2013, Personal Altar, mixed media installtion, size variable

This sorrow has the sting of the bruised elbow, the skinned knee.  It depicts an awkwardness, an oddity that is hurt by its own sense of inadequacy: of not having quite got it right.  Yet there accompanies this sense of frustration and disappointment an optimism inherent in the desire to transform; the ambition, the hope that catalyses all human metamorphosis.  The egg stands blind, yet somehow gives the impression that it is looking at the horizon.  In this figure, as in much of the other work in this body, Yiwon seems to imply that our capacity for hope, for joy even, is a precondition of the sorrows we gather throughout our life pursuing them.  As in Vienna’s work, this conflict does not result in negation, but produces an affirmation that includes both terms.

untitled: 16/49 process of selection (Melanie Khava)

by Alex Wisser

This text is the result of a three week installation/exhibition held at INDEX., an artist run initiative in St. Peters, Sydney.  The directors of INDEX. Alex Wisser and Georgina Pollard, and the artist Melanie E. Khava laid out 9 years of the artists work on the floor of the space and spent an entire week discussing and selecting work for a final exhibition.  This text is my response to the experience and the artwork I was privileged to encounter in such a sustained and intimate manner.

When we spread the inventory of nine years of Melanie’s E. Khava’s artistic production on rows of white paper across the gallery floor, the immediate, intuitive impression I had of it was a sense of snow.  Certainly this was not about the whiteness of the work, which was overpowering in the volubility of its color. Instead, I realized, it was the quietude of the work, as its cold, even crystalline silence recalled for me the smell of snow, especially when it is only a potency in the air.

It was a surprising impression, considering the riot of form and color that produced it.  When taken in survey, the body of work presented a formidable field of view, a brilliantly colorful array of predominantly geometric forms, at once anarchic and regimented within the grid of white rows on which it sat.  Though I knew of the quietude of Melanie’s work when viewed in isolation, it was surprising to encounter it through the cacophony of its informal and cumulative treatment on the floor of the gallery.   By all rights it should be yelling at the top of its lungs and yet the main impression was one of silence.

If we look at the work more closely though, we soon discover that the nature of this silence is far more fascinating than the surprising fact of it. At first approach, it often presents an intensely care inflected surface, predominantly made on paper painted in numerous painstaking layers and sanded to a smooth consistency.  The forms are methodically drawn, often with a light touch, sewn, punctured or cut, both literally into the surface of the paper, and figuratively in precise paint work.  The use of color is often cheerful or soft: light blues and bright yellows, subdued greens and pinks, combine to produce intimate objects of hard-edged abstraction with domestic overtones.  The consistent use of stitch and thread work, the layers and layers of applied paint, painstakingly smoothed, and the delicate precision of its execution, invests each object with the sustained care of its making, remarking the intimacy of touch required by its process and the handled nature of its production.

Given its non objective, often hard edged content, this intimate, hand crafted, even “lovingly made” work conflicts with itself and the description I have given (even as I give it) appears to me completely inaccurate and misleading.  Take for instance one striking work made up of light yellow, pink, green and blue hard edged forms created through intersecting diagonals.  From this surface, three circles have been cut out, painted different colors, criss crossed with black thread and sewn back into place.  The colors you cannot describe as anything but “cheerful” and yet they combine with the extreme flatness and sharp edged purity of the forms to generate an effect of anxious severity; bright, cold, and hard to the point of being impenetrable.  This is emphasized by the fact that the work is literally penetrated: through the use of cutting, but also through the puncturing of the needle that sews the cut material back in to place.  These penetrations give nothing. In demonstrating the paltry 3rd dimension or literal depth of the paper, they only amplify the unforgiving flatness of the picture plane, denying any of the consolations of depth, any sense of ‘give’ in the surface.


In fact, far from ameliorating the cold ideality of the surface, these penetrations produce an undeniable effect of violence.  The cutting of the surface is only exacerbated by the suture-like stitching that ‘repairs’ it: an effect that implicates the razor sharp edges of the painted geometric forms with a sense of cruelty.   The paper itself, thickened and stiffened by the layers of paint, has the consistency of animal hide, suggesting at once surgical laceration and leatherwork.  This last effect is more fully emphasized in another work on paper that is literally dissected along its diagonals and incompletely sewn back together.  An irregular anamorphic plane is also cut out of the dissected pink picture plane, painted red and again incompletely sewn back into place.  When hanging on the wall, the bottom segment swings a fraction away from the wall, suspended off the work like a flap of loose leather or viscera.  The centre of the work, where the cut diagonals cross, is also left unsewn, creating small flaps, beneath which a literal interior is vaguely glimpsed.  Yet, as in the first work analyzed, the interior seems implied as a means of foreclosing the absolute nature of the picture plane.  By showing us what is literally beneath the image, Khava confirms for us that we can only ever get behind the ‘canvas’, never behind the image.

Perhaps because of the violence implied by its means, this strategy at first presents as a kind of cruel refusal, mocking the viewer with an offer of revelation that is itself a rebuff.  But there is another possible reading, one that suggests that the works are made with a genuine desire to speak, a desire to reveal depth but within an awareness of its impossibility.   Interpreted along these lines, the penetrations become invitations to perceive what cannot be seen, to listen for what cannot be spoken.

 

There is also a further possible implication, derived from the highly disciplined formal severity of the surface, that the purity of formal means is itself that which forbids speech or renders it impossible. Seen in this light, the silence first perceived as an effect of this work becomes particularly the silence of the silenced.  The muteness of the object is imposed upon it by the cruelty of formal rigor as an almost sadistic imperative.  But this imperative is experienced not from the perspective of the sadist, but of the victim.  Thus the conflicted nature of these much loved, unloving objects: the intense, sustained, and intimate care (often self effacing) with which they are made stands in rigid tension to their cold brilliance, unforgiving surface, and austere indifference to the viewer.

 

The works so far discussed are extreme in the tendencies I am attempting to elucidate. While they are significant for the raw statement of their under-sublimated conflict, they should not be mistaken as indicative of the modulation of Khava’s oevre.  Her development as an artist, it could be argued, tends toward a mitigation of this conflict, rendering it more subtle and understated, in a sense stating its silence more silently.

