Alex Wisser


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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: 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).