There has (like Frank Ocean’s new album) been some delays in making Sensible Perth an online journal, and so we will be releasing three issues in quick succession – This issue from June, July in the next few weeks, and August at the end of this, its self-same month.
Sensible Perth is over one year old now. Although it had no particular plan at its inception, there is clearly a space in Perth for a more serious and regular review publication focusing on contemporary art. Therefore, Sensible Perth is turning into a monthly online magazine. The plan now is that Sensible Perth will become an independent, self-sustaining entity, and perhaps eventually a print journal as well as an online one. Sensible Perth is also moving to a membership platform. This is so that we can commission new writing from a more diverse selection of voices about art in Perth. Members will have access to all articles, both current and archived – most articles will however remain free, and the continued use of this system will depend on its success. We invite you therefore to subscribe, to allow sensible Perth to become a platform for local contemporary art criticism.
This first issue is undoubtedly influenced by the recent developments in the Art scene here. The opening of Success Gallery half a year ago is clearly the major influence in this focus on video art. Such a massive space is inspiring to see, and leaves ripples – here and elsewhere. The development of the screen space at the Art Gallery of Western Australia – barely a year old as well – is also something to consider, and its influence works its way in here. Yet it is also in the very powerful utilisation of the form of video art we have seen locally. There is an awful lot of good video art being made. It is testament to this that though this first issue did not begin with any material or conceptual thematic in mind (and it is unlikely that following issues will have such a thematic), it was eventually realised that every work spoken about was audio-visual in form.
We then invite you to read and think about this inaugural issue of Sensible Perth and the art it contains, and hope you will join us in building a platform for contemporary art criticism here in Perth
2016: Issue 1: Mary Reid Kelley: Priapus Agonistes
Still from Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, 2013, courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London.
AGWA’s screen space, inaugurated in 2015, continues in 2016. It has, this year, functioned as a wonderful counterpoint to the work in the other galleries, being often more confronting and challenging for a broad audience. It is also proof of dedication of the gallery to some of the most important and interesting contemporary art. It is testament to AGWA that the works it is prepared to present here are often thoroughly confusing and challenging to people who do not often encounter video works – I say this only as several viewers walked out in apparent discomfort or disgust as I watched the videos presented there. I have a great hope that it, as part of a gallery experience (and one with various galleries dedicated to a more conservative curatorial and aesthetic regime) expanded their world – even just a little bit. Kelley’s work maintains the challenging sentiments of Ryan Trecartin’s work from earlier this year in its clear presentation of sex and gender and bodily issues through a highly stylized format. In this case, it is styled after classic theatre, rhythmic poetry and long-canonised experimental film, all of which Kelley uses as the setting for her reappropriation of Greek myths. The irreverence and humour of Kelley’s work undercuts the serious and somewhat transgressive subjects of her work, as well as the historically canonical references and rhythmic and poetic structures she draws on.
It is interesting to contrast this work with the equally visually sumptuous Lingchi – echoes of a historical photograph, by Chen-chieh jen, presented at Success earlier this year. While both are black and white, and both engaged in some kind of obvious filmic manipulation (whether it be slow motion or expressionist sets and masks) there is a dichotomy between the works’ operations and sensibilities. Both orbit around ordeals, yet whereas one seems seductively antagonistic to the ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’, Kelley’s is irreverently funny about the bestiality, death and violence that permeate this narrative of the minotaur, and the feminist reinterpretation she offers of it. This character in her work makes it much less immediately troubling than Chen-Chieh Jen’s work, and it does not prey on and play with our visual desires in such a jarring way. However this is not to say it is ineffective. It also cleverly sidesteps our defences against many of the aesthetic and formal devices and subjects that Kelley presents. The humour of the work hides its transformative potential – and allows it to become quite approachable. Though there are valid concerns to be had about the heteronomative and western version of feminism that Kelley offers there remains something of power in its ‘updating’ of the oldest forms of literature and art, along with its integration and re-radicalisation of western mythic narratives. The absence of any real censorship – of bodies or humour, the emphasizing of the most normally hidden sexual organs (at least in contemporary televisual and filmic culture) the presence of often-removed bodily hair, and abject bodily functions, gives the work a transgressive charge.