This reading is supported by reference to another work, again on paper composing two light blue rectangles, each with a narrow rectangular slot cut neatly into its surface, one on the left side and the other on the right.  A thin skein of thread is sewn across each slot, one red and one yellow.  The overall effect is far more ‘cheerful’ than the previous works discussed: the light blue surface reacting in complement to the bright yellow and red thread, which rims the slot with a cushion of stitch work and softly veils its aperture.  Also, the absence of converging diagonals helps to stabilize the image, relieving it of the sense of explicit irrationality of the works previously discussed.  Yet, despite this more pleasing demeanor, the painting has lost none of its tension.  The narrowness of the slits, the bright color of the thread and the softness it offers to the eye, both in the transparency of its skein, but also in the edging around the rim of the window, invites the viewer into the its intimate ambit, but only to trap it within the triple bind created by the veiling.  At once covering over, revealing, and revealing nothing, this ‘window’ only emphasizes the flatness of the picture plane, the hardened materiality of its painted surface, and ultimately the inadequacy of the blue to remain ‘cheerful’ in concert with these more severe qualities and in competition with the brightness of the thread.  Its promise of pleasure seduces the viewer towards the internal limit of that pleasure, drawing you up to that absolute boundary of desire, the picture plane.  Not only is it impenetrable, but beyond it’s veil there is nothing but the banality of a wall.

Without reducing the diversity of Khava’s artistic output to this singular statement, its concerns can be found to iterate across her oeuvre.  The predominant use of paper, and an aversion to framing the work keeps it flat against the wall.  When viewed from any distance, this reduces it ostensibly to the two dimensions of its picture plane, yet leaves it in paradoxical communication with the wall.  What is literal and what is pictorial remain in open conflict.  Her work, overall, tends toward the smaller scale, producing an intimacy that contradicts the hard edged content it asks the viewer, impossibly, to be intimate with.  When Khava does work larger, it is through modular assemblage, often creating grids out of square serial works that draw pictorial continuities across the spaces between the individual frames; in other words creating a continuous picture plan that spans the literal gaps in it’s support, often creating forms that mimic or tease the form of those very gaps.

This use of the grid is not uncommon in Khava’s oevre, and I suppose, given the nature of the work, not unexpected.  The grid was after all originally a tool for translating literal three-dimensional reality onto a two dimensional plane that became itself a central object of modernist self-conscious concern.  It’s role as medium between the pictorial and the literal made it a perfect object for abstract contemplation.  Khava treats the grid with typical care, taking this impersonal, objective, and universalizing form and manifesting it’s geometric severity as a hand crafted, lovingly made object.  This is perhaps most obvious when the artist strays from paper to stitch gold and silver thread grids onto four small square ‘samples’ of un-stretched canvas painted in subdued pink, grey, mustard and black.  The works immediately deprive the canvas of its pretension as canvas, reducing it to the status of mere cloth and making the objects resonate toward the category of domestic needlework.  Yet the form so embroidered on this “denuded” support is one of the central paradigms of universal modernism  (some would argue it is modernism’scentral paradigm), and the contradiction between the highly personal, hand crafted object and its impersonal, abstract, and universalist subject matter is emphatic.

In a sense, Khava is taking modernism personally.  Far from the abstract universal rhetoric of high modernism, her work encounters the universal through the finite aperture of the individual, consistently invoking it through means that emphasize their corporeality and the conflict of sublimation that makes the relationship possible.  On one level the subject exists in an almost symmetrical relationship to the universal form to which it is subjected, i.e. the formal severity of the work, its ordered, impassive beauty and pristine indifference, stands in almost inverse attitude to that of the subject– enthralled, supplicating, vulnerable: the lover of the much loved unloving object.  Yet on another level, the subject is defiant, always transgressing the rule of order.  By insisting on the imperfection of means and the finitude of the subject, the work defies the purity of form, and refuses its tendency to totalize toward the delusion of pure abstraction.

From this perspective, the tension, cruelty, and even violence we have found implicit in this work, takes on a new dimension.  The silence of the silenced becomes a teeth gritting defiance: its unspeaking nature assumes an edge of implacable refusal and defiance of the order to which it is enthralled.  This contradiction defines and sustains the relationship between subject and object, holding it open in a tension that refuses to allow it to collapse: either the subject extinguished in its subjection to the object or the object consumed by the limitless desire of the subject.

This single movement of attraction and resistance to the Other, seeks at once the ideal union between the two terms while insisting at the same time on the very real distance and difference between them.  In other words, the artist endeavors to discover, impose, or imply order in the very same movement that she resists and transgresses it in a self-assertive gesture of liberation.  Khava makes this relationship manifest by describing in her work, the love affair between the artist and the absolute as a running battle that is lost as soon as one side wins.

For more images of this work, go to the INDEX. website.

Review: Todd McMillan “No More Light” at Grantpirrie

by Alex Wisser

This review was originally published on DAS500 on June 4, 2011

If the sublime had a logo it would be the flat line of the horizon. As a graphic form it signifies that unverifiable, unreachable limit to our perception, indicating without describing ‘the beyond’ of the very means through which we apprehend it.

This is something of which Todd McMillan is obviously aware, and even if you are unfamiliar with his oeuvre, no more light, recently shown at Grantpirrie in Sydney, declares its subject unequivocally, composed as it is of four videos – three of which are dominated by horizon lines. These videos are projected onto the wall through four overhead projectors that line the middle room like squat robotic sentinels hunched in locked surveillance of their own projections. The cut corner square images are rendered hazy and sepia toned through the translation of the projectors, referencing early photography in a semiosis of romanticism and nostalgia.

These images, and the temporality they suggest, compete with the nostalgia of the slightly less antiquated technology producing them. The projectors emit their own sense of the past. Their production of virtuality, which is dependant on the far too tangible technology of textured glass and block cut sheet metal, projects the viewer into their own past to whatever bored, pained or confounded experience of high school classrooms these objects are the familiar of. The images, seen in this context, seem like reference material for the illustration of certain Romantic poets: Donne or Keats or Shelly, compounding the temporal contradiction with something more metaphysical. How could these clumsy machines produce an equivalent of the great poets of the sublime?

The answer perhaps can be found in that classroom where, without visual aids (beyond those provided by language), some underpaid public servant first confounded and bored you in an attempt to introduce you to this very same sublime. Subjected as you were (keen perhaps, or intimidated), the idea of the sublime was born: the idea of a beyond that was at once immense and humanly fulfilling, poetic and intensely meaningful. Perhaps it was no more than the beyond of the banality of that classroom: the idea that out there somewhere there existed a world capable of sustaining the states of intensity that these poems and your teacher seemed to promise but failed to deliver.

