TIME TRAV­ELLERS

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

Ve­loc­ity Drill Hall Gallery, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, Can­berra, un­til De­cem­ber 14.

THE ex­pe­ri­ence of time keeps tak­ing us by sur­prise. We long for some­thing to hap­pen and then it is over; we are mo­men­tar­ily ab­sorbed in what seems like a time­less state and then we are rushed away into fu­tile ac­tiv­ity again; worst of all, we dis­cover we are grow­ing older and we see that process hap­pen­ing in oth­ers. As chil­dren we think age is an on­to­log­i­cal state; later we be­gin to see the process un­fold­ing, and even­tu­ally we per­ceive the aged­ness of the peo­ple we meet with dis­con­cert­ing clar­ity.

Phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­ogy have long re­alised that time in this sense can­not per­tain to a god or to any ul­ti­mate con­cep­tion of be­ing, yet it is an in­escapable fact of the phe­nom­e­nal world, the world as lived by the hu­man mind and body. More­over there is a cer­tain rate of time, or pace, at which the phe­nom­e­nal world as we know it seems to co­here, just as a mu­si­cal record­ing has to be played at a cer­tain speed and a film must be pro­jected at a pre­cise rate.

This seems to be sort of con­cern that lies be­hind Ve­loc­ity, a new ex­hi­bi­tion cu­rated by the Drill Hall Gallery’s di­rec­tor Ter­ence Maloon, for­merly the dis­tin­guished cu­ra­tor of spe­cial exhibitions at the Art Gallery of NSW.

As we en­ter we are greeted by a large ab­stract paint­ing by Derek O’Con­nor, a bright mass of colours and strokes evok­ing a dis­turbed, rest­less en­ergy but sug­gest­ing above all the blur of a fig­ure mov­ing too fast for the shut­ter speed of a cam­era, or a dig­i­tal im­age break­ing up. Ve­loc­ity, at any rate, here seems to ex­ceed the ca­pac­ity of the medium to reg­is­ter ap­pear­ance.

Around the cor­ner, as we en­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion space proper, two sym­met­ri­cal pro­jec­tions by Semi­con­duc­tor form a kind of frame to the ex­hi­bi­tion, es­tab­lish­ing the ul­ti­mate ref­er­ence point of cos­mic time. The videos, based on astro­nom­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy, show stars, neb­u­lae and so­lar flares, all chore­ographed, as it were, into for­mal pat­terns and rhyth­mic se­quences and ac­com­pa­nied by mu­sic that seems to trans­late the ce­les­tial phe­nom­ena, as in­deed the ti­tle Bril­liant Noise sug­gests, into quasi-synaes­thetic equiv­a­lents. AFTER a visit to the lo­cal store to buy a bala­clava and sunglasses, Juan Ford dressed him­self in a T-shirt that he splat­tered with green paint. He made a makeshift gun from twigs col­lected from around his home, lo­cated on the out­skirts of Mel­bourne. He then set up a cam­era in his back yard and took photographs.

“Thank­fully, I have a high fence neigh­bours couldn’t see,” Ford jokes.

Ford and I are dis­cussing his paint­ing De­gen­er­a­tor, which has just been ac­quired for the RMIT Univer­sity Art Col­lec­tion but is now on dis­play in the ex­hi­bi­tion In the Flesh at Can­berra’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery.

De­gen­er­a­tor is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a se­ries Ford has been work­ing on for six years.

“It draws upon land­scape, botan­i­cal il­lus­tra­tion and fig­u­ra­tion, all smashed to­gether to

Novem­ber 29-30, 2014

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Yet th­ese el­e­gant com­po­si­tions, be­guil­ing at first and re­call­ing the an­cient and fas­ci­nat­ing idea of the mu­sic of the spheres, ul­ti­mately re­mind us that there is no mu­sic in the bar­ren world of space. Pas­cal was per­haps the first to say it, only a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions after Shake­speare had writ­ten the beau­ti­ful pas­sage of The Mer­chant of Venice in which Lorenzo ex­plains the old doc­trine to Jessica. The te­le­scope, in the in­terim, had re­vealed the in­fin­ity of space and Pas­cal had at once un­der­stood what this meant: a terrifying si­lence eter­nel re­placed the re­as­sur­ing har­mony.

