2016: Issue 6: Gabrielle de Vietri: Three Teams

This set of shows has marked the end of Success. Closing with a round of mini-golf, the accompanying show ‘plugger’, curated by Emma Buswell, was appropriately sport themed. Of particular interest in this show, and emblematic of the role that Success has fulfilled, is Gabrielle de Vietri’s Three Teams. It is testament to the gallery that it has been able to bring so much internationally and nationally important art to our eyes, and I am truly grateful to this space for what it has done, and everything it has achieved.

The work proceeds from a simple premise: to alter the format of Australian Rules football by including three teams on the ground at once. The artist, to achieve this, approached members of a rural community (Horsham) and their football teams to discuss the tactics and form of this new sort of game. While typically the situation of consultation, where the artists already have an idea of how the work will appear (i.e. there will be three goal posts and three teams) is a banal part of the work, it becomes enlivened in this work through the process of people’s interpretations, ever more complex, of the dynamics of the game.

Games, and particularly sports, are bizarre practices – they possess the logic of a space separate from reality. Lines and shapes separate it, certain rules delineate it from the world. It is a making-imaginary of the world, a game that is real, in its performance and actions, yet imagined, in its rules and separation. Sport, however, is prone to leaving its field of play, and entering reality in dramatic and fantastic ways. The lines that delimit their boundaries are permeable, their influence extensive – as George Orwell reminds us in his criticism of the idea to bring the Russian football team to Britain in 1945, which served only to deepen tensions. But to understand the potential of re-shaping the game they must, before they enter reality in a direct manner, function as models, as some form of abstraction.

A game that seems to illustrate this best is the Kriegsspiel. This is a game developed by Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz and his son Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz in 1812. It is meant to represent, and indeed translates as, ‘war games’. The principle feature of this game was its verisimilitude – the kriegsspiel was developed to train young officers in the arts of war. (In 1987 Guy DeBord produced ‘a game of war’ or ‘kriegspiel’ which he considered would have the longest and most important influence of all his works. It was similar in practice to the prior kriegspiel, but technically divergent: supposedly a more accurate representation of the difficulties of mapping and planning a campaign.) The kriegspiel serve to show us not that we can represent reality through a game, but learn and enact a state of play. How do you see the world then, if imagined rules can execute great harm and good to many people? How can you separate the kriegspiel from reality? It is simply an imaginary delineation of elements from the real. War is the real kriegspiel. This does not make it any less of a game though. The logic is the same, only the consequences are real.

The nature of games is to model certain aspects of reality, or certain activities, and perhaps we can understand football in these terms too. Though ostensibly for entertainment, the parallels to Hollywood cinematic narrative and football games are informative: the opposition of two teams, the display of physical prowess, an almost invariable leaning towards showcasing the physical prowess of the male. Sport gives a certain kind of narrative, and one that informs a great many people’s ideas of entertainment – and perhaps ideas of other narratives too. Danish artist Asger Jorn apparently developed a three-team European football game in the 1960s as a way of explaining his theories on Marxist dialectics, and a rough re-shaping of the simple narrative of football.

It is exciting to see a work like this being produced in Australia, a work that at the very least extends the narrative capabilities of such a cultural institution as football. Three Teams does not dismiss sport or attack it as so much critical thought does (see George Orwell) but takes the assumptions that underpin the game of football and expands them.

One of the clearest moments of difference, and that begins to demonstrate that this approach may have some complex political results is when one team kicks the ball to a member of another team – yet because they are aiming for another goal, it gets the ball out of their defense. Truthfully, the most interesting problems are the hypothetical ones that could be set up, if Thee Teams were to be played in a full round. Then, there would be issues to do with the possibility of working with other teams to direct play away from your defense, the forming of potential alliances. Though in the actual enactment, the game looks messy and out of control, the figures on the ground merely focused on the immediacies of the play, there are hints of this complexity that emerge from time to time.