McMillan suggests that in failing to communicate the sublime, your teacher succeeded in tethering you to it: presenting it by making you present to your boredom, confusion, and distraction (i.e. everything that was not beyond). There is the suggestion that this is the experience of the sublime. Not great emotion, but an awkward silence, the banality of detail, a sense of one’s own corporeality illuminated by the indifference of the universe to it. If this seems pessimistic or disappointing, I don’t think this is the artist’s intention. His work considers the conditions under which we experience the beyond with a rigor and sincerity that insists that it is there and well worth pursuing.

Review: Tom Polo “Hit and Miss” at Parramatta Artist Studios

by Alex Wisser

Tom Polo’s Hit and Miss at Par­ra­matta Artist Stu­dios presents a mot­ley of slo­gans and one lin­ers, often framed in the form of moti­va­tional posters, badges, but­tons, flags and pin­ions, arranged for the most part in the main gallery on a pow­der blue wall.  It looks a lit­tle like the fan­tasy of a small child who has cho­sen to wor­ship not sport or celebrity, but the moti­va­tional indus­try and has decked his bed­room walls with naïve effi­gies of pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als he dreams will beguile and seduce his friends into pur­chas­ing his over­priced books and cd sets as a side effect of the immense pop­u­lar­ity his clar­ity of vision and inci­sive turn of phrase would win for him.

There is no count­ing on how many lev­els such a child is dis­turbed and mis­taken.  If he actu­ally did exist, I would, for his own obvi­ously trau­ma­tized sake, con­tra­dict my usual posi­tion and advise admin­is­ter­ing heavy doses of both sport and celebrity in alter­na­tion in the hopes of shock­ing his sys­tem back… at least away from this dan­ger­ous turn of mind.  And still we have not yet plumbed the depths of his con­di­tion, because, when we look more closely at the works, it becomes appar­ent that this kid has got­ten some­thing else wrong.  Instead of fill­ing our eyes and minds with the resound­ing acclaim of absolute and uni­ver­sal affir­ma­tion, our imag­i­nary child has included expres­sions of many of the emo­tions that sur­round the pur­suit of “per­sonal ful­fill­ment”, but are usu­ally excluded from its pro­gram­matic con­tent.  Many of the slo­gans express anx­i­ety, self-doubt, self-criticism and self-deprecation even as they main­tain their brightly opti­mistic pro­mo­tional atti­tudes.    Polo has cre­ated a self-help phi­los­o­phy that pro­motes the neg­a­tive on par with the pos­i­tive.   When you think about it, that’s all that any self-help phi­los­o­phy does.

The result is an uneasy sense of ambiva­lence that draws out and empha­sizes an uncer­tainty at the heart of much of this lan­guage.  Pos­i­tive state­ments take on a more men­ac­ing, and self con­flicted aspect.  The phrase “Win­ning not Whin­ing”, begins to look like bul­ly­ing, posi­tioned as it is beneath the droop­ing words “Sad Sac”.  These con­flicts and con­tra­dic­tions mul­ti­ply, pro­duc­ing a field of dis­so­nance, each work dis­rupt­ing the smooth func­tion­ing of the oth­ers, until you can­not be sure of how to read any of it.   The result is a dis­cur­sive flat­ness that mir­rors the visual flat­ness of the paint­ings.  The reader, like the viewer, is unable to dis­cover any depths of mean­ing into which they can project them­selves and this lack of a coher­ent, uni­fied sub­ject leaves the viewer ric­o­chet­ing between the var­i­ous unten­able sub­ject positions.

It felt as though the flat­ness of the pic­ture plane had some­how infected the sub­ject posi­tion of the viewer, and that where I stood look­ing at the work was as lim­ited in dimen­sion as the pic­ture plane of the objects I exam­ined.    There is some evi­dence that this is exactly what Polo had intended for me.  The cover of the cat­a­logue, for instance, is a print of one of the works that has been made into but­ton.  You can actu­ally stand in front of the work, wear­ing one of the works as a (flat) badge of the sub­ject posi­tion it per­mits (and dis­rupts).  This is taken fur­ther in a side room, dressed up as a the­atre, in which round paint­ings of var­i­ous crude, flatly ren­dered faces are arranged in depth as though sit­ting in the audi­ence, all fac­ing a sin­gle red paint­ing with the name tony writ­ten in black that hangs on the far wall.   The para­dox of paint­ings of human faces fac­ing a paint­ing of lan­guage estab­lishes a mis en abyme, in which sub­jec­tiv­ity ric­o­chets between the two posi­tions.  Where does the viewer stand?  In the posi­tion of dis­course (and dis­courser), look­ing at the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of faces, or in the posi­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tion look­ing at dis­course? Again Tom doesn’t allow us a com­fort­able place to sit and we are left float­ing, home­less between the two.

Review: “Intersections” at At The Vanishing Point – Contemporary Art, Newtown

by Alex Wisser

This review was originally published on DAS500 on May 04 2011

Intersections is not curated by Adrian Clement. This is a point he insists upon in his (not) curator’s statement. Instead, he considers the exhibition a single artwork made by himself out of the works of the other artists involved. As one of those artists, I have to say, the statement raises some mixed emotions.

Conceived as a challenge to the conventional wisdom that curators employ to isolate the experience of individual works from each other, Intersections is the careful combination of the experience of different works to produce “intersections” between them. These points of overlap create effects unintended by the original artist as neighboring works are brought to impinge upon each other.

For instance, the only illumination in the exhibition is provided by the several light based and projected video works within the show. A tall door of light tubes in the main gallery illuminates Kate Mackay’s large wall of colored cubes when closed and when opened it lights a photograph of a night seascape by Kurt Sorenson barely perceptible through the blinding you must endure to push the door open. On one side of the room, a polished brass mirror made by Tom Isaacs, reflects perfectly Adrian’s arrangement of Petri dishes containing dripped paint by Georgina Pollard on the far wall. The exhibition is full of these discoveries that make you wonder where each of the intersecting artists leave off and Adrian begins. The result is often a sense of elegant confusion and a heightened awareness of the relational nature of meaning. The unity of individual works is disrupted, pushing coherence back to the level of the entire exhibition so that in the end the viewer is brought indeed to consider it a single work of art. And this is the source of my mixed emotion.

On the one hand, Intersections successfully fulfills its original brief, mounting a challenge to the conventions of curation by grounding its “curatorial” practice in artistic rather than theoretical, or art historical concern. It was exactly this prospect that excited me about participating. On the other hand, there is a sense in which it has succeeded too well if the curator thus passes over the threshold being challenged to become artist – curation itself remains unscathed and we end with another monster altogether, the meta-artist, who uses other artists’ work as the raw material of his own. 500 words could never contain the maelstrom of implications that such a figure unleashes. It’s not surprising that he should appear here. Often, it is only through crossing a boundary that we come to understand why that boundary exists.

