WE ARE REMINDED AGAIN HOW FACILE CYNICISM CAN BE
irreducible to sexual appeal. On the contrary, commercial culture has polarised its two terms, producing a degraded caricature of beauty as sexual provocation for advertising purposes, while simultaneously promoting a kitsch version of the ideal for the wedding industry and its offshoots.
So there is a lot to ponder about the place of love today, a perennial but complex human drive confused by the cliches, kitsch and ideology of the commercial media environment, but the subject does not seem to stimulate anything of much interest in a feeble exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW — the worst reviewed in these pages since last year’s Sulman Prize — with the smugly world-weary title We Used to Talk About Love.
Unfortunately, this is one of that all-toocommon class of contemporary exhibition for which there was no need and no motivation apart from the availability of funding, in this case from the Balnaves Foundation, which in 2010 sponsored another mediocre exhibition at the AGNSW called Wilderness. Here too a theme has been plucked out of the air and a variety of indifferent works shoved into it, the whole packaged in a book with the usual series of promotional essays intended to affirm the credibility of the artists and the undertaking in general.
Visitors to the AGNSW are first confronted, outside the exhibition proper, by a wall of photographs by Polly Borland, of various pitiful and grotesque figures with shapeless bodies, artificial wigs covering their features and phallic objects protruding from heads. These are images that function very much like the products of the advertising industry, to seize the eye of the distracted passer-by through a kind of superficial irritation, but which are surprisingly dull and predictable as soon as one pays any attention to them.
They reveal themselves not only as superficial but even as essentially false, for despite an implicit claim to be critical or provocative, Borland’s work in fact exudes a profound complacency. The pictures, it seems, should be a shocking counterpoint to the commercial promotion of the sexualised body in the mass media, but they are just as simplistic in the opposite direction, answering mindless exploitation of sexuality with obtuse revelling in an ugliness that makes sexual desire impossible or absurd.
Once again we see how the products of the contemporary art business, while attempting to position themselves as the antithesis of the consumer society, are in so many cases no more than a special category of consumer item, appealing to a particular market segment that demands ostensible difference in the same way that luxury products demand the illusion of exclusivity.
Beyond this, we are reminded yet again how facile cynicism can be — a theme already foreshadowed, as we have seen, in the title of the exhibition. As I have observed before, optimism can be stupid, but pessimism can be lazy and cowardly. And certainly a blanket assumption that everything is meaningless or absurd is as lazy and uncritical as the most thoughtlessly cheerful stance, and worse because its exponents are always so pleased with their own cleverness.
A similar note of compulsory and unthinking pessimism runs through the series of photographs of couples embracing by Paul Knight. It is hardly original to suggest that two people remain separate beings even after, as it is implied, having had sex together, but the problem is compounded by the fact that each image is made in the same way, by folding photographs so that they overlap, occluding parts of the faces. Anything that can transform otherwise ordinary pictures in this way and can be repeated in a whole series is a gimmick.
Elsewhere the theme that is most striking is that of narcissism, prominent in David Rosetzky’s video work in which rather selfconscious movement sequences alternate with characters talking about themselves — when I was there the young woman in the red shirt was all too typically going on at length about how she likes not to think about herself; it is the typical narcissistic formula of self-loathing and self-obsession that we know so well. How many monologues of this kind have we endured? The answer is just to shut up and think about something other than yourself.
A variation on the theme of narcissism is in Angelica Mesiti’s video, which won the Blake Prize for religious art in 2009. It shows a crowd of young people at a rock concert, all close-ups of their faces as they respond to the songs or to the presence of their idols on the stage. Whether this work has any merit as an expression of religious experience was always questionable, but it is striking, and even chilling, in another way. For what it effectively shows us is the reverse of the medal of narcissism: what happens when the selfabsorbed and the hollow turn to self-oblivion in mass ecstasy.
We see faces tense with expectation or melting in adoration; it is an abyss of the unconscious, of hysteria, as identity and reason are relinquished, as they are in any mass manipulation, like the violence of mobs or the rage of mass political rallies. This has nothing to do with love in any of its manifestations as desire, or care or communion with another person, but has more to do with the kind of frighteningly dehumanised behaviour of political mobs and religious zealots.
There are several other things too tiresome, slight and contrived to be worth discussion, and the most striking and memorable works in the exhibition are easily those of Darren Sylvester. The merit of Sylvester’s work is that it succeeds in suggesting something beyond itself, while most of the other works fail to escape the orbit of their own introversion. And, not surprisingly, Sylvester is one of the few who has anything useful to say about what is supposedly the subject of the show.
In his picture of a girl lying on a bed, dreaming, Sylvester evokes the awakening of a new and disturbing experience: the longing for another, a sentiment so absorbing that the body lies inert and the mind is far away, preoccupied with a person who is probably at that very moment not giving this young woman a passing thought. His picture of a schoolboy reading what is presumably a letter of rejection from the object of his affections is poignant too, subtly evoking the elegant interior that surrounds him but has become, to a mind preoccupied with love, immaterial.
Clockwise from far left, still from Angelica Mesiti; by Darren Sylvester; and