This transgressive quality is interestingly what AGWA seems to be after with its latest instalments in the screen space. With Trecartin’s six films earlier this year for PIAF, and now Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, there seems to be an ongoing narrative to do with gender and sex, and going past the cultural boundaries that typically exist about those issues (again largely in televisual and filmic formats) through video art. However there is also, from an art history perspective, something about a retrospective avant-garde that is invoked in both works. Trecartin’s work, while enjoyable, is somewhat typical post-net art to the point of overdoing it. The excessive digital zooms and rapid cuts and shitty graphics, and even the plasticised, stereotypical characters become less an ironic criticism of any external referent than an example of being caught up in itself. Kelley’s work exhibits a similar introspection and self-absorption, into old German cinema, ancient Greek myths, and the avant-garde as it was. Though both works are entertaining, they seem to be quoting from the past in a way that presupposes it to be progressive and interesting, because it was once. In a way, it feels like a considered, cautiously political act on AGWA’s behalf, after the MOMA series, to present a series of video works that draw on the languages that were developed in a similar age, but play and riff off them in a later one.
Alongside its artistic predilections, Kelley’s work appears to aspire to serious literary goals, and achieves them. The powerful rhythmic pacing, double-entendres, and image and word plays make for an experience that engages with multiple modes of production at once – all the more impressively, Kelley herself performs most of it. The strength of film is in its combination of image and sound, and the chorus, narration and voice acting of the characters is vital to the work. Though everything is in caricature, the work is still linguistically and poetically strong. The costuming, setting, acting, and scripting are all conducive to the interpretation of the work as a caricature, a sarcastic portrait of a history of modernity that is partially inspired by the classics. The irony and playfulness of Kelley’s work avoids any typically originary potential in the myths and stories that she uses as the basis of her work. (We can think of Arno Brecker’s sculptures as taking Greek aesthetics and myths as a kind of ‘originary’ mythos) Instead, these histories become malleable and strange to themselves. Priapus Agonistes emphasizes the transgressive and radical potential of ancient myths and old forms and formats through re-interpretation.
Kelley’s work comes close to losing itself in its own exceedingly clever games – like Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray; there are moments when wit is gratuitous and overdone (the Ba’al as one instance of a joke that did not quite land). However, the caricature, in its visible construction, remains grounded, and its stylization, however self-referential, remains comparably accessible as amateur theatre. The subject of the work, inclusive of all uncouth elements (‘I do not shit the halls… not often’) also does not become overblown. Despite this, the work does aspire to serious literary and artistic goals. It has not taken the form of epic poetry and avant-garde film for purposes of accessibility and to be relatable. It is, however, the success of the work that it creates a powerful literary and artistic work that includes the basest of subjects and remains impressively humorous and entertaining – and somehow remains approachable.
Runs until 25th September.
written by Graham Mathwin
2016: Issue 1: Shaun Prior: Coccyxxx
Shaun Prior. 2016. Backyard Dream Sequence: A gently curving column. Image courtesy of the artist.
There is something absurdly popular about getting naked to make video and performance art. It is perhaps something to do with the history of nudity in painting and sculpture, and the translation of it into a more contemporary sphere, or possibly a hangover from the sixties. The use of nudity is often called upon to perform a problematic double function in performance and video: it is meant to reveal, and somehow to present honesty and rawness; yet also present a symbolic façade where it is called upon to invoke the aura of being art, to be regarded with an almost spiritual intent. It is therefore interesting when a work that features nudity so heavily, as this work does, does not fall into this typical function, or at least succeeds despite it. Like the most powerful of Marina Abramovic’s work, it succeeds because it is not shy, nor coy (nothing is hidden in this series – it is so often works that feature nudity that are as modest as a magazine cover), nor simply using nudity as a trope, nor as a fall-back for not having any idea how to costume, and suspecting that nudity will give it the aura of artistic creation. The principle reason for this is that what is at stake in this show is an examination of gender and sexuality in which the body is inherently implicated. In this realm, the body immediately becomes the site of great contention and interest. It is this interest invested in the body, its contortions, its potential to both abjection and beauty, to symbolism and mundanity, that gives the nakedness of Prior as a performer a purpose and cause.