Once on the other side, Adrian deftly negotiates the ethical minefield he treads. This particular incursion is marked by the profound respect any artist worth their salt has for their medium, which in this case is the work of other artists. In this way, Intersections is as much about the relationships between people as it is about the relationship between things.

Review: Goran Tomic, “SEE SAW” at At The Vanishing Point – Contemporary Art, Newtown

by Alex Wisser


In the front gallery at ATVP, Goran Tomic has estab­lished a land­scape of tele­vi­sions .  Arranged at dif­fer­ent alti­tudes, each screen angles along a shal­low semi-circle that dis­tends into the room like so many facet planes of per­spec­tive. Ris­ing behind this slightly alpine scene, a sky of draped sheet plas­tic hangs from the wall.  The tele­vi­sions them­selves are mot­ley in size, shape, and con­di­tion, yet each, from its own unique posi­tion, and each pos­sess­ing its own tonal inter­pre­ta­tion, repeat a sin­gle image with a sin­gle per­spec­tive.  The image is taken from inside a cave or tun­nel look­ing toward the blind­ing white aper­ture of the out­side that flick­ers and flares, throw­ing pat­terns onto the walls of the tun­nel and the screen of the tele­vi­sion.  The gen­eral effect is one of dis­ori­en­ta­tion as your mind seeks to rec­on­cile the out­ward fac­ing or con­vex aspect of the dis­play of an image of con­cav­ity and inward­ness.  It feels a bit like the image of a cave pro­jected onto the face of a moun­tain.  The shape of the lit­eral space is in inverse pro­por­tion to the illu­sory space of the image.

I begin with this descrip­tion because for me it char­ac­terises the entire exhi­bi­tion.  SEE SAW con­tains a dis­parate body of work that projects out­ward toward the viewer an expe­ri­ence of inward­ness.  This sin­gle per­spec­tive repeats like an invol­un­tary refrain: the sub­ject, wrapped in shadow, peers out­ward across the dimly per­ceived inte­rior toward the oblit­er­at­ing source of its illu­mi­na­tion.  The inver­sion of the val­ues of light and dark that make up chiaroscuro reveal this sub­ject to be a native to these dark places.  For him, per­cep­tion is a prod­uct of shad­ows, and he gazes into light as we might gaze into dark­ness  – as the ter­ri­fy­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing aper­ture onto the unknown.  As des­o­late as his world looks, as lonely and iso­lated as it feels, its inhos­pitable aspect is at least qual­i­fied and par­tial, per­mit­ting a dimly per­ceived uni­verse, while the vis­age of light and the idea of the out­side present as an absolute, the veil of oblit­er­at­ing blindness.

Another work in the same room is com­posed of a nar­row cor­ri­dor pro­duced by semi-opaque sheet plas­tic hang­ing par­al­lel to the wall.  Above this cor­ri­dor, mon­i­tors hang face down, illu­mi­nat­ing the cor­ri­dor and those who walk along it.  The video in these mon­i­tors is of an open face flu­o­res­cent light that cycles through vari­a­tions in shut­ter speed and pos­si­bly aper­ture cre­at­ing a cycle in the image that runs from a dirty noise infested under­ex­po­sure that reveals the bulbs as it reduces the light they pro­duce and then cycles up again to com­pletely oblit­er­ate the image and lit­er­ally blind the viewer through over­ex­po­sure.  Again, the work vac­il­lates between the blind­ness induc­ing ideal and the fallen nature of a vision that depends upon the lim­i­ta­tion of light, ulti­mately cor­rupt­ing its object through the exag­ger­a­tion of that limit.  While I felt that this work was slightly under real­ized, that it needed to be longer or some­how more sub­stan­tially man­i­fested, it did have a rather mag­i­cal side effect.  It allowed you to watch the shapes of other view­ers from the out­side as blurry sil­hou­ettes pass­ing through the work like the sub­merged shapes of unknow­able ani­mals at a poorly kept pub­lic aquarium.

The per­spec­ti­val con­tra­dic­tion between the artist stand­ing inside look­ing out and the audi­ence stand­ing out­side look­ing in, (even when the artist has given us the illu­sion of being inside) dis­rupts our capac­ity to iden­tify our way into the work and leaves us in that para­dox­i­cal state of simul­ta­ne­ously expe­ri­enc­ing both per­spec­tives at once. SEE SAW can be seen as one long attempt to invite us into a world Tomic knows he can­not share with us.  Two works in the back room evoke this best.

The first, “Gar­den, self por­trait as a Venus fly trap”, is a wry wink at Nau­man, embed­ding a video of the open mouth of the artist at the bot­tom of a length of foil duct tub­ing (this is actu­ally done three times, giv­ing the impres­sion of a gar­den or at least a clus­ter of plant life).  The result is a tun­nelling of per­spec­tive, a vague threat of ver­tigo and claus­tro­pho­bia at the bot­tom of which the artist’s mouth stretches and strains to open as wide as pos­si­ble in a ges­ture that sug­gests a reflex will gasp­ing and strain­ing to swal­low the viewer.  But there is another read­ing: the artist is stag­ing his desire to invite the viewer inside of him­self, that instead of attempt­ing to swal­low the viewer, he is offer­ing his open throat, and sym­bol­i­cally at least, the dark inte­rior of his throat, to our per­cep­tion.  This work is the inverse of the work described at the begin­ning of this review, as the artist acknowl­edges that he is the inte­ri­or­ity from within which he stands gaz­ing at the bril­liant aper­ture of the out­side — we, on this side stand gaz­ing at the dark aper­ture of the inside.

To con­firm this read­ing, the wall oppo­site “Gar­den” is com­pletely taken up by the pro­jec­tion of a video (Enter the Beast) made from the per­spec­tive of inte­ri­or­ity.  Again the sub­ject looks out from shad­ows across a dimly per­ceived space, this time at a large black cur­tain cov­er­ing the door­way.  The cur­tain flaps in the wind, snap­ping, open­ing and clos­ing like a mouth for­ag­ing for food in a men­ac­ing rup­ture through which we per­ceive only the chang­ing shape of a white void.  Toward the end of this video’s loop, sev­eral peo­ple, vis­i­ble only from the waist down walk into the space.  As they do so, the video is sped up, the cur­tain becomes vio­lent in its motion and the human legs dis­ap­pear as though eaten.  It is help­ful to know that this video was made at the entrance to one of the dis­play rooms on Cock­a­too Island at last year’s Bien­nale so that the peo­ple enter­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing have entered to view an art­work not unlike the one that sits behind you as you watch this one.

