ELAS­TIC CON­CEITS

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

THE ti­tle of this year’s Ade­laide Bi­en­nial is a de­lib­er­ate para­dox, or more ex­actly an oxy­moron: Par­al­lel Col­li­sions. As we learn at pri­mary school, par­al­lel lines are ones that do not in­ter­sect, or in­ter­sect only at in­fin­ity, which is for prac­ti­cal pur­poses never, and cer­tainly be­yond any di­men­sion known or know­able to us.

Those fa­mil­iar with Zen Bud­dhism may re­call the form of a koan, a de­lib­er­ate para­dox — one of the best known be­ing the sound of one hand clap­ping — which is used in med­i­ta­tion to force rea­son to con­front the lim­its of the know­able, to re­duce ra­tio­nal dis­course to si­lence. Socrates, too, loved to push his in­ter­locu­tors to a state of apo­ria, to a recog­ni­tion of the con­tra­dic­tions un­der­ly­ing their com­mon­sense view of the world. One of them, Meno, fa­mously com­pared him to an elec­tric eel that paral­y­ses its prey.

But noth­ing can halt the dis­course of con­tem­po­rary art writ­ing, in which para­dox loses its po­tency and shrinks to the scale of a con­ceit that serves as the oc­ca­sion of ev­er­re­newed and ever-in­con­clu­sive lo­g­or­rhoea. It is hardly sur­pris­ing to find that this is the case with the in­tro­duc­tion to the Bi­en­nial by its twin cu­ra­tors, a doc­u­ment ap­par­ently con­ceived as a man­i­festo but which is more a set of dis­con­nected notes than the kind of pro­gram­matic state­ment or call to arms that is usu­ally meant by this term.

It is full of the lin­guis­tic and log­i­cal flab­bi­ness all too com­mon in such writ­ing, and re­flects the lack of rigour and rad­i­cal ab­sence of crit­i­cal think­ing that reign within the world of con­tem­po­rary art cu­ra­tors. Thus the au­thors speak of ‘‘ ex­ca­vat­ing cur­rents’’, per­haps an­other in­tended para­dox that fizzes out as a hope­lessly mixed metaphor, and they ‘‘ in­cite’’ one of Wal­ter Ben­jamin’s ideas where we as­sume they mean ‘‘ in­voke’’. Clearly the texts have not even been edited for min­i­mal co­her­ence.

One of the gems in this doc­u­ment is a ref­er­ence to ‘‘ rev­el­ling in the liq­uid elas­tic­ity of the video medium’’. One can see what the au­thors are get­ting at, although the in­tended idea is hardly new or even sur­pris­ing. But the ex­pres­sion ‘‘ liq­uid elas­tic­ity’’ man­ages to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously a vir­tual re­dun­dancy and a log­i­cal in­ep­ti­tude, for liq­uids, un­like gases, are for prac­ti­cal pur­poses not elas­tic or com­press­ible. Flow­ing, yes; elas­tic, no: such is the ba­sis of hy­draulics. Co­her­ent in­tel­lec­tual con­ceits need to be based on some­thing more than this sort of spine­less free as­so­ci­a­tion.

Ob­vi­ously one can’t re­ally read this sort of writ­ing, and one cer­tainly can’t en­gage with it in any in­tel­lec­tu­ally mean­ing­ful sense, be­cause there is noth­ing to en­gage with: the au­thors flirt with ideas rather than as­sert­ing or con­fronting them; curatorspeak is a sub­genre in which the im­plicit ax­iom is that ev­ery­thing can be any­thing, noth­ing is any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, and that to swim in a state of un­cer­tainty and bound­less­ness is proof of su­pe­rior so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

The la­bile, the lim­i­nal — those cu­ra­to­rial favourites — and the in­de­fin­able all have their place in art and thought, for the very core of ex­pe­ri­ence is in­deed in­ef­fa­ble. But that in­de­fin­able di­men­sion of ex­pe­ri­ence is suc­cess­fully evoked only by works that are in other re­spects supremely ar­tic­u­late; it is the clar­ity and lu­cid­ity of the sur­round­ing struc­ture that guides the mind to the per­cep­tion of what lies be­yond the ar­tic­u­late. Thus the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tel­lec­tual ar­chi­tec­ture of The Divine Com­edy leads to the sub­lime glimpse of what can­not be spo­ken or even fully un­der­stood at its con­clu­sion.

In the world of con­tem­po­rary art writ­ing, the as­sump­tion is that we will get closer to the in­ef­fa­ble core by weak­en­ing the struc­tures of crit­i­cal rea­son and ev­ery­thing that per­tains to such struc­tures, in­clud­ing the rigour of chronol­ogy or the bounds of genre and con­ven­tion. The re­sult is a kind of writ­ing that con­stantly as­serts in­tel­lec­tual and even, ex­traor­di­nar­ily enough, po­lit­i­cal con­cerns, yet re­mains amor­phous and with­out in­tel­lec­tual pur­chase on the world. It is the writ­ing that cor­re­sponds to a kind of aes­thetic ac­tiv­ity that has dis­con­nected it­self from civil so­ci­ety and now ex­ists in par­al­lel to it, like a theme park out­side the fab­ric of the city.

The ex­hi­bi­tion it­self — much smaller than the mas­sive hard­bound and slip­cased book would sug­gest — is in two main parts, the first in the tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion gal­leries and the sec­ond in­te­grated into the 19th-cen­tury col­lec­tion in the re­cently re­dec­o­rated El­der Wing. The tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion sec­tion is con­ceived, we are told, like a track­ing shot in cinema, where the cam­era trav­els through the space be­ing pho­tographed, mov­ing from one thing to an­other with­out cuts.

This struc­ture serves once again to re­veal what seems to be an im­plicit prin­ci­ple of con­tem­po­rary cu­ra­tor­ship, namely to link dis­plays and me­dia as dis­parate as pos­si­ble, rather than to as­sem­ble things that might be ad­dressed by the viewer in the same sort of way as sculp­tures with sculp­tures or pho­to­graphs with pho­to­graphs. The in­ten­tion, no

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