at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra, un­til 18 Fe­bru­ary 2018

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - NOTED by Miriam Cosic

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

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