Nudity is not enough to carry the work alone and Prior’s gestures, costuming, setting, and framing all become important choices and are what, eventually, become the most powerful parts of the work. The limited costuming is eloquent when it is employed: in particular, a back brace sits around Prior as he performs much of his work. It is clear that he is quite aware of his own limitations, and the frailty and, under the repressive cover of clothes, the somewhat disappointing aspect of most of our human figures. This choice must also be read against a history and predilection in art to the nudity of women, and the relative protection from scrutiny and shame that sustains the masculine image. The penis is often rendered invisible in cultural production – which conversely seems to increase the power and aura of the dick as a symbolic portent, while protecting men from shame and inadequacy. This makes a case for the penis’s spiritual existence: as something about which images must not be made. By being unseen it is made powerful in the manner of ideology – it becomes that which is an ‘unknown known’. This structure of support that keeps the patriarchal façade erect is what Prior’s back-brace costuming seems to point to. The patriarchy requires the crutch of invisibility to protect from shame, from embarrassment, and from sexual inability and failure – in short, vulnerability. By being naked, yet wearing a covering that does not cover, Prior exposes the paradoxical logic of invisibility and power in sexuality and images of the body.
However, this argument is not encompassing, and for such a complex issue as phallocentricism it is hardly surprising. The invisibility of penises is perhaps exclusive to film, art and television, and is also a changing field. There is also a directly contrary example in the prevalence of the dickpic in contemporary culture. It is a pertinent contradictory instance of visual sexual aggression, which requires some modulation of the argument: that though it is perhaps not always the ‘invisible’ penis, it is the ‘unspeakable’ in either its hiddenness or supposedly intimidating/impressive visibility that is part of a patriarchy’s operations of power. Visibility can have many operations, but the two in question here is whether visibility is used to oppress or to expose. Prior is aware of this absurd logic, in another sequence, Prior is lit in demonic red light, and uses an enormous candle as a phallus. As it melts, it puts out a set of three other candles with its wax. He embodies, in this series, some kind of satanic figure, sadistic and violent, an image of masculine aggression. Yet his image becomes a parody with the mock-spiritual icon of the candle and its overblown proportions, a peculiar and honest, yet funny take on the propensity of the masculine to grandiosity, violence, and hyperbole.
Among the most successful devices employed in the work, the footage is filmed at a very high ISO, and renders the image fuzzy with grain. In an age with readily available high-quality technology, it is an important choice. It makes the work somewhere between homemade porn and exhibitionism. The graininess of the footage speaks to the DIY and found object aesthetic of the rest of the work – work that employs strobe lighting, LED strip lighting, garden orbs, and candles – not to mention its setting in a suburban backyard. It takes the kitsch paraphernalia of suburban and urban existence and imbues it with a symbolic and sensual potency. The graininess also gives the digital media a strong emphasis. Though it is perhaps endemic of low quality film, it permits the artwork not to be caught up in its technicalities; and although it is not crisp, it does not detract from the work. There is an interesting aesthetic link, throughout this performance and DIY aesthetic, to Ryan Trecartin’s six films that were in the screen space for PIAF this year. The lo-res, high-ISO aesthetic of Trecartin’s films, their humorous approach to gender and sex and their own tendency not to leave anything to the imagination, welcome a comparison to Prior’s work. Here the rapid editing and day-time soap opera style has transformed into a strange and surreal set of performances. Yet, perhaps the most pertinent references to Prior’s work are not so much from the world of art as music videos: Jesse Kanda’s visuals for Arca’s debut Xen, and Chris Cunningham’s work for Aphex twin and Bjork come to mind on viewing his works. These kind of experimental articles of visual culture feel more in line with the non-narrative, non-linear editing and short duration of Prior’s works.
Backyard dream sequence is a mix of naivety, wonder, and transgression. The accompanying text does little to lift the veil of the surreal that transforms the gestures and setting of Prior’s work into a waking dream. It rather compounds the strangeness of the work, transgressing the serious or critical language that people often feel the need to surround their shows with, and replacing it with a mocking literary fiction about the creation of the performance:
‘I saw a UFO whilst filming this project. There I was, standing above a strobe light, slowly removing my white Sri-Lankan Prayer robe/Ebenezer Scrooge pyjamas, like Jesus performing a strip-tease, when a black orb silently flew horizontally across the sky, blocking out the stars. Whilst I didn’t capture it on camera, I do have on video the moment I see it, my head slowly moving left to right. Its not that surprising that aliens would be interested in what I was doing, I’m a unique specimen, doing something they’re quite possibly never encountered a human doing before. I like to think the aliens observing me were those known among alien-expert circles as ‘andromedeans’ – kind, inter-dimensional, genderless beings who emit rainbow light. The more I think about it, the more I realise how similar we are, the andromedeans and I. We share a strange mission: to help the human race reach another dimension. Shaun xxx’
It reveals something of the beguiling nature of the visual work: humorous and serious, sometimes parodic, sometimes spiritual, and always uncompromising and unrelenting while preserving a certain innocence. It appears like an attempt to radicalise the most kitsch and camp elements of our world – the ‘xxx’ that signs of Prior’s text, the colour-changing garden globes that he moves within in the video, the LED strip that flashes and ripples and the candles that sit around the space and in the video. All are transmuted in Prior’s performance into something magical. They become sexual, powerful, serious, and galactic. Using a backyard – the familial backyard – only adds to the potency of this relationship, of the trivial daily and the overwhelmingly symbolic.