Both from the inside look­ing out and the out­side look­ing in, the desire is the same, either to pass from the inside into the out­side or to invite the out­side in.  From both sides the verge is rimmed with ter­ror and fas­ci­na­tion.  Goran Tomic implies the dif­fi­culty of over­com­ing the fear that pro­hibits pas­sage even while sug­gest­ing its impos­si­bil­ity.   Not only is it dif­fi­cult, it is also impos­si­ble.  This para­dox, or even redun­dancy works not in order to final­ize our pes­simism but to fore­ground the true sub­ject of these works which is the insis­tent, the inex­tin­guish­able desire to cross this bound­ary, to com­mu­ni­cate between these two sides.

Review: Heath Franco, “Fun House” at First Draft

by Alex Wisser

The gallery at the rear of First Draft is not that small.  It has high ceil­ings and enough room to accom­mo­date a medium sized lorry.  Don’t get me wrong, its not huge or any­thing, but it’s not a closet.  It is thus the first achieve­ment of Heath Franco’s work, “Fun House” that with noth­ing more than a few chan­nels of av and some pink flo­res­cent lights he has man­aged to cram it with enough sen­sory stim­u­la­tion to make it feel claus­tro­pho­bic.  He does this by con­dens­ing 5 video streams onto a sin­gle wall with 3 large wall mounted flat screens, a fourth sit­ting on the ground in the cor­ner and a fifth stream pro­jected across all of it.   Within this com­pressed field of noise and vision, absurd crea­tures super­im­posed against images of side­walks, pub­lic art and amuse­ment par­lors, dance and bob in loop­ing ges­tures of obscure intent, often chant­ing barely com­pre­hen­si­ble slo­gans that con­vey noth­ing but the generic will to influ­ence you.

My favorite is the clown stand­ing in front of a burger shop, then in front of the flames of a fire, aggres­sively insist­ing, “You eat meat.  You eat meat.  You got the taste for it.”    When the cam­era zooms in, the glit­ter on his cheeks glis­tens like saliva and the red of his clown’s makeup looks like gris­tle and blood.  The mes­sage is so scram­bled that I can’t sep­a­rate the feel­ing of offense I take at his bully­boy insis­tence on who I am and the strange plea­sure I derive from being so rec­og­nized.  Yah, I do eat meat.  The over mas­cu­line aggres­sion of the char­ac­ter feeds both recep­tions: at once as a threat to my own sov­er­eignty, but at the same time offers it support.

The other char­ac­ters include a bird man, end­lessly impor­tun­ing, “Hey guys lets have real good time”, a fem­i­nized cow­boy rid­ing a bou­quet of fake flow­ers across desert vis­tas, a cir­cus ring­leader mutely invit­ing us into the screen or into his own bare chest, and another char­ac­ter who escapes descrip­tion other than that his face seems to be made of black fur, asks the audi­ence “What are you doing now?”  These char­ac­ters repeat and over­lay across the three screens and the pro­jec­tion on the wall, each equally iras­ci­ble and irri­tat­ing, each com­pet­ing fig­ure and voice blend­ing into a sin­gle wall of noise, a uni­fied field of sen­sory stim­u­la­tion that unhinges the gaze and sends it scur­ry­ing from dis­trac­tion to dis­trac­tion.  On one hand your atten­tion is con­stantly dis­tracted from any sus­tained focus by the demands of the other screens crowd­ing at its periph­ery, spruik­ing their own brand of non­sense.  On the other hand, the gaze of the viewer, while fas­ci­nated by the var­i­ous scenes, can­not sus­tain the visual assault for long, and seek­ing respite in the else­where of its neigh­bors, rest­lessly moves on.  The move­ment is sim­i­lar to the phe­nom­ena of chan­nel surf­ing in which the viewer who can­not stand the var­i­ous forms of crap on offer takes refuge in the space between chan­nels and the infin­i­tes­i­mal closed cir­cuit in which desire and dis­ap­point­ment are almost super­im­posed in a sta­sis of per­pet­ual tran­si­tion… almost.

To rein­force this expe­ri­ence, the fourth mon­i­tor sits on the floor con­tain­ing the char­ac­ter of a small child wear­ing a beanie and cling­ing to a toy bal­loon pump as he wan­ders around super­im­posed against video footage of an amuse­ment par­lor.  The child’s mood cycles from wide eyed excite­ment to con­fu­sion to over­stim­u­lated petu­lance, until finally he is sob­bing, and demand­ing to go home.  This fourth screen sits to the side, and like a Greek cho­rus, expresses and reflects the posi­tion of the audi­ence, per­pet­u­ally itin­er­ant and trapped within a closed cir­cuit of dis­trac­tion and stim­u­la­tion, end­lessly repeat­ing an emo­tional cycle that is as sin­is­ter in its pos­i­tive phases as it is in its neg­a­tive.  While the other automa­tons are indif­fer­ent to the eter­ni­ties to which they are con­demned, this sim­plis­tic emo­tional mod­u­la­tion allows for a rel­a­tive level of empa­thy and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the sub­ject even as the sub­ject retains its char­ac­ter as automaton.

The sim­ple inser­tion of a crude ‘sub­jec­tiv­ity’ into this field of screens, opens the vir­tu­alised pic­ture plane to the fact that it is more than sim­ply a screen — it is also a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of actual places.   (The screen with the child is the only video in which the back­ground is video — all the other back­grounds are still images).  While we instantly rec­og­nize the “fun house” as being any of the hyper kinetic vir­tu­al­ized spaces we have avail­able today, from tele­vi­sion to video games to the Inter­net, Franco has super­im­posed this vir­tu­al­ity over rep­re­sen­ta­tion of actual spaces, and the “fun house” can be rec­og­nized in any of those time­less, insom­niac places we have designed for our dis­trac­tion and our per­pet­ual pass­ing through: air­ports, hos­pi­tals, malls, casino’s, fast food restau­rants, amuse­ment par­lors of any descrip­tion.  That he suc­ceeds so read­ily tes­ti­fies to the fact that this is not a union of his mak­ing, but one he discovers.