These issues are fascinating to watch unfold, even more so in the planning and consultation phases of the game, where people attempt to get their head around the possibility of a more complex field. The various models that are put up as suggestions for play provide a glimpse into the mind of the people who watch and play football. It is this hypothetical stage that provokes the beginnings of a serious thinking about what is possible in our understanding of this field of play. Even in the physical game, the unfamiliarity with the construction leads to difficulties, but opens up understandings of further possibilities, the complexities of alliances and rankings. This game does not perform as an exact model of anything, yet changing its narrative does challenge the form of a game that dominates too much of our lives. To open up the field to three teams invites a level of complexity typically unavailable in team sports – of working with, not only against; perhaps not an oppositional formation, but a collaborative one too.

by Graham Mathwin

2016: Issue 6: When Happiness Ruled, The Curtain Breathed Deeply, The Secret Garden: PICA

The Perth institute of contemporary arts has this last year said goodbye to Leigh Robb, and has recently announced their new senior curator ­– Eugenio Viola. We look forward to seeing how he develops the program of the institute over the next few years.

Unfortunately there are serious budgetary attacks being launched against institutes such as PICA. Perhaps in this economic context, the bright, colourful, busy shows PICA has put on this (last) year appear to be an attempt to gather a large audience and prove its worth as a response to these budgetary measures. Starting with the PIAF show, Secret Garden and running through Justene Williams: and the curtain breathed deeply and ending with Pip and Pop: when happiness ruled (missing hatched and Salon, the two perennial shows), these exhibitions have all been large installation works, but have also moved against the post-minimal direction of Leigh Robb’s early curation (emblematic of this is the work of John Gerrard and Jeppe Hein). These busy shows exhibit a tendency to hiding or sequestering things within a vibrant and confusing plethora of ornament and decoration, of patterns and objects. There is a heightened emphasis on joy that seems to pervade each exhibition; they all seem extremely celebratory.

It is difficult to read these works without thinking of and referring to Francis Russell’s Tyranny of twee? Essay in Cactus last year. His writing there seems strangely to predict this year’s curated offerings at PICA, and demonstrate remarkable prescience. These shows can certainly be read with reference to this broad yet useful classification of ‘the minute, pleasant, endearing, adorable, sweet, whimsical, sentimental and precious’. Yet this classification applies mostly to When Happiness ruled, though The secret Garden and The curtain breathed deeply certainly bear a connection to it by invoking the fun and playful attitudes of twee. However, the reason I wish to bring it up is because, in his essay, Russell invites us to consider that disregarding the work as superficial only reveals a failure of thoughtful and meaningful engagement with the work. He places the impetus on the viewer not to disregard these works simply on the most boring of registers: of taste.

Following on from this then, perhaps an appropriate concept to address the approach of these shows can be found in Jan Verwoert’s talk on Geoffrey Farmer: Speaking through masks. In it, he states that Farmer’s work has at stake within it the miraculous. He provides a counter example in Robert Morris’ work, which appealed to the ‘enemies of the miraculous’, the pragmatic/utilitarian mindset and the semiotic/representational mindset by ‘reflecting false expectations back to themselves’: the post-minimal trajectory of Morris’ work, is suggestive of both a viewer’s relationship to the gallery that is pragmatic, and a relationship to the institution that is interpretable.

If there is a concept that can allow us to speak about the silly, celebratory and trivial, perhaps it is this idea of the miraculous – an essentially magical construct that something ‘is what it isn’t and is not what it is’. This miraculous is not something necessarily always light and enjoyable however: in particular, Verwoert mentions the Snufalupagus as a character with particularly dark and horrible associations, a ‘dual scrotal monstrosity’ of a puppet that is the very uncanny terror of the homely. The darkness of the associations within this character are near to the surface, but that Henson is able to cross both the happiness and the quite terrifying horror of childhood and innocence is to the credit of his creation. The Secret Garden seems to inherit the legacy of Henson’s Labyrinth and The Muppets in this sense (though what it more clearly resembles is Wallace and Gromit). It is willing to look at dark subjects through the lens of the miraculous, the process of giving life to cartoon characters.

