Mod­ern life’s des­ti­na­tion un­known

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.