Artist Ron­nie van Hout’s

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No one is watch­ing you

As you en­ter the rel­a­tively empty foyer of the re­cently opened Buxton Con­tem­po­rary on South­bank Boule­vard in Mel­bourne, you quickly re­alise you are be­ing ad­dressed by a py­jama-wear­ing al­most-man in cowcum-leop­ard-print gum­boot-cum-slip­pers. This 2016 fig­ure, a Ron­nie van Hout sculp­ture cast in polyurethane, with crudely ren­dered head and over­sized hands, stands steady – legs as tri­pod sup­port, his right arm point­ing out to you ac­cus­ingly, limp cig­a­rette in hand, the other hold­ing a mi­cro­phone. It is a clas­sic pose, one Ozzy Os­bourne might have taken, im­pli­cat­ing you, writ­ing you into the nar­ra­tive. But this is karaoke gone awry.

The ex­hi­bi­tion sig­nage reads “No one is watch­ing you”. You are not so sure. Above the front desk, a screen re­lays the video play­ing on an ex­te­rior screen that frames the en­trance. A man wear­ing dun­ga­rees – in alien mask, then a horse mask – walks slowly through a sub­ur­ban over­grown back­yard, cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing what I think is a shed. Cut to a clas­sic hor­ror-film full moon, bor­rowed by the artist, and with Jim Morrison’s psy­cho­sex­ual hymn – which I first heard in Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Apoc­a­lypse Now – play­ing in re­verse over the loop­ing footage. “The End” seems an apt be­gin­ning, and sees Paul McCarthy’s Painter col­lapse into a se­ri­alkiller zom­bie slasher. But the hor­ror never un­folds, we are trapped in a melan­cholic walk, hov­er­ing be­tween im­mi­nent death and bur­geon­ing pathos.

Cu­rated by Melissa Keys, this ex­hi­bi­tion – No one is watch­ing you, a 30-year ret­ro­spec­tive of van Hout’s work – is the sec­ond since the Buxton opened in March. De­signed by Fender Kasta­l­idis to house the col­lec­tion of prop­erty de­vel­oper Michael Buxton, be­queathed to the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, the build­ing un­folds from the en­trance – a large, nat­u­rally lit foyer opens into a medium-sized gallery and then a large Kun­sthalle-type space of two floors. It is unas­sum­ing to some de­gree, larger than the façade re­veals.

Van Hout is orig­i­nally from Christchurch, New Zealand, but has been based in Mel­bourne since 2000. Hav­ing ex­hib­ited since the ’90s – his his­tory is rich and pro­lific – he has also played in a Black Sab­bath-in­spired band, Into the Void, on which a doc­u­men­tary of the same name is based. He has stud­ied and made film, taught and trav­elled and toured, and is renowned for work that uses his own like­ness while avoid­ing self-por­trai­ture or nar­cis­sism. Macabre yet vul­ner­a­ble, van Hout’s works at Buxton Con­tem­po­rary are ex­pe­ri­enced like a sculp­tural film, rolling out solid states of psy­cho­log­i­cal en­coun­ters. Van Hout is well loved and re­spected, ex­em­pli­fied in the gen­er­ous cu­ra­tion of this ex­hi­bi­tion, which makes ev­i­dent the de­sire of the artist. In a time pre­oc­cu­pied with self and the in­di­vid­ual, these works and their ar­range­ment speak not only of mas­culin­ity and be­ing an artist but also of the fragility and farce of iden­tity, of it be­ing a col­lec­tively shared con­science.