With contemporary interest in gender issues reaching great political heights, Prior’s work is a timely instance of gender being taken as a subject outside of being merely pleasurable or acceptable. The boldness of his works, and their grainy, dirty, backyard vibe goes beyond the mere tolerance of gender diversity, and begins to unpack a more base, symbolic, and thoroughly destabilising position. It is difficult to state in words what Prior has achieved in this small, weird show, but it is one of the few imbued with true magic that has come by this year.
written by Graham Mathwin
2016: Issue 1: Jacobus Capone: Volta
Jacobus Capone, Volta (installation view) (2016) – 5 channel FHD video and 2-channel audio, 53:00 Photo: Dan McCabe
SUCCESS, the vast gallery space under Fremantle’s old Myer building, has so far cut up and divided its cavernous space in order to separate audio-visual works from one another. With this latest installation by Jacobus Capone, a new dynamic emerges: an encompassing engagement with the whole of the main space. The great width and depth of this gallery makes this an important move – and one that fulfils the potential of the space. The screens, previously dividing works and blocking views of one another, are turned inward to create a broken rotation of the central stairwell. The work’s subject is also different from the ostensible interests of SUCCESS’s previous shows – which have orbited around pivotal political and cultural ideas. This show is by contrast, and despite its scale, incredibly intimate. The artwork, Jacobus Capone’s Volta, features the artist’s family, particularly his father, and his father’s remembering and re-learning of the accordion – an instrument he was adept at playing in his youth. The work appears to be an attempt to redress the pain and loss that occurred during the artist’s father’s depression, and that occurred though the process of electro-shock therapy, and the familial repercussions of the illness.
The work is not easy to approach – it is one of the few artworks that I would say is usefully framed by a gallery text, yet even with this it is sometimes difficult to understand the poetry of Volta. Volta seems to be aimed at achieving poignancy through a poetic gesture, yet it often appears at odds with itself. It is not as concise as many of Capone’s works, his father struggles to perform from time to time, the other figures are silent, and the video cuts out and cuts in, people’s eyes rarely meet the camera, they often appear to shy away from it. Against the boldness of Capone’s previous works, such as 2015’s Dark Learning, this work creates a much more difficult and faltering representation. Yet this faltering is part of the nature of the subject of the work. The subject is indeed a series of breakages – a series of damages occurring among a family – the most internal, fragile, and dangerous of institutions.
It is also a work replete with sentiment, and it does induce tears. This is not necessarily a sign of great poetry though – I was moved to tears by a trailer for the new Star Wars film – whilst not even having watched more than episode 1 before that – as it was so steeped in sentiment and nostalgia, something reciprocated in Charlie Kaufman’s admission that he ‘can be moved to tears by these commercials that these people [sneaker companies] put out.’ (http://guru.bafta.org/charlie-kaufman-screenwriters-lecture) This is to say that there is a fine line between the sentimental and the purely manipulative. In Volta the camera’s shallow focus and zoom enlarges and enriches the smallest of details. It brings us as close as a touch to these people we see on screen. Against this, the pacing and staging of the scene is important to deepening our engagement with the work. The strength of Volta is that it does hold back. It does not play into sentiment in what is already an extremely laden subject, like Steven Spielberg or his ilk. It is not, in the end, a tear-jerk response. The stillness and solidity of the camera is part of this, the macro shots become much more about details and elements that take on significance and become very physical and invoke a presence, rather than attempts to seduce us, as Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love, or any other number of audio-visual and film works attempts to do.
