at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 18 February 2018
Realism has a long lineage in Western art. The ancient Greeks depicted bodily perfection in sculpture in accordance with their ideals of mimesis: accurate representation represented truth as well as beauty, i.e. the moral good. Viewers marvelled at the realness of 17th-century Dutch painting, particularly the still lifes, created in a booming materialist market. Art history eventually led us, via thesis and antithesis, to abstraction, the negation of mimesis. By the 1970s, artists were experimenting with mimesis again. Technology and postmodernist thinking together have now taken realism well beyond what earlier eras could have dreamed of, hence the “hyper”. Hyperreality, in sculpture and in video, goes beyond astonishing verisimilitude into a beautiful, ugly, fantastical, frightening future of what-ifs, in terms of both sociopolitical development and biological experimentation. More than 30 artists from around the world have contributed 50 works, widely varied in scope and scale, to the National Gallery of Australia’s Hyper Real exhibition. Beyond the wow factor, they are, singly and in aggregate, deeply thought-provoking. If artists delivered political propaganda for church and state in the past, the democratic era demands artists speak truth to power. Several works stand out. Patricia Piccinini’s Bootflower (2015), for example, is a large egg-laying, blind, flower-faced creature with human-like skin, made of silicone, fibreglass and human hair. Both repulsive and strangely sympathetic, it pushes anthropomorphism into overdrive as so many of Piccinini’s works do. This is science fiction you can reach out and touch. It is also intellectually baffling. The works that are sexually provocative are far more banal. In Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (T.G. Awake) (2012–13), naked women lean back atop tables with their pornography-inspired hairless vaginas exposed. The figures don’t have the majesty or the sexual provocation of historic odalisques, and are ill at ease with our times. Replicating objectification does not constitute a critique of objectification. The latest video of the Russian collective AES+F, Inverso Mundus (2015), by contrast, is far more powerful. The world – depicted on seven large screens with AES+F’s usual fashion-shoot glamour, saturated colours, dreamlike movement and classical music booming in surround sound – has indeed been turned upside down. Women subjugate men; the poor overthrow the rich; children dominate their elders; and animals use humans as we have used them. It is an alt-future in which runaway capitalism, technology, science, art and ideology, and the backlash against them, have created a gloss of glamour over a terrible post-human dystopia. There is so much to take in at Hyper Real, and each visitor will react viscerally to some things and shrug at others. I couldn’t step into Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Old People’s Home (2007) but was mesmerised by the eyes of Tony Matelli’s floating Josh (2010). Hyperrealism teaches us that reality itself is in the eyes of the beholder.
Chris Womersley’s work
is, happily, always unpredictable, but City of Crows is a particular surprise. The year is 1673, and Charlotte Picot finds herself doing things that would have been unimaginable when she was living in deep rural France. The plague came to her village, taking almost everyone, including her husband. Charlotte’s other children died of illness years earlier; her focus now was to protect her one remaining child, nineyear-old Nicolas. Charlotte heard Lyon was plague-free, so she and Nicolas began a journey there. Her worldly education is swift. She learns that the plague has no borders. Also that it isn’t the plague she should fear, rather the people she meets. Nicolas is kidnapped by bandits and Charlotte is left for dead, hovering for days between life and death. She wakes in a cave to find she has been nursed back to life by a woman who has otherworldly, maybe magical, powers. Most disconcertingly the woman informs her that she, Charlotte Picot, ignorant peasant, has been chosen to inherit these powers. When Charlotte protests, the woman places in her hands a small black book. It is a book of sorcery, containing instructions about every amulet and talisman that Charlotte might ever require in the search for her son. Initially Charlotte is sceptical, but her immediate need is someone who can find Nicolas. So, reading from her book, she summons a spirit helper from perhaps heaven, probably hell. Lesage, a conman in possession of a treasure map and in need of a witch, appears in her path. The substance of this novel is the mismatched couple’s 17th-century road trip. The mismatching of character and intent creates some brilliant deadpan comedy. “I usually try and write the novel that I would like to read but hasn’t yet been written,” Chris Womersley has said. City of Crows is just this novel. It is fiction based on historical incident and real people (and there were books believed to contain magic, and thoughtful, brilliant people often had faith in them), but it opens out into something more imaginative than historical reconstruction. Womersley has infinite sympathy for the human condition. We may laugh at past sorceries and magic, just as our descendants will laugh at our beliefs. But Womersley doesn’t laugh at the past; he respects the individual within her time. His writing is poetic and original; his insights into human character are true. Charlotte and Lesage shine as subtle, believable, likeable characters: cruel and treacherous but also funny and touching. Yet deep engagement is impossible. I felt I was in the front row of an entertaining and intelligent piece of theatre performed by exceptional actors.
Tony Matelli, Josh (2010). Collection of the artist