The starry vault of heaven, as Kant said more than a cen­tury later, is a quintessen­tially sub­lime spec­ta­cle — one that is both fright­en­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing in its grandeur, but above all ut­terly for­eign to the scale and tem­po­ral­ity of hu­man life. As we con­tem­plate the stars or flares in th­ese pro­jec­tions, we re­alise we have no mean­ing­ful grasp of the du­ra­tion within which they ex­ist.

From cos­mic tem­po­ral­ity we find our­selves sud­denly in the all-too-fa­mil­iar regimes of ur­ban time — omit­ting the nat­u­ral and more con­ge­nial cy­cles of the year, the sea­sons, months and day and night. Such in­ter­vals, though gov­erned by plan­e­tary mo­tions, are elas­tic and vari­able and con­stantly sub­ject to the ad­di­tional vi­cis­si­tudes of weather. Mod­ern ur­ban time, on the other hand, is me­chan­i­cal, util­i­tar­ian and ruled by the clock.

It was the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, with its fac­to­ries and the need to co-or­di­nate large work­forces, that changed the man­age­ment of time, which had al­ways been in­her­ently fluid in the coun­try or even in the shops of small trades- make a new genre of Aus­tralian rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” he says. “De­gen­er­a­tor is one of the more fig­u­ra­tive works. For me, this con­fronta­tional fig­ure rep­re­sents what it is like to ap­proach and deal with the medium, to grap­ple with it, to work with it.

“I hope it is thought-pro­vok­ing. When I make work, I like to in­sert am­bi­gu­ity into it and hope­fully it is in­trigu­ing enough for the viewer to ask ques­tions and won­der what this is about.”

When I ask Ford if he con­sid­ers his pic­ture a com­ment on ter­ror­ism, war or gun cul­ture, he replies ter­ror­ism is part of the zeit­geist to­day. men. Above all, it was the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern mass tran­sit sys­tems, to al­low work­ers to move ef­fi­ciently from their homes to their fac­to­ries, that de­ter­mined the tri­umph of clock time: ev­ery great Vic­to­rian rail­way sta­tion has a large clock promi­nently on its fa­cade.

Here we find our­selves in the most en­closed and me­chan­i­cal of all forms of train travel, the un­der­ground metro sys­tems which are part of the hid­den in­fra­struc­ture that al­low big ci­ties to func­tion. The idea of trav­el­ling un­der­ground — in that dark un­der­world — was ini­tially so un­ap­peal­ing that some peo­ple doubted it would ever be em­braced by the pub­lic. But there was no al­ter­na­tive and com­muters were com­pelled to ven­ture into the sub­ter­ranean world, where, cut off from nat­u­ral light and other sights and sounds, they found them­selves in a tem­po­ral mi­lieu that was fun­da­men­tally con­tra­dic­tory, com­posed of high-ve­loc­ity tran­sit from point to point al­ter­nat­ing with pe­ri­ods of en­forced sta­sis.

Wait­ing is a univer­sal ex­pe­ri­ence: hu­mans have al­ways waited for morn­ing or evening, for sum­mer or au­tumn, for birthdays, cel­e­bra­tions, the re­turn of loved ones. But mod­ern me­chan­i­cal trans­port in­tro­duces another vari­a­tion: a train, like an aero­plane, is meant to leave at a cer­tain hour. We hurry to get there on time, be­cause if we miss it, it will go with­out us; but then we end up wait­ing for its ar­rival, and that seems to be a new kind of ex­pec­ta­tion.