The Secret Garden, but mainly When Happiness Ruled, also recalls the cultural force that is the films of Studio Ghibli. One of the most interesting features in Ghibli’s films are that they are regularly set alongside, or in, an unspecified though recognizable copy of WWII, the shadow of the atomic bomb looming over the na├»ve and happy world of the hero who almost always finds a peaceful solution to the problem at hand – sometimes interpreted as the survival of humanism in the face of the absurd, apocalyptic, and potentially misanthropic. Though this model is often and justly lauded in opposition to Disney’s sometimes mechanical hero/villain dichotomy, it is worth nothing that Ghibli’s films are not without their own unaddressed assumptions and knowledges. For instance: a scene returns to me of Princess Nausicaa (admittedly not strictly Ghibli, but as the film that launched the studio, I feel it is an appropriate statement of intent) being given a gift by some children as she is led away as a hostage. This I thought to be one of the few scenes of the film that fell flat – resembling so much the manner in which children give our own monarch flowers as some token of fealty. Such a demonstration falls into the realm of symbolic and unreal expressions of care and responsibility and love – the princess in this film is clearly given power, unequivocally and with only the supposition of her continued care for her subjects as the basis for its justice. It is worth considering against Ghibli Takashi Murakami’s extremely successful marketing of the ‘super-flat’ as a model of understanding post-war Japanese anime culture: that it is a direct response to, and an infantilisation that is resultant from, being forced into American consumer culture after suffering the atom bomb’s deadly effects. Japan came to be protected against Russia by America’s nuclear umbrella almost as soon as the war was over, and it had no choice but to peacefully capitulate to its once-and-former enemy, and entering a new age of consumer culture – especially of anime. When Happiness Ruled takes some of the style of anime and of studio Ghibli’s contributions to that world, particularly in its resonance with an animist universe. Yet the exhibition, with its constant appeal to overwhelming the senses and yet also being small and sweet loses the devastating, and the poetic, and the political and cultural charge of Ghibli’s work. The video reel showing upstairs performs some of these functions, overlaying scenes of animated disaster with the world of the work.

Yet these shows are unlike Geoffrey Farmer or Wallace and Gromit or The Muppets. One cannot help but think that if the miraculous ‘is what it is not and isn’t what it is’ everything in these shows came close to, but never became, anything other than what it was. While When Happiness Ruled approaches sickening levels, it maintains that sugar is sweet, not sick, and while The Secret Garden reveals the very chemical basis of its construction in popping pills and smoking pipes, it does not ever move outside this utilitarian interpretation. The literalism of The Secret Garden demands interpretation (one of Verwoert’s enemies of the miraculous). It is as if the associations of Carrol’s white rabbit could not be left to stand and needed yet more explanation, and drawing out. The magic of stop motion, the magic even of hallucinogens is perhaps one of transformation, not just of admitting a perpetual dependence on chemical substance. In a way, this destroys the fundamental dichotomy of Henson and Wallace and Gromit: the fact that we know they are chemical beings made of plastic and fake fur, transformed by a trick in the mind and the persistence of vision, but that we still believe in them as miracles. Instead, it offers a mechanistic version of wonder, stuck in the high-school literature lesson that the white rabbit is just Carrol’s drug habit talking. The work yet fails where Henson and Aardman succeed – in the wonder of their creations (a man and his dog go to the moon, which is naturally made of cheese, puppets menace young adventurers, try to make sense of telephones). Wallace and Gromit, at the zero degree of twee, is already a work of great power – its achievements are miraculous.

Justene Williams’ show, The Curtain Breathed Deeply, moved away from the kind of child-like naivety or child-like aesthetics that both other shows have as their basic register of engagement, while still using a similar palette of materials that evoke the celebratory and the child-like. Of the three shows, it offers the most convincing model of how to approach this genre of the decorative and this mode of engagement while maintaining its critical framework. The most powerful room of her large installation addressed masculine and backyard culture – a series of video screens and fluorescents (a phalanx of phalluses) on a white ute, a variety of other sexually suggestive and explicit elements. While we can interpret the work with relationship to minimal art and the Australian backyard, perhaps the hilarity of those flapping erect penises, swinging to and fro like sausages on the barbeque, and that vagina that pops out from a wall are simply the most magical things that have been in PICA’s curated content this year. Like the toilet jokes of baroness Elsa von Freytag and Marcel Duchamp, they are surprising and humorous, and tap into the strange animation of objects in a way that the other shows did not.