Review: Joan Ross, “Enter at Your Own Risk” GBK

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished 2010-11-10 on carnivalaskew.com

Joan Ross’ “Enter at Your Own Risk” at GBK looks like the liv­ing room of a poor man’s King Midas.  The objects within it do not betray great wealth.  The room is a patch­work of styl­is­ti­cally diverse com­mod­ity cul­ture, kitsch, and cheap dec­o­ra­tive home-ware seem­ingly selected by a sen­ti­men­tal taste with a cheap sense of humor and a pen­chant for colo­nial themes.  Almost every­thing within it has received the trans­fig­ur­ing touch, not into gold but fluro or hi-vis yellow.

Per­haps this is how a poor king might live: in the fac­sim­ile of wealth, com­fort, and taste that our mod­ern com­mod­ity cul­ture has made pos­si­ble.  Such a world is informed by the poverty of its illu­sion and the cheap dis­pos­abil­ity of it’s val­ues and at the same time it is sus­tained by com­pla­cent priv­i­lege and a sense of sov­er­eign enti­tle­ment.  The aris­to­cratic cul­ture, and the his­tory of sov­er­eign colo­nial rule that informs much of this taste is degraded in sta­tion by the plebian mate­r­ial cir­cum­stances in which it finds itself expressed.  In mod­ern soci­ety, sov­er­eignty itself has become poor.

This is the world that Joan Ross presents to us by paint­ing it fluro.  The color seeps into the creases that define this world, like the stain­ing agents that doc­tors use to reveal a malig­nancy, injury or dis­ease; this color also iso­lates, lift­ing into view, a qual­ity or dimen­sion that is oth­er­wise invis­i­ble beneath the unar­tic­u­lated sur­face of the world.  What you see are the objects, lifted from the obscu­rity and indif­fer­ence that famil­iar­ity shrouds them in, and ren­dered each as unique and res­o­nant depos­i­to­ries of those val­ues and rela­tion­ships that we inci­den­tally imbue them with.
Ross pur­sues this mean­ing relent­lessly, teas­ing it with dark humour, muta­tion and muti­la­tion that com­ment upon those val­ues and the absur­dity of their vehi­cles.  Strange growth, fun­gal forms, can­cer­ous and organic, spring forth, draw­ing con­nec­tions between the trite, sen­ti­men­tal­ized kitch object and the dark his­tory of which it is the prod­uct.  She does this not to lec­ture us on the vio­lent and crim­i­nal his­tory upon which we have founded our present world, but to mar­vel in par­tially hor­ri­fied awe at the absur­dity of it.  The fact of these arti­facts is that they are how we pos­sess our past,  our most heinous crimes are ren­dered ano­dyne to dec­o­rate our liv­ing rooms and impress our friends at din­ner par­ties.  Ross’ absur­di­ties accuse our world in a satir­i­cal alle­gory that reveals itself only when you real­ize that they are redun­dant — that the objects she has made are not nearly as absurd as the objects she’s made them from.

Review: Damian Dillon “Jailbreak” at Artereal

by Alex Wisser

Damian Dillon’s work involves defac­ing doc­u­men­tary pho­tographs of banal sub­jects, insert­ing crude human ges­ture into the aus­tere dis­tance of the pho­to­graphic pic­ture plane.  The results have always been unnerv­ing com­po­si­tions of pow­er­ful effect that I could appre­hend intu­itively, but have never quite under­stood.  I knew that I liked them but I could never locate why.  While this expe­ri­ence was not some­thing I minded, it was a wel­come sur­prise to find in his new show at Arte­real gallery, Jail­break , a level of res­o­lu­tion and cogency that allowed me to bet­ter grap­ple with the forces he puts into play with his process.  What was not sur­pris­ing was that these forces took on the nature of contradiction.

This is per­haps best illus­trated through ref­er­ence to the odd­ity of his names.  Though the show is called Jail­break, all of the works in it are named Real Estate .  The log­i­cal dis­cord of this nam­ing strat­egy is strangely off putting, the two terms belong to com­pletely dif­fer­ent realms of dis­course and their con­junc­tion is awk­ward, unsta­ble, even trans­gres­sive.  Yet, when the ques­tion of their rela­tion is allowed to set­tle, the terms res­onate, draw­ing fas­ci­nat­ing, asym­met­ri­cal con­nec­tions between them.  The con­ti­nu­ity, for instance, between Australia’s con­vict past and it’s cur­rent obses­sion with real estate, or the oblique par­al­lels that run between hous­ing estates and pris­ons – begin to make a kind of sense that is only gen­er­ated through such transgression.

This same strat­egy is at work in Dillon’s pho­tographs of hous­ing estates in Great Britain and Aus­tralia.  Rough frag­ments of these two worlds are brought into abrupt con­junc­tion and marred by shapes crudely drawn in Pho­to­shop or made directly onto the pho­to­graph using an indeli­ble marker.  Dillon’s inter­ven­tions into the pho­to­graphic pic­ture plane have the qual­ity of van­dal­ism, con­tain­ing within them the destruc­tive expres­sion of the desire to break, dis­turb, and dis­rupt the inescapably grim con­ti­nu­ity of the real­i­ties they refer to.  This destruc­tion though is essen­tially cre­ative, seek­ing to decom­pose the rei­fied form of bleak, con­crete and fatal cer­tainty, releas­ing the forces of pos­si­bil­ity con­strained within them.  The cre­ative ges­ture is left crudely incom­plete, trac­ing the child­ish out­line of a human house from of the inhu­man forms that make up its prison.

The effect of all these dis­rup­tions though is one of unex­pected con­ti­nu­ity.   Ros­alind Krauss once observed that the mute­ness of the pho­to­graphic index derived from the implaca­ble con­ti­nu­ity of its pic­ture plane: that it could not be artic­u­lated into dis­crete units of mean­ing, as lan­guage can, gave the pho­to­graph its unspeak­ing aspect.  I was sur­prised to find that despite Dillon’s many dis­rup­tions and break­ages, the con­ti­nu­ity of the pic­ture plane remained, or per­haps closed over its newly dis­uni­fied con­tents, envelop­ing them in its ret­i­cent tes­ti­mony.  This was due, I sus­pect, on the pre­dom­i­nant use of Pho­to­shop to make his marks, which leaves the sur­face of the pho­to­graph intact.  The occa­sional inter­ven­tions onto the lit­eral sur­face, act in con­trast as strik­ing, almost vio­lent accents break­ing the illu­sion of break­age he has cre­ated for us within the pic­ture plane – at once shar­ing the same impulse and ori­gin as the Pho­to­shop marks and yet tak­ing place in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent dimen­sion and thus remark­ing upon and encap­su­lat­ing the entire van­dal­is­tic process in his art.