Although Capone’s Dark Learning even outshone Ragnar Kjartansson’s multi-channel installations for last year’s Perth International Arts Festival, there is one of Kjartansson’s work, Me and my Mother, that seems appropriate to contrast with Capone’s Volta. Kjartansson’s work presents a more visceral and potentially antagonistic image of a familial relationship – where every five years Kjartansson asks his mother to spit on him. Volta is quite different – an attempt at some kind of redemption, yet unlike Kjartansson’s work, it perhaps falls into the trappings of triteness and quaintness. This work seems to be a continuation of Capone’s interest in the family in his body of work, with 2010’s for now forever, for the time being forever, while it lasts forever, where he listened to his father’s heartbeat for a day, and then his father listened to his, and 2013’s I am my mother’s son, yet in all these works, there is a valid reservation to be had: that there is not always poetry in the family. Unlike Kjartansson’s Me and My Mother, which cannot help but be an antagonistic image to a relationship that is so often romanticised, or Anri Sala’s Intervista, where Sala’s mother disagrees with her son’s findings, which are found despite her, Volta is a much more agreeable vision of familial redemption. While not a great problem, there does not seem to be a great deal that is in question in this work.
The origin of this difficulty with Volta is how aware the subject is of the process, or rather, how aware they are of their role in what the work hopes to achieve. Capone’s father plays a part in the gesture, and is well aware that it is meant to be ‘poignant’. The problem is, more precisely, that the work appears to have always meant to be poignantly moving and poetic, and plays into its own narrative, and narratives of redemption and reconciliation within a family. It is, however, difficult to take poignancy back from this sort of self-awareness – it begins to appear contrived. This causes a splitting within the work: though the principle gesture (of Capone’s father re-learning the accordion) has a clear poetic potential, the words of Capone’s father, and his faltering playing, break through the gesture, and open another space. As Capone’s father states in the work, it is the struggle that is being made visible here. The origin of difficulty is in this struggle, and the final richness of the work is achieved in this struggle. Though the work is difficult, and a document of faltering and fractured memories, and whether or not the gesture was a successful one, it does finally leave a deep impression.
Despite my misgivings, I feel the work is a work of poetry. It finally arrives there through various elements, but especially its installation, where you find yourself, after watching the two screens featuring Capone’s father for a time, standing in the middle of the rest of his family. They are silent, tearfully or opaquely watching something else – presumably the video being played back to them. A field of influence is made visible, and the other figures outside of the principal relationship on display become one of the strongest and yet most subtle elements of the work. The absence of the artist from this work is also something of central importance. A large amount of Capone’s artwork is focused on his own performance, both endurance and durational, and a series of powerful poetic gestures. Here Capone is not the central figure, he has ceded his space on screen to his family, and remains hidden behind the lens. The limited framing of particular details complements this hiddenness, and the work maintains a visual charge in the limited visibility we are afforded. All of this makes the work something quite powerful.
The family is a difficult relationship to navigate in art, but Capone moves through it with care. Though it is not an artwork that resists the narratives we are often fed of the family, it is an empowering instance of healing, as much as the subjects are aware of how they are meant to respond. The work overcomes these factors though, and shows the process of re-learning and regaining what was lost to a finally redemptive effect.
2016: Issue 1: Susan Flavell: The dog’s artist; Kiana Jones: Freakmo; Sarah Poulgrain: bust construction
Sarah Poulgrain, Bust construction (installation view) 2016 Photo: Dan McCabe
Jacques Rancière, in The Future of the Image, compares Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s masterpiece, to the French television quiz show Questions pour un Champion. Rancière states that Au Hazard Balthazar is a work worthy of attention as an artistic image because it ‘shows us images that refer to nothing else, which are themselves the performance’ as opposed to questions pour un champion, which displays an act that is ‘foreign’ to the set and camera of the television studio. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these artworks are categorically not ‘artistic’ images, the issue at stake is that they seem to allude to the potentials of an audio-visual media without fulfilling them. Yet the issue that Rancière addresses is relevant here. To generalise, these artworks are mostly recordings, rather than any sort of ‘performance of images’. In this way, they utilise video in its most basic register – as a record and document of something else, without sufficient engagement with what it is to present images in sequence.
Firstly, I would like to talk about Susan Flavell’s choice and use of video. Primarily, it is worth stating that in the world where the Internet obsession with the ‘doggo’ and the ‘doge’ has taken hold, art that does not surmount or alter such representations of these creatures appears superfluous. The human love of dogs, though not shared wholeheartedly by the author, is something nearly universal, and the dog is omnipresent – online and in the world, in all its incredible form and movement. Flavell’s videos are beautiful, with expert focusing and a very well trained and rather pretty animal at their heart, but they are especially beautiful when the common trait of dogs and the camera – i.e their propensity for movement through time – is made visible. Unfortunately, this happens very little in a work where the dog in question remains still, rather than performing the role that dogs often do: of alertness, activity, and play. It also leaves the camera almost immobile, and the cuts are simple fades and the images that are cut to are of exactly the same shot as before. The static nature of her videos also seems more appropriate to the solid forms that surround them than their own material. Yet the principle reason that these works are addressed here is that the videos do not fulfil the potential of video, nor of its subject. They record, rather than play.
