Monday, 27 July 2009

On Rising Tide @ MCA

Walking back out into the Saturday chaos of Circular Quay after seeing the MCA's Rising Tide, a selection of Australian video works from the permanent collection my other half and I discussed what we'd found most interesting. Our opinions were pretty near identical, and then she said "you know, there's just something really boring that happens when you give blokes a video camera". Here at least she's right. The stand-out works in the show are all by Australian women. Four at least are confident, thoughtful, clever and often moving, by contrast the men deliver pieces that are in turns glib, dim and unjustifiably pleased with themselves.

In creating pieces of disturbing beauty and tenderness Patricia Piccinini is second to none amongst Australian's working today. Here science fiction fusions of man, animal and machine allow her to make consider fundamental questions about our own place in the world. 'Sandman' (extended excerpts can be seen on her website HERE), her work here, is no exception. A twenty minute loop of video sees a woman, dressed in white, adrift on a swelling ocean. The camera bobs, almost floating alongside her as she swims inexpertly and stops, there is no shore, nothing to orientate oneself or swim to. From time to time she submerges, or allows herself to sink, and the camera follows her, and we slowly realise that she is happy underwater. Calmer as she sinks in to the amniotic fluid of the ocean we also notice that the lines on her neck might be gills. The extraordinary feature of Piccinini's work is that these fantasy elements never detract from the essentially human conditions she explores, 'Sandman' never becomes an essay on amphibians. Rather it explores our sense of comfort and acceptance, of dislocation and relief and does prove to have hidden depths.

In a room nearby Jess MacNeil's two pieces are gentle optical tricks that encourage us to meditate on our own place in time and space. In 'The Shape of Between' four shallow hulled rafts float on the Ganges, they disturb the water, or their occupants do with oars or poles. Despite all apparent effort they go nowhere, their relationship to one another changes very little although they may turn or rotate. The effect, delivered in the low contrast washed out colours of a watery dawn that might almost be the surface of a porcelain glaze is softly hallucinatory. Perhaps like a circle of Hindu incarnation their places are fixed, or maybe they are fortunate enough to suspend a perfect moment. The delicate stasis has a spiritual meditative aspect and soon the movement we expect has become redundant. Along the adjoining wall is a fixed projection of the steps of the Sydney Opera House, across the faces of which flicker slices of the shadows of passer by. The hint of presence in the trickles of shadow is extremely affecting. The steps might be a megalithic monument, we lap over them like time and leave barely a trace. In both of these pieces we get to ponder impermanence consider how we pass through the world and the marks we make.

Susan Norrie's five screen projection, 'Passenger' does little more than hint atmospherically but is no less powerful for that. Each screen shows a different non-narrative. A black and white rendering of what looks like tourist home movies or found documentary footage (but are actually shot for the piece). Our urge toward narrative helps fill the gaps in-between and we arrive at something that might be a human made apocalypse. Norrie's work can't help but remind you of Chris Marker or Andrei Tarkovsky's post apocalyptic landscapes. The figures masked in full bio-hazard suits cannot help but give the sense that something sinister is happening, we feel potential contagion is possible. Simply through intimation Norrie has created something as gripping as thriller.

If only for poe-faced need of their desperation to shock the Kingpins take the biscuit. Their ersatz superhero/joggers performing co-ordinated routines in a selection of Sydney's Starbucks are intended to subvert something or other, perhaps an idea of cultural homegeneity. The work is a shopping list of the tired and familiar counter cultural ironic appropriations. Of course the inescapable problem here is the sheer banality of the insight, neither Starbucks or the Seventies Aussie male (signified as ever by blonde moustache and mullet wig) are original subjects or devices. The funniest thing to watch is just how unshocked the punters, who are of course targets as well as observers in the Kingpin's somewhat confused anti-consumerist happening, in and around each café are by all this. They're staples of satiric parody and subsequently this has all the earnest humour and hackneyed insight of a Year Ten project.

The idea that certain works are of interest or value thanks to their transgressive properties might be the single most problematic notion in art. Unsurprisingly it's where the boys fall over most predictably too. TV Moore's Ned Kelly pastiches were probably more fun to make than watch whilst Todd McMillan's pointless time-lapse marathon is even accompanied by the probably unintentionally hilarious text "McMillan filmed himself for twelve hours—from dusk to dawn—facing towards the bleak ocean in search of enlightenment. However, in the end nothing was achieved; ultimately introspection and self reflection did not bring any answers or renewed wisdom". The problem is that artists appear to have a really very low threshold for what is actually startling. Placing video screens of a series of visual clichés on the floor and then surrounding them with crap isn't 'challenging' as Daniel Von Sturmer says, it's just silly. Much the same goes for Tony Schwensen's videos of himself making faces which have such a tenuous link to the claims of political commentary and social satire that are made in the accompanying blurb that they almost seem unnecessary. Opacity is not the same as challenge or profundity. The formal non-sequiturs and leaden ironies of some of these pieces exist only in the theoretical verbiage of the artist's statement. To claim shock value is of course a 'get out of jail free' card, it virtually denies the possibility of criticism which would, supposedly, validate the work. That of course is pure sophistry, these pieces aren't shocking they're just comically self-important. Shaun Gladwell's 'Tangara' does manage to at least be beautiful, although more out of urban gymnastic curiosity than anything else, but again I was left feeling that there was much less than met the eye to his work.

Kate Murphy's incredible piece 'Prayer of a Mother' is one of the most affecting video installations I have seen. Twice now , with a couple of years in between, I've sat through it and been moved to tears (that might have something to do with my own Irish mother). In the middle of a simple set up of five adjacent video screens a mother, whose fingers worry away at her rosary, details her habitual prayers for her family along with her hopes and fears for them. On either side, in medium close up and deep shadow, so only their faces shine bright a revolving cast of eight siblings listen, laugh, tease and cry. It's an extraordinary work made compelling as each of the, mostly adult, children reveal personalities and positions brought out by their response to their mother's mantra. Mum wishes them all the gift of faith and in a sense that's what we bestowed. The darkness that surrounds each cannot isolate them, their family resemblance and the love of their mother is a chain that links them all. This is, foremost a piece about the human face and is easily the equal to any of Bill Viola's studies of that (and, as much as I love Viola's work, it is far superior to some of the actorly mugging in 'The Passions'). That at any given time the sons and daughters can respond in such different ways not only intrigues us but also marks out the complexity and nuance of human emotion itself, only in fiction do we feel things in a single way.

The highlights of 'Rising Tide' are very good indeed, even if the boys seem determined to show off to the grown-ups rather too much. There is far too much talk of irony in the showy high concept pieces (and often they are no such thing) when the real irony here is that the opaque and theory heavy works come accompanied by such specific explanations that they take on specific and narrow meanings which stops them being very interesting. By contrast pieces like Piccinini's, MacNeil's, Murphy's and Norrie's need no explanation and yet can sustain and encourage a range of response and interpretation, making them both fascinating and powerful.

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