Catalogue essay for the Greatest Hits show
by Dan Cape
Greatest Hits: Best of the Sydney College of the Arts Degree Shows gathers the cream of the 2011 graduate crop, including works by Georgia Banks, Nick Boerma, Donald Brierley, Erin De la Cruz, Matthew James, Thiago Reis Monteiro, Kristi Pupo, Bryden Williams, Christine Simpson and Sarah Mockford. As you might expect, such a show is less a curated exhibition than a collection of works judged on their individual merits rather than any coherent, shared relations. There is no theme, or at least none such was placed at the feet of the invited artists, though included with their invitation was the invitation to rework and reconfigure with the context of the present show in mind. Nevertheless it will remain to be seen, in the course of this short essay, and in the context of the ‘final’ installation whether such links impose themselves upon the body of work represented here.
Indeed, during the early genesis of the exhibition, a form of intertextual play could not help but suggest itself. Nick Boerma’s exploration of “frustration and uselessness” has been created in the wake of graduation, subsequent unemployment and concomitant revaluation of values (colloquially, ‘figuring out what I want to do with my life’). In this case the work is presented as a reworking or extension of the work undertaken in the academic year. The occasion of Greatest Hits prompted Boerma, to seek out connections between his stated thematic and related literary and philosophical texts in the lead up to installation. Rather than scour the archives for an appropriate support himself, he instead invited his fellow artists to offer their suggestions. Invoking that (formerly) lowest of mass arts, the comic strip, stripped as it initially was of any written or verbal – discursive – support, his series of large scale and luridly coloured autobiographical ‘illustrations’ are mounted on the gallery’s external wall – or rather the window that marks the boundary of inside and outside. Such a position serves to reenact the tension between private and public space, a tension that so often insists its labour upon the confessional work. In fact, this work withdraws his project, previously focusing on public figures – a well-recognised ‘character’ that haunts SCA’s formerly institutional environs – into the domain of the personal remark, the self-portrait. As such, granting other minds, public minds – moreover minds committed to their own acts of personal creation – permission to ‘explain’ or ‘entitle’ such a personal statement amplifies this shift from public to private. This shift is in turn amplified and belied by the work’s dramatic presentation as a play in the margins of the sandpit of street art and the sanctified white cube of an art-space. These surprising ramifications number amongst those ways in which a representative piece manages at once to draw a net around itself and the body of exhibited work, if only by casting that net wider than expected.
And it is the accidental that informs the subtle, semi-covert surveillance piece mounted by Donald Brierley, one of a couple of interrelated segments arrayed about the gallery space. The first part of this segmented work doubles and inverts the image received by a CCTV camera mounted above the gallery entrance. Two monitors, juxtaposed so as to present the illusion of a continuous space, are raised near the gallery’s ceiling, like the omnipresent security monitors we see mounted in public spaces and on the public transport that shuttles us amongst such spaces, reminding us of our duties with respect to conduct, a command to watch ourselves and perhaps to ‘watch out’. In the case of the installation here, as we move into the purview of the camera, we see two figures whose trajectories seem to destine them for a close encounter, if not a head on collision. This encounter in what appears to be a continuous space, of course, does not and cannot occur. The doubling and inversion of a surveillance space produces an uncanny effect that disrupts recognition of ourselves. Yet nonetheless this flipped-out map – seductive in its ability to distract us from, and disorient us in, the actual terrain before us – produces the uncomfortable effect of a ‘being watched’ just as we are initially unsure of how this particular ‘watching’ functions.
