Modern life’s destination unknown
AS I mentioned a few weeks ago, this year’s Anne Landa exhibition comprises a well-chosen and thoughtful selection of works. Justin Paton, the curator, has done a good job not only in this regard but also in the unusually lucid and perceptive writing in the catalogue. Could it be that the long winter of art writing, stultified for a generation by art college jargon and trite political formulas, is at last over?
The works in the show are collected under the title Unguided Tours, which for once is coherent in itself and relevant to the material assembled, something harder to achieve than may be immediately apparent because the pieces are not commissioned to a theme but chosen for certain affinities of interest and sensibility.
Paton’s theme refers to the experience of travel, particularly in an age when tourism has grown into an enormous industry, with segments ranging from high luxury to mass market, when almost every significant site has been photographically documented and when we can virtually explore a town, street by street, on Google Earth before we even book the flight.
We may well wonder what people seek when they visit other countries. Baudelaire wrote of escaping ‘‘ anywhere out of this world’’ in the English title he gave one of his poems, and Proust pondered our longing to get out of our own lives, inevitably frustrated by the discovery that they follow us wherever we go, like our shadows.
Mass tourism, too, entices customers with the promise of encountering the exotic other, but without too much strangeness or discomfort: the traditional dancers are brought into the foyer of the international hotel to perform and you can still rely on an American breakfast.
I suspect the antidote to romantic illusions of travel as evasion, and the disappointment they frequently entail, lies in an earlier model. Enlightenment travellers were less concerned with the experience they were having than with understanding the places and people they visited: their history, the realities of their contemporary lives, the specificities of the natural environment.
Above all, what brings a place to life is a sense of how the past lives in the present; but that takes time and patience, and modern tourists are short of both.
In the exhibition, a four-wheel-drive races across the globe in what looks superficially like a low-production-values version of a television advertisement for recreational vehicles. But we are simultaneously shown the trickery by which this effect is achieved: a toy car is set upside-down, its wheels causing the plastic globe to spin. The camera shot is framed so we see only the wheels and the globe’s surface.
Even more makeshift is the illusion in another work by Ian Burns, the author of this reflection on the gluttony of the SUV: a video monitor cuts between a close-up shot of a young man driving a convertible, hair blowing in the wind, and the chrome-plated front of the car, turned a lurid pink. Simultaneously, however, we are shown the cheapjack reality behind the illusion: a doll in a toy car on a record turntable, with a fan for the wind and a plastic bucket-chair on its side for the blue sky.
A third work is the view from the window of a jet airliner, with a wing and jet engine profiled against the endless drift of an ocean far below; except it’s really a shot of a tiny wing broken off a plastic model plane and filmed against a turning plastic disk. So much for the infinite glimpsed from the jumbo’s window before we pull the blind down and immerse ourselves in the limbo of the in-flight movie selection.
On the other hand, the first work we encounter, at the threshold of the exhibition, alludes to the old and patient culture of Chinese ink painting. It is an immense mural by Jae Hoon Lee, a Korean artist who has walked around a rocky promontory, photographing it from different points of view, then digitally reassembled the images into an imaginary, endlessly replicated landscape.
As you study this work, you gradually unpick the illusion, recognising the same form here and there and then again, realising that a given mass of rocks reappears at different scales, flipped over and joined to others to which it did not originally belong. It’s almost impossible to imagine what the original landscape could have looked like before this elaborately reconfigured amalgam.
But landscape painters have always worked like this, borrowing elements, changing scale and even orientation, producing original conjunctions. And this is even truer of Chinese classical painting, which forms imaginary landscapes out of rocks and trees that have been distilled into formulas.
What happens when you walk around looking at the world without such traditions to draw on is visible in the work of Charlie Sofo, who has assembled several objects in a deliberately disparate collection. Perhaps the element that first catches your attention is a video of cat sightings in suburban streets. As Sofo spots each cat sitting, sleeping or watching him, he zooms in on it as though pouncing. Next to this, however, is a screen with a Google Maps image of Melbourne streets on which he notes the location of used condoms encountered on his walks. Another
the two problem screen shows a young man walking or sitting in a disconnected daze, while yet another magnifies and scrutinises tiny pebbles caught in the tread of his shoes.
