Alex Wisser

photocentric

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.

What Things Look Like

by Alex Wisser

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May 7–21 2011
artists: Adrian Clement, Dan Stocks, Yvette Hamil­ton, Tina Fiveash, Sue Storry, Peter Williamson, Lisa Mas­toras, Johanna Trainor, Iso­bel Philip, Ireneusz Luty, Iou­lia Ter­izis, Emily Win­don, Andreia Da Cruz, Kurt Soren­son, Alex Wisser

“What Things Look Like”was a group exhi­bi­tion of pho­to­me­dia to be mounted as a part of the Headon Photo Fes­ti­val.  This exhi­bi­tion asks con­tem­po­rary pho­to­me­dia artists to respond to Gary Winnogrand’s famous claim that he pho­tographed in order to see what things looked like pho­tographed.  Implicit in this claim is an under­stand­ing that by pho­tograph­ing a thing, you change it, you alter its per­cep­ti­ble being.  “What Things Look Like” cel­e­brates our abil­ity to change the real­ity we record, to ren­der it more human even as we ren­der it less real.

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.

The Lighter Side of Gravity

by Alex Wisser

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Two weeks of anx­i­ety dri­ven explo­ration into the effects of weight­less­ness on the holy relics of aes­thetic the­ory cul­mi­nates in a sin­gle evening of per­for­mance as our dar­ing INDEX. direc­tors, Alex Wisser and Georgie Pol­lard attempt to put the uni­verse into motion through the use of scale mod­els and high school physics. It was remarked after­ward that the whole evening was like a soap bub­ble that rises fas­ci­nat­ing and iri­des­cent into the air before pop­ping in a ges­ture that seems to sug­gest it was never even there in the first place.

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.

Emergency Display

by Alex Wisser

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artists” Alex Wisser, Coza Thomas, Gary Smith, Georgie Pollard, Goran Tomic, Jeff Hamilton, Kate Mackay, Ken Simpson, Kristine McCarroll, Kurt Sorensen, Lena Obergfell, Luke Nguyen, Melanie Foster, Michelle Cao, Patricia Mado, Peter Fyfe, Peter Mcguiness, Rachael Everitt, Rene Sinkjaer, Renee Falez, Sarah Breen Lovett, Sarah Nolan, Tom Loveday, Yang-En Hume, Zoe Johnson
AT THE VANISHING POINT — CONTEMPORARY ART
565 King st. Newtown
20 May to 30 May
Open­ing 6:00pm Thu 20 May

The emer­gent in art is usu­ally con­sid­ered in terms of indi­vid­ual tal­ent or intel­lec­tual and aes­thetic trends. Emer­gency Dis­play instead attempts to sur­vey and remark upon a region of our city that seems to be emerg­ing as an impor­tant locus for the pro­duc­tion and exhi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary art: The Inner West.  The con­di­tions for such an emer­gence are first eco­nomic.  Such a dis­trict must be afford­able for artists to live and work in.  Much else must hap­pen, but first the mate­r­ial fact of hav­ing a roof over one’s head must be seen to.  To per­vert Brecht inex­cus­ably, shel­ter first, then art.  This is what hap­pened in Sydney’s East­ern sub­urbs in the 80s and 90s, as it has hap­pened in var­i­ous neigh­bor­hoods in the major cities of the world.   Per­haps the scale of com­par­i­son is larger than I should like, for I am not inter­ested in com­par­ing Sydney’s Inner West to Soho or Mont­martre, but have in mind a far more hum­ble hypoth­e­sis:  That the mate­r­ial con­di­tions for the emer­gence of such a dis­trict, make pos­si­ble cer­tain poten­tials for devel­op­ment, inven­tion, and risk tak­ing in art.

The imme­di­ate advan­tages of such an envi­ron­ment are already well known.  The con­gre­ga­tion of a large and diverse com­mu­nity of artists liv­ing and work­ing in rel­a­tive prox­im­ity makes pos­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties for col­lec­tive action, dia­logue, and com­mon dis­cov­ery and devel­op­ment.  There is another advan­tage though, one which is less com­mented on.  The appear­ance of such a com­mu­nity pro­vides a con­text for art pro­duc­tion that acts as an alter­na­tive to the art world of com­mer­cial gal­leries, offi­cial acad­e­mies, and tra­di­tional, estab­lish­ment insti­tu­tions.  Within it, artists are free to make work that does not need to take into imme­di­ate con­sid­er­a­tion the social, cul­tural, or eco­nomic neces­si­ties that dom­i­nate the Art World.    Dis­card­ing the worldly con­sid­er­a­tions of mar­ket, career, and even art his­tory and the­ory, the artist is free to explore those val­ues con­sid­ered neg­a­tive to the exist­ing order.  In a sense it detaches itself from the given, from what’s already estab­lished and makes room for alter­na­tive aes­thetic and con­cep­tual orders.  The only impor­tant judge of the work is other artists, who prize hon­esty, courage, and inven­tion over sal­a­bil­ity or rel­e­vance. The artist is free to take risks that muse­ums and estab­lished com­mer­cial gal­leries could not con­done — mostly because of the mas­sive weight of eco­nomic, his­tor­i­cal, and cul­tural cap­i­tal invested in them.

This show is not meant to declare the emer­gence of the next great phase in mod­ern art, but only to cel­e­brate the par­tic­u­lar fecun­dity that we are expe­ri­enc­ing in Sydney’s Inner West — to note its sin­gu­lar­ity and if pos­si­ble to raise its pro­file, to remark upon it with the hope of mak­ing it that lit­tle bit more coher­ent to itself and to the rest of what we call the art world.  The per­cent­ages will remain the same.  A few artists will make it into the gal­leries and on to the museum.  Many will quit and work in adver­tis­ing or tele­vi­sion and oth­ers will per­sist qui­etly in their spare bed­rooms, in the garage or in the shed, occa­sion­ally show­ing here or there to an audi­ence of friends and fel­low trav­el­ers.  After all, we aren’t really talk­ing about a place, but a time.  And if all indi­ca­tors are cor­rect, soon even Mar­rickville and New­town will be too expen­sive for the artist to live in.  The com­mer­cial gal­leries and the estab­lish­ment insti­tu­tions are already here.  Soon, the artists will pick up and move West to Can­ter­bury per­haps or Bur­wood, or Strath­field.  Wher­ever the rents aren’t too expen­sive and the ware­house space is plen­ti­ful.  But that is the future.

Going Somewhere

by Alex Wisser