Alex Wisser


Month: August, 2010

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).

Stay Awhile

by Alex Wisser

This was a work made for a group show “Rocking The Boat” at At The Vanishing Point Gallery in early 2010.  The theme addressed the political badminton that boat people had become in both the press and the political sphere.

The video, called “Stay Awhile” is 30 minutes of duration of a locked shot, unedited, through a chain link fence of the industrial farm buildings of a battery chicken farm.  It was displayed on an old television on a coffee table with two bean bags in front of it.  The artist statement read “This work represents just 30 minutes of your time”.  The idea was that gallery goers would not spend 30 minutes enduring the same time we subject detainees to for indefinite lengths.