Sofo seeks to reproduce the discontinuity and randomness of his encounters with the world. What to notice? What to attend to? What is significant?
A very different experience is suggested in Rachel Khedoori’s video, which records movement through a forest. The viewpoint is low, the filming continuous and quite rapid, as though taken from a vehicle, with none of the unevenness of a handheld camera.
The closeness of the foreground trees and bushes emphasises the depth of space as we look into the forest space beyond. Above all, though, the film is projected on to a screen, which is reflected by an abutting mirror that echoes the movement in reverse.
Thus the image moves out from the centre in opposite directions, not just passing by but unfolding, opening out or even welling up from nothingness. There is the sense that what we are witnessing is not a linear journey but an infinite generative process.
Also in unexpected motion, on a split screen and even employing a mirror reversal, is Arlo Mountford’s painstakingly digitalised and animated version of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Voyage to Cythera, probably the rococo master’s best known painting. The work exists in two versions, the 1717 Academic reception piece held in the Louvre in Paris and a 1721 reworking in Berlin, rather crowded with additional figures and a sailing ship instead of the elaborate punt that served as a ferry in the original.
Apart from the question of versions, the most fundamental about this picture is its subject.
Its traditional titles imply that it represents the departure for ( Embarquement pour Cythere) or the arrival at ( Voyage a Cythere) the island sacred to Venus, although a closer inspection suggests the people are getting up and leaving; the ones near the boat are manifestly about to board.
Mountford has a bet each way, reversing the Berlin picture so the two hills join in the middle and having the boat on the left arriving and the one on the right departing, while the couples wander — the effect inevitably recalls Monty Python — through an imaginary landscape with occasionally sinister undertones.
The winner this year is also a kind of animation, but one based on the fantasy universe of computer games on which many people spend a large part of their leisure time. This is presumably because the endlessly and automatically generated environment of danger and arousal stimulates the adrenalin and fight-or-flight responses and provides an outlet for the aggression that is seldom called on in the safe and bland routines of daily life and mass consumption.
It is not surprising that these games appeal almost exclusively to men and boys, satisfying but also, more dubiously, indulging primitive male instincts that have to be suppressed in the neutered world of the modern office.
Computer games seem to be basically about killing while avoiding being killed, but David Haines and Joyce Hinterding have constructed one — complete with toggle controls — from which all the violence and even the action have been excised.
We are left with the fantastic landscapes through which the viewer travels: a rocky coastline on the edge of an ocean, with menacing metallic constructions on the headlands; a forest dense with trees; and a strange labyrinth lined with luminous crystalline shapes, like another dimension into which we suddenly pass through an invisible portal and from which we emerge in an equally unfathomable way.
It is an impressive work in which the absence of the constant excitement of conflict allows us to engage in a more meditative way with the digital environment itself.
It is absorbing and almost overwhelming at first sight but becomes increasingly insubstantial, as though paper-thin, as we come to recognise the formulas and espe- cially when we acquire some ability to navigate about the space. We can even discover the boundaries of the world of illusion at certain points — where we can no longer advance and where we glimpse the end of the ocean — and we realise these landscapes are merely painted backdrops for the frenetic action that would usually distract us from their vacuity.
Haines and Hinterding’s work illuminates the escapist parallel world of computer games but also raises fundamental questions about animated and interactive works of art. Do they really involve us in a new and more active manner, as is sometimes suggested, or do they rather put the audience into a position of passivity, as with television?
Someone playing a computer game imagines that he is active, that he is the protagonist of a thrilling and dangerous adventure, but in reality the whole game is taking place within narrow parameters laid down by the technology.
The gamer is essentially like the dogs that run around racetracks chasing a mechanical hare. The operations are more complex, but there is no call to think outside the predetermined track.
In art, too, we should beware of thinking that we address audiences in a more sophisticated or active manner when we involve them in a literally interactive relationship.
In the end, readers and viewers become active when they are called on to make the effort to engage, and their engagement is deepest with the works that remain most reserved and self-contained.
Arlo Mountford’s The Lament, a reinterpretation of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s best known painting, Voyage to Cythera
by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding; Ian Burns’s Well Read; Jae Hoon Lee’s immense mural
Clockwise from top, The Outlands