Watching, watchers, and watchmen shade into blunt spectacle when we are invited to not only ‘watch’ the performance of an invisible band but to play a part, ourselves. Located in the centre of the gallery, Brierley’s ‘second unit’ repeats and playfully complicates the patterning of surveillance established more discreetly elsewhere. Here, a camera projects the presence of spectators who happen to intervene between a projection of the artist himself presenting his body, his breath, and oblique textual meditations. We find ourselves audience to, and stars of, a live telepresence of our own making. In a structure similar to Brierley’s twin installation, our image is doubled, inverted, and overlapped. Like two figures that may never, can never meet, we find ourselves unable to witness both Brierley’s image and our own images simultaneously. Under the mute gaze of our projected interlocutor, our attention, like our image and our relative positions as spectators, authors, or collaborators in the piece, becomes divided. Sandwiched between screens, a towering but silent speaker stack and a functionless, inactivated microphone (actually the soundless visual equivalent – a pair of lenses), what feels like an auditorium crossed with a hall of mirrors is rendered as a soundless space where only visual presences are found to remain echoing. Here, in a pattern of interference that produces a moment of substantial blindness, what remains tangible is a structure of style asserting itself, producing itself, meanwhile implicating us and inducing our collaboration in our own surveillance. We end up engaged in the production of our ourselves as magnum opus, our own greatest hit.
Brierley’s take on self-presence in the purview of the ‘big other’ finds itself doing the twist in the monumental portraits of ‘self’ executed by Thiago Reis Monteiro. In this series of life-size or larger-than-life photographic portraits, Monteiro explores the hypocrisis of contemporary sexual identity ‘inverted’ in the signifying domain of fashion – these are indeed photos of hairy men wearing dresses. Why is it, Monteiro asks, that such an inversion has been naturalised for women while remaining ‘ignominious’ for men?
While the question remains moot, the issue of identification finds understated expression at the literal limit of Monteiro’s work. Quietly underscoring the primary thematic of sexual identity in these pieces lies a subterranean channel that begs the same question, but of identification in general. Identity is circumscribed here by subverting the place of facial recognition and facial expression – the eyes have it, it’s the ‘mood’ we’re in – in the very process of identification. Identities (those of the photographic subjects) are entirely foreshortened by framing the portrait with the lips as the upper limit. This foreshortening only serves to magnify the impact of these portraits of anonymous transvestism, their repetition only serving to underscore the question of difference. In the context of installation, these mounted portraits – if we can call these representations of amputated identity ‘portraits’ (from the Latin for ‘disclose’, ‘bring forth’ or, interestingly, ‘drag’) – are often fleshed out by models stepping, as it were, from the page and onto the gallery space made catwalk. This kind of juxtaposition of performance and the photographic establishes a kind of vacillation between identity granted (“I can identify to an extent this figure before me”) and identity withdrawn (“I cannot completely identify this figure”). In a sense Monteiro’s piece reenacts Brierley’s surveillance exercise – a play of what the data security experts would call ‘deidentified’ data, the partial set of information that sets up an uncanny flow between watcher and watched.
If Brierley and Monteiro present two forms of a playful, anechoic, and entirely scopic meditation upon oppositions of style and substance, self-presence and presentation, Kristi Pupo provides a soundtrack, writing a rejoinder to these voiceless gestures that is not merely warranted by virtue of proximity. Pupo literalises a meditative theme by presenting us with a kind of monastic wunderkammer, a balancing act playing off kitsch and reverential iconographies in a space teetering between visual rhythm and decomposition. A profusion of objects – bound and mutilated buddha, idiosyncratic earthenware, toys, Trolls, occluded calligraphic texts, assorted miscellany, incense and joss sticks – jostle for space on discreetly installed shelves that flow (yes, meditatively) around a space dominated by a large, low table carrying Tibetan singing bowls. In previous installations, seated performers have played these bowls. In their absence, a recorded soundtrack acts to denote both the function of these central objects and the absence of a human, actively devotional interaction in this shrine to ephemeral wonder. Still, the ephemerality of many of these objets trouvés (not all appear to be strictly ‘found objects’, it should be said – together perhaps we might call them objets perdus) seems belied by the solidity of the major chords in the structure, namely the massive table, the simple, sublime functionality of the singing bowls (played or not), and the powerful iconicity of the smiling buddha (whether his smile is erased or melted cannot, somehow, diminish the impact of his repose, though we may have the last laugh).