These works are ulti­mately an expres­sion of hope; a hope sus­tained by the desire to shat­ter or trans­gress the impla­ca­bil­ity of the world as it is, so that some­thing, any­thing might be cre­ated from its ruins.  This expres­sion, though, is itself entrapped in the world it attempts to tear down.  This hope is as fatal­is­tic as the world it bright­ens.  It does not offer us utopic vis­tas or pris­tine Arca­dias or any of the other dreams into which we might escape real­ity. It offers us only pub­lic hous­ing estates, these habi­tats of poverty, fear, and extreme despair and yet, within that world, as a native to it, hope and a wil­fully cre­ative urge dwell as the impulse of run­ning water in a frozen place.

Review: 17th Biennale of Sydney

by Alex Wisser

David Elliot, in the pre­am­ble to the 17th Bien­nale of Syd­ney, declares his intentions:

Stereo­typ­i­cal rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped, rich and poor, first peo­ple and colonis­ers, ‘fine’ art and ‘folk’ art are here turned on their heads in an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.

While I ques­tion the pro­pri­ety of turn­ing such a polit­i­cally ambi­tious agenda to so sus­pect an end as “an exhi­bi­tion in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’”, I am con­vinced of the sin­cer­ity with which this ambi­tion is pur­sued.  Elliott has man­aged to cre­ate a show that exam­ines its own con­text, stag­ing the redis­tri­b­u­tion of per­spec­tive as an inher­ent poten­tial of a glob­al­iz­ing art world.  It describes moder­nity not only as a uni­ver­sal phe­nom­ena, but also as the local­ized and par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence of the col­li­sion of non west­ern soci­eties with the destruc­tive forces of colo­nial­ism, indus­tri­al­ism, and now glob­al­ism.  More impor­tantly, it shows those cul­tures respond, assum­ing their own moder­nity.  The result is a pro­lif­er­a­tion of per­spec­tives that offer an enriched dia­logue and an expanded capac­ity to under­stand our con­nected world.   This strat­egy is sus­tained by a recur­ring address to sub­jects and expe­ri­ence of moder­nity that shift across geo­graph­i­cal, ide­o­log­i­cal, cul­tural and the­o­ret­i­cal maps, chal­leng­ing the notion of a cen­tral­ized uni­ver­sal purview often with bril­liant obser­va­tion on the insta­bil­ity and unsus­tain­abil­ity of any uni­fied sub­ject posi­tion (even their own) as a con­di­tion of advanc­ing modernity.

Kut­lug Ataman’s mock doc­u­men­tary, Jour­ney to the Moon for instance, tells the story of a remote Ana­to­lian vil­lage stag­ing a moon mis­sion ten years before the Amer­i­cans tried, basi­cally win­ning the space race.  The power of the work derives from the level of plau­si­bil­ity Ata­man achieves, ren­der­ing evi­dent the per­sua­sive forces at play in mod­ern doc­u­men­tary mak­ing and draw­ing a par­al­lel between the “sto­ry­telling” of the peas­ants and com­men­tary of var­i­ous experts, sug­gest­ing that they are not all that dif­fer­ent in kind.  In telling a story that inverts “rank­ings of power and periph­ery, devel­oped and unde­vel­oped” Ata­man under­mines and ren­ders rel­a­tive, the sci­en­tific and aca­d­e­mic author­ity those rela­tion­ships are founded on.  He does so with the mock­ing humour of the peas­ant for the mas­ter, appeal­ing to the latter’s prej­u­dice in order to insin­u­ate a few truths about who’s supe­rior to whom in the blind spots thus cul­ti­vated (all the while mock­ing himself).

Cao Fei uses video game cgi to cre­ate a tawdry fan­ta­sia of 3d land­scapes peo­pled by awk­ward effi­gies of Marx, Mao, Lehman (of Lehman Broth­ers fame), and Lao Tsu engag­ing in ide­o­log­i­cal exchanges that sound like B-movie trans­la­tions from the Chi­nese.   This world, called People’s Limbo, has about it the tacky, abstract and clut­tered opu­lence of the cheap utopias of 2 dol­lar shop Cap­i­tal­ism.  The over­pow­er­ing qual­ity of this world is the sense of reck­less hurry with which it has been built and the super­fi­cial­ity of it’s at times strik­ing beauty col­lapses against the aware­ness that absolutely no care has gone into its mak­ing.  The philo­soph­i­cal argu­ments jump and stut­ter like the poorly ren­dered move­ment of its avatars, strangely insub­stan­tial state­ments in a con­ver­sa­tion that seems con­trived by cut­ting up and stitch­ing together so many mono­logues. The effect is truly one of limbo: of weight­less, time­less, and space­less expe­ri­ence, with­out sub­stance or fric­tion or sense of direc­tion and the clash­ing of these major ide­olo­gies con­vince us only of their futil­ity, draw­ing the sus­pi­cion that the uni­fied sub­ject posi­tions they rep­re­sent are no longer possible

Video art was def­i­nitely the strong suit of this Bien­nale, span­ning a vast chasm of expe­ri­ence between the unreal vir­tu­al­i­ties of con­sumer cul­ture and the stark actu­al­i­ties of extreme poverty. The AEF+S col­lec­tive offers a panoramic vision of the glit­ter­ing seduc­tions of fash­ion mag­a­zine glam­our by approx­i­mat­ing in video the ani­ma­tion of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy poses, allow­ing the frozen ges­ture to com­plete itself between beau­ti­ful, exotic crea­tures who’s gaze never meet, and who’s bod­ies never touch.  These fig­ures are caught in an end­less rep­e­ti­tion of seduc­tive ges­tures that never con­su­mate, pro­duc­ing a generic desire with­out spe­cific sub­ject or object or end, sug­gest­ing that this is the pro­duc­tive force at work in con­tem­po­rary adver­tis­ing.  On the other end of the spec­trum, Yan Fudong draws a stark par­al­lel between the lives of  vil­lagers in the remote vil­lage of Que and a pack of wild dogs liv­ing nearby who are forced to eat each other in order to sur­vive.  The grim, unre­lent­ing sever­ity of exis­tence is brought into sharp relief when the video focuses on two young dogs, on the verge of adult­hood, play­ing care­lessly with each other while chew­ing on dog skulls… obliv­i­ous to the future this act implies for them.