Of course, the camera need not always move. The wonder of film is often to leave the camera still and let life move on the other side. Doreen Massey, for instance (who has sadly passed away only a few months ago) writes eloquently about the potency of static shots in Patrick Keiller’s work in relation to the local and the global mobility and immobility of people. Yet Keiller’s work is an important foil for this artwork as it gives us a vision of the power of play itself – every static shot that is cut onto the next produces the poetry and power of his work, and it is this factor that Flavell’s work seems to neglect: that film is, at heart, a sequence of images.
I would also like to contrast Flavell’s whole show, not just her use of film, with the most impressive work I have seen that was about, or perhaps was, a dog: it was at the Musée Pompidou in 2013 – Pierre Huyghe’s retrospective. There, ‘Human’, an Ibizan hound, took on the aspect of an occasional, unselfconscious performer in the space. It was a relationship that existed to be unscripted and undirected. Human acted as an uncontrolled vector, altering the flow of people, changing their behaviour within the museum to startling effect. Human was also presumably chosen due to the museological heritage of her breed: those admired by the Egyptians, and the model of the Egyptian ‘Anubis’ – she became, in her re-insertion into the museum, a kind of living parody of the Louvre and the solid stony bulk of her visible ancestors. The dog’s pink leg breaks the form of the dog, creating a creature that is somehow different, a cyborg made of food dye. It alters her shape, to allow us to reflect on it, and her separation and very animal relationship to us. This is a different approach to Flavell’s, which appears to be an attempt to admire what is already present, and represents it in as fixed manner as possible. The fact that Human operated on her own terms in the gallery, as dogs often do, is a particular point of difference to Favell’s work. There is no particular problem with this methodology except that there is not the generosity of Hugyhe’s rather simple gesture, which allows the dog its freedom, and gives us a mysterious symbolic and animal presence to consider. Flavell’s work attempts to give the dog a place alongside the human in portraiture and sculpture, without any criticality of the very forms of sculpture and portraiture that inform it.
Huyghe’s work is also an interesting comparison for the accompanying exhibition of Freakmo by Kiana Jones. Here, horror make-up is demonstrated in its application and production, and then modelled by the artist. Yet what is skipped in the show is what is at stake and what could be at stake. For horror is clearly a genre with interesting ramifications, being a cultural force with the denigration and destruction of humanity at its core. The comparison is in Huyghe’s work The Host and the Cloud which parallels Freakmo’s interest in cultural figures and formats (although its breadth includes such things as Ronald McDonald and Michael Jackson, it also includes a fairly prominent prosthetic-nose-wearing witch) yet Huyghe’s work has at its heart an investigation of the roles of these fantasies and cultural figures in our lives, something that Freakmo shies away from, in favour of presenting us with something that is merely informative, and at best a deflation of the elements of horror that exist in it.
There are even intriguing practical effects in the world that Freakmo has purportedly come from – in such instances as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and the weeping angels and ‘the silence’ in Doctor who – the monsters in these televisual and filmic works have within them something that is important to their respective media and our lives: the nature of seeing and visibility. Del Toro’s eye-in-hand monster seems like a strange parable of consumerism and material existence – what is seen is possessed or desired; yet the implied blindness of holding what is finally grasped presenting a more interesting critical reading of the ravenous monster. The two monsters from Doctor who, among some of the most interesting from recent television history, also have visibility as part of their basic function: the weeping angel always covers its eyes, and appears to be solid as rock as you look at it, then, upon blinking, moves instantaneously – an idea I always associate with the very function of old art in museums: perhaps not as benevolent as we assume, and always at work in the back of our minds; or the silence: a creature that you simply don’t remember if you don’t look directly at it, which seems to uncannily resemble the operations of ideology. These monsters have within them something more interesting than the illusion of gore – yet also use similarly flawlessly photographic practical effects. There are also such popular and well-ingrained critical examples as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Even the monsters and characters of Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes could be drawn upon here in a separate comparison – where the masks are much less photographic, operating symbolically, yet amplify the power of the work. Freakmo relies only on its photographic quality, its aesthetic shock, but it is not enough to carry it to the realm of interest. The fact that it draws on such a rich and fertile field of filmic visuality as the horror film only compounds its shortcomings.
