Monday, 13 July 2009

On Double Take: Anne Landa Award @ AGNSW

The art world is a strange parallel universe where the thirty year old phenomenon of video is still a 'new media', which suggests a less cutting edge mentality than artists and galleristas would normally have us believe.  "Double Take: Anne Landa Award", currently showing at Sydney's AGNSW, collects single works from seven artists to a theme that claims to be something about alternative personas and, more fashionably, avatars.  Despite all the thematic verbiage the pieces that work best eschew the theoretical and communicate in direct and surprising ways.

Entering into a darkened room you come upon one of the highlights of the show, Cao Fei's "Whose Utopia".  This video in three acts is set in an Osram lightbulb factory in China's Pearl River Delta.  It begins capturing the visual rhythms of the production line, the fragility of the bulbs adds a sense of anxiety as each part of the process is recorded.  When people are introduced their concentration and dexterity is no less compelling, it seems fitting somehow that they should be helping to create light.  The titles of the last two acts, "Factory Fairytale" and "My Future is not a Dream" suggest something of the strength and defiance of the inner human against the monotony of work, but also the very real opportunities that progress can afford.  The most memorable part of the piece is the inter-cutting of workers in their lives as rock musician, ballet and traditional dancers.  The shooting and editing is no less matter of fact, a mid range fixed camera, than the static portraits of the workers, this is simply another side of the men and women with clipboards and overalls.

These people are the ghosts in the machine of the 'Made in China' label, they are working people recovered from facelessness.  The curatorial notes of shifting identities are far less interesting than what Cao Fei achieves.  The quiet dignity of the people she shows suggests a richness of inner life, something I hope we would find it easy to ascribe to western workers.  "Whose Utopia" is beautiful, respectful and affecting.

It's hard to be as generous to some of the other work here.  TV Moore's mess of vogueish installation gimmicks, recording and framing him stoned and hypnotised, feels like the fruits of an undergraduate's response to new found freedom and an art theory primer.   The Mangano sister's video, "Absence of Evidence", relies heavily on the novelty of their being twins and fails to rise above that slight sense of voyeurism we have as we watch them pass a stream of paper over a wall.

English artist Phil Collins has produced the most surprising work here.  "Dunia Tak Akan Mendengar" is a large screen video of a series of Indonesian fans of The Smiths performing karaoke versions of every track on the compilation album "The World Won't Listen".  By rights it should be awful, but it manages to be joyous and provocative.  The Smiths combined a musical catharsis with lyrics that might be the most acute and poetic articulation of the need for, and absence of, human contact in pop music.  Subsequently Smiths fans are, even twenty years after these songs were released, more like acolytes than consumers.  Watching these intense, funny, geeky, cool, sweet and angry kids sing in a language many struggle with is often incredibly moving.  

The beatnik couple singing "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" contrast with the angry girl singing "Rubber Ring", itself a hymn to the connective quality of pop music in a world that appears not to listen.  What is touching here is the varieties of expression of the need to express ones self using the words of another which capture ones own feelings so well.  I'm hardly an impartial witness, I grew up to the songs of The Smiths with all the fanatic identification I see here, that only heightens the sense of wonder I feel when generations and continents of space between us are erased in a three minute karaoke in front of a Grand Canyon backdrop.  Collins avoids kitsch condescension and captures something essential and tender.
The whole show suffers from a cramped space, works that are immersive or interactive aren't served brilliantly and some pieces are left outside the exhibition space.  Its best moments might be quite traditional, both Collins and Cao Fei produced single channel video works, but they are very good indeed.  

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