While much of the stronger work had darker themes, there were moments of gen­eros­ity that stood out against the darker con­text.  In ‘Vision Quest’, Mar­cus Coates served as a shaman and ‘seer’ for the com­mu­nity of a trou­bled Lon­don sub­urb, offer­ing both his sub­jects and audi­ence the glim­mer of hope and insight through the tech­nol­ogy of ani­mism and the gift of vision, remark­ing on the value and power of art.  Chris­t­ian Thomp­son grap­ples with the legacy of his mixed her­itage by teach­ing one of his Bid­jaraances­tral songs to a Dutch baroque singer.  Taken from its tra­di­tional con­text as a sacred song express­ing a man’s rela­tion­ship to his land and grafted onto another cul­ture, the song takes on new life and mean­ing.   It struck me  as a ges­ture of great gen­eros­ity tem­pered with an aware­ness of loss: that this object cre­ated through the mar­riage of two cul­tures belongs to nei­ther, and that it’s beauty derives in part from the tragic his­tory of dis­pos­ses­sion of which it is an artifact.

I found this dual­ity repeated in a num­ber of works, espe­cially those deal­ing with the rela­tion­ship between man and nature.  Shen Shaomin’s Bonzai’s are par­a­dig­matic, at first appear­ing to be uni­di­rec­tional state­ments about the vio­lent impo­si­tion of indus­tri­al­ized human will onto the nat­ural world, they even­tu­ally “flip” like Chi­nese boxes into cel­e­bra­tions of the force and resilience of nature — the plants’ inten­si­fied mus­cu­la­ture twist­ing and striv­ing against the tor­tu­ous imple­ments of their con­straint, relent­lessly throw­ing new life beyond the per­mit of their bondage.  Janet Laurence’s “WAITING — A Med­i­c­i­nal Gar­den for Ail­ing Plants” makes aes­thetic com­ment on the indis­tin­guish­able bound­ary between nature and sci­ence through her stun­ning green­house instal­la­tion, com­bin­ing sci­en­tific objects, instru­ments, forms and ‘processes’ with botan­i­cal mate­ri­als in clas­si­cally for­mal­ized arrange­ments that speak to the shared fragility of man and nature, and the del­i­cate affini­ties of form that com­mu­ni­cate between them.

This dynamic can be read as a thin sub­text that runs beneath the sur­face of this show, and the best works within it speak at once to the destruc­tive col­li­sion between tra­di­tional cul­tures and moder­nity and at the same time to the new cul­tural poten­tials that emerge.  This can be done super­fi­cially, as a tokenis­tic appro­pri­a­tion of tra­di­tional means and forms to express mod­ern con­cerns.  Hisashi Tenmyouya’s tra­di­tional paint­ing of a Japan­ese god of war with machine guns instead of swords made me shrug my shoul­ders and won­der how this image would feed into received West­ern prej­u­dices of Ori­en­tal moder­nity.  Sit­ting right next to it though, is Makoto Aida’s “The Calig­ra­phy School”, which addresses the very nature of such exchanges, play­fully pre­sent­ing a bill­board with what looks like tra­di­tional Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy.  It is not.  It is an abstract fac­sim­ile of Japan­ese cal­lig­ra­phy — some­thing you wouldn’t know if you didn’t read the lan­guage (or the wall text).  While pre­sent­ing us with our expec­ta­tions of Japan­ese cul­ture, Aida inserts beneath it the sim­ple truth of such under­stand­ing — that it is based nec­es­sar­ily on igno­rance and that the dis­tances which it attempts to bridge are very real and just as perilous.

Abstrac­tion often plays a key role in such works.  Liu Jianhua’s Con­tainer Series presents abstract ceramic ves­sels filled with deep red glaze.  The objects are bereft of his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural mark­ers, nev­er­the­less, a viewer is com­pelled to con­sider them as Chi­nese ceram­ics, with all the post­colo­nial bag­gage that implies.  In addi­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to view the objects with­out read­ing the deep red glaze as some­how rep­re­sent­ing blood, and tak­ing on polit­i­cal dimen­sions.  Jianhua’s work seems to be test­ing the bound­aries of abstrac­tion by empha­siz­ing and impli­cat­ing the local­ized, his­tor­i­cal, and polit­i­cal con­text in which they are viewed.  If the con­tent is abstract, the con­text is not and the ten­dency toward the uni­ver­sal is always located.

Across the show, Elliot was con­sis­tent in his choice of artists, and man­aged to main­tain a high level of qual­ity while sourc­ing work from a broad range of cul­tural, polit­i­cal, and geo­graph­i­cal back­grounds.  The works of big name artists were restrained by the mod­esty of their scale­and the strat­egy of their place­ment, as the cura­tor seems to have actively refused the temp­ta­tion to play them as cen­tre pieces and draw cards, instead invit­ing them to con­tribute to the con­ver­sa­tions estab­lished by other, lesser known artists.

In pur­su­ing his polit­i­cal ends, though, Elliot has paid a price in terms of his address to the gen­eral pub­lic.  The Tur­bine Hall at Cock­a­too Island was a sham­bles.  The major spec­ta­cle work by Cai Guo-Qiang, had all the visual impact of a used car lot in the late after­noon. Then there was a jump­ing cas­tle that we weren’t allowed to jump on, the roofs of a shanty town we were not free to walk on, an incom­pre­hen­si­bly botched piano lynch­ing, a series of ugly abstract expres­sion­ist paint­ings hung under the cura­to­r­ial strat­egy of “make it fit”, and a wooden tele­scope that made no sense in the actu­al­ized con­text of the show (despite the fact that the title might per­mit it).  This sham­bles not only failed to please its intended audi­ence, it dimin­ished the value of the exhi­bi­tion as a whole.  It seemed crass to place within a show addressed to such impor­tant issues, this mélange of badly pre­sented con­ces­sions to “pop­u­lar taste” — espe­cially since it failed to sat­isfy that taste.

This fail­ing returns us to the cura­to­r­ial state­ment quoted at the top of this essay, com­pelling the ques­tion that if Elliott has suc­ceeded to some degree in the polit­i­cal ambi­tion of this show, was it for no bet­ter end than to cre­ate an exhi­bi­tion “in which the only dis­crim­i­na­tion is whether the art is any ‘good’.”  Such an inten­tion implies that beneath all of the dif­fer­ences of per­spec­tive, there exists a homo­ge­neous, uni­ver­sal cul­ture in which we can eas­ily agree on what is “any ‘good’”.  Such a con­clu­sion is excluded by the premise – the diver­sity of per­spec­tives which Elliot pro­motes by decon­struct­ing estab­lished rela­tion­ships between them, implies that the field is not homo­ge­neous and that dis­agree­ment is nec­es­sary to it (and not nec­es­sar­ily as a bad thing).