This precarious balance is pushed to the edge of both structural cohesion and tangibility in the assemblages of Sarah Mockford. Necessitating the caveat ‘dimensions variable’ more than any other ‘piece’ in the collection, Mockford’s spiderweb of bold planes, laminar stacks, filaments and strings threaten to ensnare the gallery space as a whole or push outwards into that zone addressed by Boerma’s public-facing mural. Yet at the same time, these elements – that would prompt many of the more distended projects of arte povera to diet – offer a sense of humility to counterpoint the more imposing works that surround, nest within or stand adjacent to these shy and homeless materials. Discrete but interconnected, these elements are often as unobtrusive as Brierley’s semi-covert surveillance. However, rather than foregrounding the procedures of vision, Mockford presents the enigma of objects unmoored from any determinable system of recognition. While Brierley’s re-presentation of the spectator induces a kind of disorienting uncanniness, Mockford’s objects withhold such (self) reflection, serving to disorient the desire to anchor meaning as much as Brierley’s installations cause vision to carom off surfaces. As such, they manage to be little, speak little, but say as much as they retain. In this, they seem to function as a kind of bedrock (however friable) for the exhibition as a whole, a riddling substrate or mycelium that nets and indexes the gallery space and its diverse contents.
A certain mute but – unlike Mockford’s objects – monolithic aura surrounds Christine Simpson’s striking sculptural exploration of heat. A manifold in every respect, Simpson’s piece is a towering, contorted membrane comprised of stitched-together air filters, themselves fans of accordioned paper sealed or opened out according to the degree to which they are contorted. The effect is one of incredible mass but incredible lightness, a buoyancy effected by the play of light through these membranous envelopes. It is as if, in the extraction of these elements from their functional context, they have transcended their role as the transmitters and purifiers of air to become translucent organs of light. Of course, this luminal effect relies heavily upon the specificities of their situation, but nevertheless, the involuted structure of difference in the same sets up a manifold moiré patterning that shifts and twists as the spectator apprehends the piece from different positions. These subtlties inflect a static piece that, as a composite, lends itself to scrutiny from multiple perspectives. This becomes apparent when one leans closer to peer into the work’s concavities, and then further into the acute interstices of the folds within the folds. One realises that not only does this monument open itself to the play of light, acting as a filter to the heat of day, but it also insulates against sound, offering a deadening of the sonic imprint of the surrounding gallery space (populated as it is by a tapestry, a manifold, of sound sources).
One of the more affronting of these sound sources, as opposed to the gentle resonances of Pupo’s singing bowls or Bryden Williams’ ambience, which we shall come to later, emanates from Georgia Banks’ nine-screen video installation. In a loosely formal sense, this piece reprises, in its stacked ranks of video screens, the repetitive sculptural structure of Simpson’s folded photo-thermo-statuary. But here a play of light looses far more of its violent, confronting potential. Based upon Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher, this is not the first adaptation of this narrative to a visual medium. However, while Michael Haneke has presented a feature-length adaptation, Banks’ piece here manages to manifest Haneke’s preoccupation with mediation and psychosexual drama in the context of an art installation. Taking The Piano Teacher’s thematic of the collision of eros and violence as inspiration, the work explores, in discontinuous loops, nine different aspects of this tension. A mother and daughter shout in one frame, kiss in another, bodies are alternately caressed and impaled in others. All this is set to a discomfiting soundtrack that evokes the heavy breathing of an unwanted caller, replete with the distortions of an auditory system unable to cope with the task of mediating an overbearing flow of non-linguistic (yet still ominously significant) utterances. With our attention split nine-ways, this work begs us to bear witness to this highly personal bare-all, and begs us to ask ourselves, ‘how can this be borne?’, ‘can we bear it?’.
The affectual overload of Banks’ video installation is mirrored by Matthew James’ piece, where it is our perceptual system that is enervated – provisionally stimulated and underfed. James explores light as epistemological necessity in works that skid on the surfaces of science and perception, with an index raised in the direction of Manichean & Platonic philosophies in orbit around light and dark. Having created a novel phosphorescent film James provides a meditation on transience and knowledge, the secret life of light, in a series of ‘phosphorescent light boxes’. At the time of writing James had kept his project shrouded in mystery, remaining as it were a photo-technician machinating under the camera’s hood. Desperately gambling on an invocation of fellow light magician James Turrell, we may as well take this obscurity as fundamental to his project – darkness as the birth and resting-place of lucidity, of light.