Wait­ing in a train or un­der­ground sta­tion, or even for a bus, is an ex­pe­ri­ence of time grind­ing to a halt. It is al­ways more pleas­ant, if dis­tance per­mits, to walk than wait for a bus, be­cause in walk­ing — in­ter­act­ing with our en­vi­ron­ment as we go at a pace that suits hu­man con­scious­ness

“That has in­evitably made its way into it, but at the same time, there is green paint com­ing out of the eyes and he is hold­ing this ridicu­lous stick gun,” he says. “It is con­fronta­tional but it is tooth­less at the same time. Those two are in op­po­si­tion. So yes, it is ter­ri­ble but ab­surd.

“I am not try­ing to make a com­ment specif­i­cally about the ridicu­lous­ness of war, but in­evitably that which is hap­pen­ing around me bleeds into the im­agery. I’m a sponge and I just suck it up and push it out.”

Ford, who was born in Mel­bourne in 1973, stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing be­fore at­tend­ing art school

d’Animo

Stati

Through the look­ing glass — we feel alive and con­nected to the world. When we wait for a bus or train, on the other hand, it is as though that pace which is proper to hu­man life has been sus­pended, and we find our­selves in a kind of de­hu­man­is­ing void.

The fact that we are of­ten wait­ing with oth­ers only makes mat­ters worse. Our sense of shared hu­man­ity di­min­ishes in pro­por­tion to the den­sity of the crowd we are in, and few en­vi­ron­ments are more alien­at­ing than a mass of peo­ple wait­ing for a train on a plat­form. This seems to be the ex­pe­ri­ence evoked in Robert Boynes’s dig­i­tal prints of un­der­ground sta­tions, with their shad­owy fig­ures and hints of men­ace.

In the largest of th­ese com­po­si­tions, a trip­tych, the cen­tral panel is oc­cu­pied by a dark, threat­en­ing sil­hou­ette that looms to­wards us, back­lit by a lu­mi­nous wall, ap­par­ently of glass bricks. On ei­ther side, we see shad­owy and dis­em­bod­ied fig­ures re­flected in the con­vex mir­rors used to see around cor­ners, images of the in­sub­stan­tial and tran­sient pres­ence strangers have for us in such cir­cum­stances. at RMIT Univer­sity. His prac­tice is in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary, rang­ing from paint­ing and sculp­ture to in­stal­la­tion. He is known for the hy­per-re­al­ism of his images, which are so pre­cise they are of­ten mis­taken for photographs.

He has been a fi­nal­ist in the Archibald Prize with a num­ber of self-por­traits. He also re­cently com­pleted a por­trait of the late Sir Isaac Isaacs, the coun­try’s first Aus­tralian-born gover­norgen­eral, which was un­veiled in the Vic­to­rian Par­lia­ment House.

Pene­lope Grist, cu­ra­tor of In the Flesh, says De­gen­er­a­tor was partly in­spired by the makeshift guns cre­ated by the child of one of Ford’s friends. “There is in­tense self-re­flec­tion and the mo­tif of the play weapon,” says Grist. “For me its sig­nif­i­cance is how it rep­re­sents the strug­gle of mak­ing the work. I also re­ally love the am­bi­gu­ity of this work be­cause it is vaguely ab­surd, as well as fright­en­ing. You are not quite sure and so it un­set­tles you.”

Grist says be­fore see­ing De­gen­er­a­tor, she had seen minia­ture images of it but was “knocked over” when she did even­tu­ally see it.

“It is the im­pact of the ac­tual work that re­ally hits you, and that is such an im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence of art, par­tic­u­larly th­ese days when peo­ple think they can look at some­thing on a screen and they think they have seen it, but that is ab­so­lutely not the case with this.

“With hy­per-re­al­ism you think it trans­lates on screen as a pho­to­graph, but it doesn’t. It is a very phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Oil on li­nen; 180cm x 240cm

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