Walking through the Yinka Shonibare retrospective at Sydney's MCA you have the overwhelming sense of something clever being done, you know this because you're told it repeatedly. This comes less from the content of the works than the context, "the legacy of European colonialism, class structures and social justice" as its themes are described is serious stuff. Who wants to be on the wrong side of the fence on any of those? There's an awful lot of biography that you're asked to ingest with Shonibare, Anglo-African childhood, boarding schools, paralysis, somehow all of these formative influences give meaning and depth to what's presented within the show. All this feels oddly manipulative as though we're being given the parameters of how to interpret this art before we get a chance to encounter it.
The first piece you come across in the MCA is 'The Swing (after Fragonard)' a lifesize tableau of the central figure in Jean-Honoré Fragonard's 1767 rococo masterwork "Les hasards heureux de l'escarpolette' . We see a woman in full flight on a swing, her ancien regime tuille dress rendered in a bright African fabric. Around her is an arc of greenery that hints at the mise en scene of the of then original. The most important deviation is that the mannequin is headless, something variously accounted for as a premonition of the guillotine or a device to render race and identity inscrutably ambiguous. And that's it. It's big and it's bright and it's about art and it looks meaningful.
The subsequent rooms deliver much the same, the biggest space taken up by 'Gallantry and Criminal Coversation' a piece made up of a full size carriage suspended overhead and groups of lifesize mannequins (again dressed in eighteenth century European costume tailored from African 'Dutch wax' fabric). The headless mannequins are variously sucking and fucking one another in groups of two or three. The effect is a little sexy and a lot comical. What it surely isn't is thought provoking, it looks like exactly what you'd expect an trying to be smart and shocking to produce.
The large scale video work 'Un Ballo in Maschera' has a far greater capacity to charm, each sigh and breath of fabric, the imperfect choreography and the ritualised motions are all entrancing. The air is heavy with the trappings of meaningful silence but I was left wondering if this was just a case of taking the Africanised aristrocratic costumes to another historical locale, no further meaning or understanding has been added, it's just his 'thing'.
For all it's appearance of profundity and smart alec emptiness the show is beautiful, the Goya pastiche of 'The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters (Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa)' is technically accomplished in a CGI way but for once, however heavy handed it might be, I make a connection between Goya's sly hymn to the Enlightenment and the nightmares it brought to the native people of various colonies.
Clever and sensual as they are the show lacks even a hint of empathy and that's the problem. Shonibare's work must look good on a critic's laptop, but it's devoid of the human, the art historical reference screams 'important' but the ever present quotation marks suck out much of the feeling. The net effect of all those decapitated mannequins is to deprive us of any point of connection, we see a point made over and over again and the initially sumptuous installations quickly become banal, like someone has locked a wannabe Duchamp in Madame Tussaud's.
Post-modern conceptual art fetishises paradox, here Shonibare is disappointingly predictable, it presents conflicting signs, removed from context by scale or placement and expects us to applaud its insight and audacity. Of course the revolutionary value of irony is questionable in a culture like ours, it's a devalued currency and the more often we see it used as a proxy for insight the less effective it is. The problem with the work in this show is that once the basic paradox is established: the meaning of works from the western canon changes when they come into contact with African subjects, that's pretty much it, the insight remains visual and theoretical, juxtaposition sets up an intellectual conundrum but never touches on anything human.
In the end I'm not sure it matters. Just the size of these works tell you that they're made for galleries, they're anything other than personal. The exhibition as a whole ticks off just about everything that makes the art establishment feel good about itself: subversive sex, post-colonial angst, art history with a knowing wink and big flashy installations. I don't doubt that Shonibare has an interesting point of view on the shifting cultural plates between Africa and Europe but these trite appropriations look more like a very knowing artist feeding critics a series of art-theory soundbites in the confidence that they'll always bite.