Sarah Poulgrain’s work is similar in that it also is a documentation. In this case, of the construction of one of the busts featured in her artist’s book Characters from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. There is a paradox here, though. The sculptural work this video depicts the creation of, presented as an artist’s book, is highly successful. It is interesting that these sculptures, in photographic form, possess a powerful connection to the relationship of film to the world that the actual film work does not. The video does become interesting as a screen – as a site of visibility, but also hiding what is behind it. Yet this is indicative of the strongest aspect of this work: the sculptural. This is true of both Poulgrain and Flavell’s works, where the busts and photographs have the power that the filmic works lack. It is strange that, with the richness of Poulgrain’s sculptural works, the construction of these works is presented. It forms a document, whereas the sculptures embody an engagement that is much more interesting. The sculptural works speak to the ability for television to become an iconic part of our lives – yet the strange, twisted models that Poulgrain makes of these characters are a presentation of the mock sweetness and simplicity of vision of the world informed by popular imagination. There is an element of particular interest in the almost sacrilegious presentation of her mother’s busts alongside those of television characters: that the influence of television on our lives is one that is as pervasive and powerful as our maternal and paternal influences. The sculptures do more to examine the nature of video than the video itself does, as it is a video that does not play with any of the ideas that the sculptures do.
These three works contain video elements that are not the strongest elements of their exhibitions. They are examples of video used not for any appropriate purpose, but to merely record. The nature of video, and what it does, extends far beyond such a use. There is little of the seductive potential, of the troubling falsity or fluidity of video in these works. They rather use video at its most basic and least interesting register. Film and video stretches far beyond the realm of merely appearing to resemble something and acting as a stand in for it – it can cause great alteration in the substance of the world, and transform our vision. While there is a large amount of powerful video work on show in Perth now, video is not a deus ex machina that solves all problems – it has its own difficulties and challenges within the operations of images in sequence.
written by Graham Mathwin
2016: Issue 1: Pilar Mata Dupont: Mountain
Still from Mountain by Pilar Mata Dupont, 2015, single channel projection with sound, 8:11 minutes
The appearance of this work here is somewhat idiosyncratic, but when a contributor to this issue fell to a later one, the possibility of writing something else arose, and as there was an unintentional theme, this work was the first considered. June was by now a long time ago anyway, and as much as Sensible Perth is a publication based in time, perhaps there is also some other function, in the breaking wave of contemporary art, that we can create or excavate: as some kind of memory. Mountain was exhibited close to a year ago, in PIAF at PICA, as part of An Internal Difficulty. There, the work shone, and if we can talk about artworks that do not use video so successfully, it seems appropriate to discuss an artwork that uses its audiovisual medium in the most poetic and powerful way.
We turn again to Jacques Rancière, who in The Future of the Image, argues that ‘‘Image’ … refers to two two different things. There is the simple relationship that produces the likeness of the original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand for it. And there is the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance.’ He mentions these operations often take the form of coupling and uncoupling the visible and its signification, or speech and its effect, which create and frustrate expectations. This idea, of alteration and coupling and uncoupling, seems particularly appropriate to Mountain, where the visible and audible operate in conjunction with, and yet remain distinct from, one another. They also, through this relationship, enact a transformation and alteration of resemblance. They tell two different stories: a journey through the lakes and mountains of Berchtesgaden and Schönau am Königssee in Bavaria, and a discussion between Sigmund Freud and an unspecified ‘Tyrant’ – partially based on the possibility of Freud and Adolf Hitler’s having met during simultaneous residence in Berchtesgaden. The landscape is a romantic or gothic one – and these are after all the mountains Caspar David Freidrich painted. The visible part of this work seems to relate to a particular history then, it is the history of the sublime, the romantic, and the gothic. Yet the narrative that surrounds it uncouples the expectation of grandeur, and rather seeks out an inspection of Freud’s own vulnerabilities, curiosities, and theories.