En­ter­ing the first gallery, the con­crete floor hums with a feed­back loop. We find paint­ings, or rather tablets, from a present fu­ture. One is la­belled “Fig­ure 1: Draw­ing of UFO”, the other in­scribed by the artist’s son; some­thing loved and some­thing alien, an in­tro­duc­tion to the ab­ject re­la­tion that is fam­ily – to be known, but al­ways un­known. We walk past Failed Ro­bot (2007) ly­ing on a plinth, star­ing into the mid­dle ground, be­fore we reach the mid­dle of the gallery, where two robots, their masks re­moved, re­veal van Hout him­self as an alien­hu­man sit­ting on frozen fur­ni­ture seem­ingly sourced from an ex-Soviet state or se­cret ser­vice in­ter­view room. Mir­rored and posed as if on a stage, the van Hout robots have an au­dio speaker be­tween them cre­at­ing a force field of sound. This feed­back loop is the hum of a sub­sta­tion. What is to hap­pen hasn’t hap­pened yet. This – van Hout’s ver­sion of a 1972 Robert Mor­ris work – sees Mor­ris’s three-hour nar­ra­tive re­moved and re­placed with the in­de­ter­minable.

The bunkeresque ar­chi­tec­ture of the gallery, once part of the old Vic­to­rian Po­lice De­pot, makes it­self rel­e­vant. The fig­ure in Punk on a bed looks out the door only to find a shadow of him­self in the glass and an empty in­sti­tu­tional court­yard. Ceil­ing heights change through­out the gallery, in tune some­how with the vary­ing scales of van Hout’s work – minia­ture, life-size and other. Psy­cho­log­i­cal in pro­por­tion and pur­pose, the tran­si­tions and re­ver­sals are both fa­mil­iar and iso­lat­ing, and are ul­ti­mately em­pha­sised by the dis­con­cert­ing rep­e­ti­tion of forms and mo­tifs – the mys­te­ri­ous, nev­er­entered shed owned by van Hout’s fa­ther, robots, aliens, apes, sausages and turds.

An au­to­matic slid­ing door opens to a large room, the scale of which is matched by a num­ber of works, and this is just a se­lec­tion. A painted resin owl sits on a painted resin head, its nose pecked off. Three owls perched across from it, hoot­ing a string of “hoos”. In 1969, Bruce Nau­man played his Vi­olin Tuned D.E.A .D. Van Hout’s painted-resin silent son­net, D.E.A .D pro­nounced dead (2004), a cast of his own head, blankly stares back at us sans nose, plus flesh wounds. Nearby, eu­phemistic salamis dan­gle from a ta­ble sup­port­ing a walk­ing-dead, Shet­land-pony resin fig­ure of the artist in PJs, in a piece called sim­ply Paul (2014). There are more men-chil­dren, in mul­ti­ple, some at­tempt­ing to lev­i­tate, but failing, be­tween two chairs, as in Dave (2014).

Be­hind them, semi-cin­e­matic pho­tographs from 1999 de­clare the lat­er­ally ob­vi­ous Abduct, Mon­ster, Hy­brid. Ev­ery­thing is not quite right, the im­age a lit­tle askew, the mak­ing re­vealed, the il­lu­sion cor­rupted.

A voiceover bleeds into the space; it’s ac­cented, fa­mil­iar, van Hout him­self. I catch the di­a­logue: “My feel­ings to cer­tain peo­ple are im­mea­sur­able. Some­one makes me mea­sure it.” Eerily, an alien made of resin

and named Er­satz (2002), mean­ing sub­sti­tute, hangs on the wall like the hand­writ­ten sign around his neck read­ing, “For­get”. What are we for­get­ting? The orig­i­nal? The real? What is it that we don’t want to see? The chalk­board paint­ing be­side it re­it­er­ates the theme in a white con­trived scrawl: “No one is watch­ing you”. In this ex­hi­bi­tion, it seems, be­gin­nings are end­ings and that which is alive is also a bit dead.

In Planet of the Apes, there is a clash be­tween hu­man and apes. In I’ve aban­doned Me (Chimp and boul­der ex­cerpt) (2003–18), the artist is both ape and hu­man, cast look­ing long­ingly into a frozen screen, a sub­lime desert land­scape, as ex­is­ten­tial as the gallery within which he sits.

