WE ARE RE­MINDED AGAIN HOW FACILE CYN­I­CISM CAN BE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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