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
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
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