Alex Wisser


Tag: art

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.

Going Somewhere

by Alex Wisser

by Alex Wisser

song of joy


by Alex Wisser

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

artists: Adrian Clement, Alexander Jackson Wyatt, Andre Flament, Angela Stretch, Annalice Creighton, Anthony Bartok, Francesca Mataraga, Georgina Pollard, Goran Tomic, Hayley Hill, Josh Harle, Julia Kennedy-Bell, Muzi Li, Melanie E. Khava, Ro Murray, Susie Williams, Tom Isaacs, Zeo Ledux


Like an object, this idea is describable from several perspectives, three of which I will present here.


Throughout the 20th Centry, art discourse has questioned and critically excoriated the context in which art is placed and displayed.  From a very broad perspective one might conclude that nowhere on this earth is there a space that does not somehow degrade, corrode, or diminish the artwork that it contains.  On the one hand there is the home of the collector, into which the artwork enters only through its conversion into commodity fetish through the process of its purchase.  Once there it must endure its humiliated condition as an object amongst other objects, functioning in the service of decoration and the symbolic production of status and prestige.  On the other hand, the gallery space is perceived as a sterile, negative space, scrubbed of any reference to or residue of the outside world, even to the point of denying the bodily presence of the viewer.  Abstract/Object is an attempt to superimpose these two spaces, creating a third paradoxical space in which the status of the object is made uncertain: at once challenged by its placement in a context permeated by the every day world, and at the same time a space abstracted and rarefied by its gallery status.


At the same time, the 20th century also saw the growth and agglomeration of mass media coalesce into an integrated, continuous plane of representation, virtualizing much of contemporary life.  Forced to question its own powers of representation in a world oversaturated with virtual content, art began to look outside the frame to the potentials of presentation, consistently challenging the boundaries between art and life.  In so doing art inverts its traditional role from the production of virtualities to the presentation of actualities, developing an array of strategies that emphasize the presence of the object, the embodied nature of the experience of art, and the object status of the work.  These strategies are diverse, and range between emphasizing the heightened presence of the object to obscuring the difference between the object and the everyday.  Abstract/Object is designed to challenge the audience to discern the difference between the objects of art (which won’t be marked as such) and the domestic everyday objects from my home.  At once, the art object is made to compete with the everyday objects while the everyday object is changed by its placement within a space that insists that it be looked on as art.  In this way, this show is intended to test the artwork, to show how it stands up as art in an environment permeated by non-art and to question the entire process.


This installation does not pretend to do anything new.  The tensions and conflicts it explores have predominated art production for as long as it has been called modern.  Abstract/Object can be considered a performance of these tensions, presenting these concerns through a condensed, unified platform that engages their historical dimension with local and contemporary practice.

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

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished 2010-11-10 on

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.

How come when I hurt you I don’t feel it?

by Alex Wisser

This is a number of photographs from a series I shot for my honours project at the National Art School in 2009.  These were printed up at a meter wide and really I would have liked to see them larger.

Artist Statement:

Inserting a contrived element into a ‘real’ or existent context causes a collision between the two. I then photograph the accidents this produces.  In this way I constrain the tendency to impose a conception onto the scene and instead invite it to reveal something I can’t expect.  What I’m attempting is to relieve the photograph of it’s supposed claim to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, without abdicating its ability to refer directly to the world.  By openly lying to your face, I am hoping we can get beyond the now tedious debate around the artificial nature of the photograph to look into the ambiguous world, at once real and unreal, it is capable of revealing.

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).

Decorating Loos

by Alex Wisser

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

artists: Adrian Gebers, Alex Pye, Alex Wisser, Audrey Newton, Clare Johnston, Crystal Skolnick, Emma Anderson, Francesca Mataraga, Georgie Pollard, Goran Tomic, Huw Lewis, Kate Mackay, Laura Gamio, Mamadada, Pineapple Park, Susannah Williams, Todd McCoy, Victoria Waghorn

Dec­o­rat­ing Loos explored the aes­thetic impulse through the prism of one of its most basic forms – the desire to embell­ish the lava­tory walls with the mark of our dis­tracted fancy.  It did this quite lit­er­ally through the con­struc­tion of 15 toi­let cubi­cles in the gallery, each of which was given to an artist to “dec­o­rate” accord­ing to their prac­tice.  The result was 15 immer­sive envi­ron­ments, each draw­ing on dif­fer­ent medi­ums, gen­res, and sub­ject mat­ter – from video and per­for­mance to instal­la­tion, paint­ing and draw­ing – each a dis­crete world of imag­i­nary prac­tice, and all exist­ing in intense prox­im­ity to one another.  The instal­la­tion was intended to inter­ro­gate the value of aes­thetic endeavor by super­im­pos­ing advanced con­tem­po­rary art prac­tice onto the much den­i­grated act of pub­lic toi­let van­dal­ism, ask­ing what is the rela­tion­ship between these two activ­i­ties?  Are they so dif­fer­ent, and if so how?

At the heart of its enquiry is a wry ref­er­ence to the Mod­ernist archi­tect Adolph Loos, who equated dec­o­ra­tion with bar­bar­ity and the progress of cul­ture with the grad­ual erad­i­ca­tion of the orna­men­tal from cul­tural pro­duc­tion.  He wrote stri­dently against the dec­o­ra­tive urge.  He con­sid­ered it to be a prim­i­tive cul­tural prac­tice that moder­nity strove to over­come in its progress towards a ratio­nal, effi­cient, and orderly soci­ety adorned only with the clean lines of func­tion and the smooth planes of rea­son.  At stake is the sense of authen­tic­ity, of the capac­ity of art to carry the unadorned truth of its sub­ject, to give us some access to it’s real­ity, free from the signs of an explicit inten­tion to influ­ence or seduce us in it’s appre­hen­sion.  Dec­o­rat­ing Loos makes no attempt to resolve the ten­sion between the artis­tic and the dec­o­ra­tive, but only to stage it’s con­flict and ask what it might mean in an era that is no longer the high moder­nity of Loos, but is also no longer the post-modernity that attempted to super­sede it.

Decorating Loos was a joint curatorial project by Marrickville Art Lab (Alex Wisser and Georgina Pollard)