Still from Mountain by Pilar Mata Dupont, 2015, single channel projection with sound, 8:11 minutes
The movement that the film undertakes could almost be the slowed down, slow-panning motion that is typical to art cinematography, except that the movement is often simultaneously slow and fast. The effects of parallax on the landscape are immense, and the mountains drift past with majesty, whilst the water and snow fly past in a flurry of activity. The telephoto lens that appears to have been used often exacerbates this relationship, compressing the landscape’s planes and offering us no vision of the sky. The different levels of motion and movement in the planes of the video, even using only the landscape, are extreme. These layers of motion and parallax open up a space within the video for our eyes to wander, and drift like the camera drifts, through the opaque, rough landscape of the mountains. It can also be seen to perform a metaphoric role, in that the layers offer an easy analogy to the different levels in the conversation taking place, and the notion of an unclear or unconscious internal movement – one that is perhaps contrary or slower or more massive than the apparent movement. Though the unconscious as Freud thought of it is perhaps more an invention than a reality, the video offers an eloquent metaphor for ulterior or simultaneous divergence of intention and movement – and the presence of something unknowable. Beyond potential analogies, the work offers us the possibility of a meditative view of the landscape, and the time to become introspective in our contemplation of it. Even if the metaphor is perhaps too much to read into the work, there can be little doubt that the motion, and the time given to us to view these landscapes, allows them to glide seamlessly into our own thoughts, the voices of Freud and the Tyrant rising over our shoulders.
I was recently listening to a Radio National podcast from Mary Zournazi and Wim Wenders – another master of landscape cinematography and photography – where they expounded the idea of inventing peace, and that part of this invention necessitated an engagement with place. They advocated, after philosopher Martin Buber, an approach that emphasised relationships, in particular with places and spaces – something very appropriate to this work. The landscape here though, the mountains that were the base of the National Socialists, have a violent past. Yet this work that has been produced is not the story of violence. It is the story of a discussion, where cigars are Freud’s ‘weapons of choice’ in the combat of life – a sort of quiet self-immolation against the Nazi’s attempts to stop smoking for the national health. In this sense, the work is an incitement of a kind of peace, a contemplation of the situation of the Tyrant and the Doctor. Within the strange quietness, the question that sits in my mind is the relationship of the Tyrant to Freud. There is no clear antagonism, though clearly Freud had to escape Vienna because of the tyranny of a group of people, there is instead only the echoes of ominous events in the dark laden skies and still forests that slide past the lens of the camera. It is also not the story of the sublime overwhelming, or of heroic triumph, that can come from narratives of the mountainous sort – this kind of narrative is even brought up in this work when the Tyrant says of the mountains that ‘men can ascend and conquer them’ – it is instead Freud’s version of the mountain proffered in the discussion – indifferent, unknowable and immovable – that triumphs. The absence of directional, dramatic action is typical of Wender’s films as well, and they are some of the only films in which almost nothing happens, that yet remain so highly affecting. Wender’s says that, ‘it’s a serious issue for a filmmaker to be very careful not to add more stuff, produce more stuff. You have a certain privilege. As a filmmaker you have people’s full attention for a couple of hours. I want to use that space to build peace.’ though this video is only 8 minutes long, it is suffused with pauses, and does not visualise either of its characters. The simplicity of the choices, and their easy poetry, reminds me of Wender’s work, and even the possibility of peace that exists within them.
Still from Mountain by Pilar Mata Dupont, 2015, single channel projection with sound, 8:11 minutes
The work is powerful because the images in sequence are uncoupled from, yet related to, the imaginary dialogue that takes place. The mountains, and the silent swift movement we take under their looming shadows echo the powerful undertows that are present in the dialogue of the work: where the idea of the unconscious and the nature of tyranny and oppression meet – in the unspoken and the silent. There are surely dark parts to humanity, and the mountains seems like an appropriate visual accompaniment to the possibility of this darkness that both tyranny and psychoanalysis make visible. Interestingly, the second work of Mata Dupont’s – Zauberberg – that was seen in Perth in 2015 also featured a mountain – this time based on Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, where it is again not actively battled, but the site of a passive retreat – a sanatorium. That the idea of the mountain occurs in both works though, strongly indicates a certain symbolic language being employed. The implication of vastness, and particularly of hidden mass, is remarkably affecting in this work, and gives gravity to the insubstantial and imagined conversation of dreams and cigars that Freud and the Tyrant have. The work becomes like something of a dream itself – it constructs a new image out of an accumulation of historical fact. That Hitler and Freud shared their holiday destinations; that Freud dreamt of Rome, and sympathised with the plight of Hannibal to enter the city; that Freud wrote and theorised the psychological role of the tyrant. They come together in this work in an enormously powerful poetic combination. It is this combination – of audible and visible, and the coupling and uncoupling thereof, that make film an art form, and that are used successfully here to make this work so powerful.
written by Graham Mathwin