If James takes the limits of ‘the light’ as his ‘system’, a step to the side takes us towards a piece that again addresses systems at their limits and the incursion of the technical into the organic domain. Bryden Williams’ ‘techno trees and beehives’ provide what would, superficially, appear to be a tranquil oasis – another meditative space in the gallery. Operating not in terms of a psychosexual imbroglio but in terms of an ecosystem (though could we not propose an ecosystem of the psyche?), Williams’ explores interconnectedness rather than violent schism. Yet all is not as it seems.
What Williams presents us with appears to be a tripartite series of fertile biospheres, a handful of cultivated environments quoted from the conservatory of an avid botanist, intent on sustaining life in spaces otherwise untenable. But it is precisely the cultivation, the deliberate and technologically supported sustenance of these living systems that underlines Williams’ exploration of symbiosis and prosthesis. Willows, salices, that most implacable and Occidentally revered of trees, have become pests in terra Australia incognita. Williams began his project with several attempts at containment of the plant – placing one in a kind of terrarium, which it soon outgrew. This micro-ecosystem stands somewhat alone from the others: another plant, seemingly dead, was found to transform its artificial habitat – a small illuminated pond fed by a water pump – into an apparently stagnant but actually vivid ecosystem of its own, a micro-marshland of larvae and new growth from what seemed to be a lifeless and rotten cutting. The last totem in the chain is what Williams calls his ‘dream house for bees’. Rather than being, on the one hand, a mostly autonomous greenhouse (albeit one which has failed to remain hermetically sealed from the broader ‘system’ outside) or, on the other hand, a system sustained by an artificial heart, the beehive presents nothing that we would immediately call living. Instead we see a video of the workings of a bee colony, whose ‘hive’ supplies solar power to the willow’s watery ecosystem. The whole is tended by an ‘apple Apple’, an iPod in a blown-glass apple, uniting these thirds, each more ‘prosthetic’ than the last, with a soundtrack culled from the environments of rivers and apiaries. What seems to be at stake here is the degree to which symbiosis and prosthesis – interrelations between Nature or physis and technology or techne – tend to exchange their roles. Counterposed to this is the strange irrepressibility of the organic order: if the perfect technological ecosystem is to endure, it must not admit one cell-sized speck of the Natural, lest it be overrun.
In a sense, and this sense cannot help but be limited, the model of the ecosystem is a good model to conceptualise the collection of works gathered here. As was intimated in the introduction, to essay at any length about such a heterogeneous body of work first consists in identifying what we can of this body understood as a whole, from what one might call its scattered remains. This perhaps holds for this type of exhibition in general – a graduate show, a group show with no theme to act as caption, legend, or ultimately external frame – and so it is in generalities we must speak. So, generally speaking, we have tried to tease out the threads that unite all of these accomplished pieces, without diminishing their relative autonomies, even as some of the bodies (homunculi within a body) of work here suggest themselves to an implication of their neighbours, their spectators, to humble or accusative gestures that point beyond their bounds.
To mark an appropriate coda to the Greatest Hits’ cabinet of curiosities, we’ve saved Erin de la Cruz’ contribution to last. Not least, for her piece brings to bear that inimitably Latin-American celebration of the circularity of life-in-death and death-in-life, represented in a less-than-traditional piñata that seems once more representative of the show in toto. As a work of nostalgia and anamnesis, it ‘points back’ (not without pain, for its surface must be broken) to the surrounding works. Colourful but mournful, transformational and fragmentary, a whole containing parts of others that exceed containment, it’s as apt a figure for the techno-ecosystem – of identities and precarious balances, of creation, autopoiesis and (auto)destruction, of the mythical and the social, of play and participation, as apt an evocation of verticality and heat, blindness, sense and senses, as any other piece in the collection. And so, as a breathless coda, in order, to finish, it seems apt to extend an invitation to you to get blind and folded, step up, and unleash your greatest hits.
Until next year.