Around a corner is the four-minute video Brett and Michelle (2014) and via head­phones we hear a frac­tion of the con­fronting di­a­logue be­tween two char­ac­ters from Rowan Woods’ 1998 film The Boys. In the short ex­tract van Hout ref­er­ences, the artist plays both the re­cently out-of-prison Brett (David Wen­ham) and his girl­friend Michelle (Toni Col­lette). Un­able to es­cape prison, even though he has re­turned home, the pres­ence and vi­o­la­tion of sex, iso­la­tion, ha­tred and pain os­cil­lates be­tween

Brett and his girl­friend. In this work, the psy­cho­pathic po­ten­tial of lan­guage is not sub­li­mated; it is en­tan­gled in the ba­nal­ity of any mir­ror re­la­tion­ship. In The Boys, time shifts be­tween Brett’s home­com­ing and the pe­riod just after the crime. Rather than a doc­u­ment to the act of vi­o­lence, the film is a re­flec­tion on ori­gins of the bru­tal­ity of the crime and the dys­func­tional fam­ily as­so­ci­ated with it. In van Hout’s Brett and Michelle, you won­der if there is an at­tempt to re­solve this in the al­ter­nat­ing loop of the artist act­ing as both an­tag­o­nist and pro­tag­o­nist, crim­i­nal and part­ner, son and lover, per­pe­tra­tor and vic­tim.

There is more. An­other floor takes us to 80 works – too many to en­gage with here. A mini-van Hout float­ing atop the stairs, like the alien in the first room that I can’t for­get; a gallery-cum-bath­room room dis­play­ing sculp­tural texts read­ing “SHIT FUCK PISS”, “CON­FUSED”, “STANDUP” and “SIT”, along­side a man-child Sit­ting fig­ure II (2016) with mic, smoke and pink-leop­ard-print py­ja­mas. You can al­most see your­self in the pol­ished steel plinth, and in the em­broi­dered fan paint­ings, the crawl­ing resin-formed chil­dren of the corn and the gi­ant hands fall­ing in love to a sound­track by New Zealand band The Dead C.

What ap­pears as the “last” work seems apt for this end­ing: a col­lec­tion of over­sized, man­nequin-es­que, ar­che­typal polyurethane and fi­bre­glass painted male clichés. There are war­riors about to piss on you, armed and hel­meted World War II sol­diers with cam­ou­flaged bod­ies and erect and flac­cid penises, a Je­sus zom­bie whose head bears van Hout masks. Here, mas­culin­ity is si­mul­ta­ne­ously per­formed and cas­trated while sun­bak­ing in gum­boots.

Be­hind these Bad Fa­thers (2018) is a 20-minute film, King Vader (2018): van Hout, al­ways look­ing at him­self look­ing at us look­ing at our­selves via a lens of things we might have al­ready seen. A ques­tion to fa­ther­hood or a ques­tion to his son? It’s van Hout, of course, speak­ing to van Hout, us­ing Darth Vader’s words to Luke Sky­walker: “Per­haps you’re not as strong as the



Em­peror thought ... Re­lease your anger. Only your ha­tred can de­stroy me.” Ex­cerpts from some­one us­ing Minecraft to build a scene frame di­a­logue per­formed by van Hout and fig­urines ex­tracted from the Star Wars fran­chise, about fa­thers, sons, power and his­tory, be­fore even­tu­ally fad­ing to a square sun set­ting – the mor­tal­ity of both fan­tasy and des­tiny; its Oedi­pal ex­cess and loss.

I re­cently re­ceived a mes­sage from a friend work­ing in ma­chine learn­ing. Mostly blurred, the im­age that was clear re­vealed a quote from Ec­cle­si­astes, which read: “The sim­u­lacrum is never what hides the truth

– it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The sim­u­lacrum is true.” An apoc­ryphal quote, its source de­clared later as a false at­tri­bu­tion by Bau­drillard, in whose book it ap­pears. This imag­i­nary quo­ta­tion sug­gests re­al­ity is re­vealed by it be­ing con­cealed in the dis­guise of aug­men­ta­tion. In van Hout's im­age,

• we trust.

LISA RAD­FORD is an artist who writes and teaches. She cur­rently lec­tures in paint­ing at the VCA, Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne.

In­stal­la­tion views (above) and left) from No one is watch­ing you: Ron­nie van Hout.

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