Yet all of these busy shows seem to be attempting to transform the space into a fantasyland. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing, yet when three shows appear in one year that try and perform a similar kind of magic, even the miraculous grows tiring. There is something undeniably infantile about the frame of reference the works encourage. Even Justene William’s backyard is filled with the colours of a child’s birthday party. While I think there are various aspects of every work presented that are important, and interesting to think through, there is a lack of understanding in the works about what is at stake within them. While perhaps a jailer is the only one who would discourage escapism, these works are honey traps, and feel more like an intelligent sort of prison we have built for ourselves.

by Graham Mathwin

2016: Issue 6: Nicola Gunn: Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster

As we approach the festivals of the start of this New Year, I have been reflecting on last year’s offerings. One of the works that I wish I had have written about at the time was Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster at PICA. This work, performed by Nicola Gunn, was pared down to, as the title suggests, Gunn performing a series of exercises and dances on stage while reciting a monologue, accompanied by the repetitious beat ostensibly emanating from the ghetto blaster (though I cannot recall if it was actually from the speakers in the wall). The narrative centred on the appearance to Gunn’s character, while jogging, of a man throwing stones at a duck.

She begins, stretching and limbering up before some kind of race, and gradually becomes more and more exhausted and beaded with sweat as the performance goes on. The labour of fitness is performed in parallel to the labour of thought as she doubts her eyewitness and somehow accomplice role to the role of the man throwing stones at the duck. It is whole series of deductions and extrapolations, all of which result in almost nothing occurring. Yet this is the chain of doubts that we all encounter when witnessing something like this. It is an internal monologue we have all suffered before – the shame of not knowing what to do, or simply not doing it. Of being inactive in the face of something, however minor, however slight, that we perceive as a violence, or is actual violence.

Gunn’s performance takes her to the audience, where she moves closely to members of it with sexually suggestive movements. While she never reached the back row, the effect, of being thrown into such close proximity to a performer, suddenly intimate, was also intimidating, and quite frightening. The boundaries of not only audience and performer but also of the space of anonymous strangers is overcome and becomes heightened with the understanding of potentially voyeuristic and performative elements of this performance. I feel my memory may have beguiled me, but this segment also coincided with an analysis of the character having an affair, and yet judging the man for throwing stones at a duck.

In a final tour de force, Gunn transforms, in a simple yet ornate and elegant gown, into the feathered duck. The work suddenly changes registers, and like Adaptation, in its third and final act, it brings home a dramatic and powerful narrative. It also shares the characteristic of Adaptation’s first two thirds in which almost nothing happens. In this case, the final third transforms into a performance piece reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, Gunn’s altered voice echoing repeated refrains of ‘my body is at 32 degrees Celsius’ and ‘I am sitting here’. It is an ecstatic end to the difficulty of thinking and acting that precedes it. The duck is the magical creature here, who knows what its role is, whether it be victim or not, it is certain of what it must do. This crescendo, with its rising, flashing lights and beat concludes the performance with a fantastic strength. It also forms a vision of the appeal of the narrative of the duck – the largely undramatic activity of sitting still for a long periods while attempting to hatch chicks is given a weight is rarely possesses; a dimension often missing from narratives of ostensible passivity. It appears like a musical version of Virginia Woolf’s middle section of To The Lighthouse where the anonymous nature of her characters – their essential unimportance – is taken to its fullest in the narrative of the house itself falling apart and thistles growing through the floor while, in brackets, the characters die in war and childbirth.

The work is, as a whole, an incredible performance, and hopefully this year’s offerings can match or rival it.

By Graham Mathwin


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