Wednesday 24 March 2010

On Fiona Tan @ Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and National Art School Gallery

I'm still thinking about 'Coming Home', Fiona Tan's show of two video works spread between Paddington's admirable Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and the charming gallery of the National Art School (where you can also take in a spot of Norman McLaren if you fancy). I imagine I'll feel like this for some time these twin meditations on Orientalism, history and our subconscious take such a profound and subtle look at a cultural and psychological condition that they already feel like that rare thing, a parallel critique of feelings and thoughts.

The two works, 'A Lapse of Memory' and 'Disorient' are big, almost cinematic, affairs with high production values, most notably a poetic sense of editing and a sound design that is integral to meaning. They are connected thematically, both deal with memory and place and are to greater or lesser extent concerned with orientalism and the psyche of the traveller.

'Disorient', the work at Sherman, is composed of projections onto two large screens facing one an other running out of synch in a continuous loop. At one end of the room is what looks like a travelogue through Asia with handheld video and newsreel footage. Over this is a calm measured English voice reads from Marco Polo's journals, a flat factual narrative where he describes the social characteristics, trade, religion and character of each of the people's he encounters. For the most part this avoids the picturesque clichés of the Orient. So whilst geishas and temples are eschewed the camera might shakily pan around an empty factory or through street traffic giving an equal weight to each. The more familiar images that break through are Chinese troops charging Tibetan demonstrators or the inevitable and timeless armed convoys in Afghanistan.

This is done in a less heavy handed way than it might sound from that description even though the images always provide a light counterpoint to the Venetian explorer's text. It serves to remind us of the mutability of our pre-conceptions about distant cultures, the inevitably selective imagery we encounter can replace one myth with another as easily as it can reinforce the ancient. As Polo, and the viewer, moves from place to place we see the anonymous cloud banks outside every airliner's window. Marco Polo was a merchant before he ever became a chronicler of the East and we ought to remember this as we see him characterise each country by its industry and trading habits, the news footage shows that now we are as likely to be conditioned by a foreign correspondent and their cameras, thus the world changes with the lens through which it is seen. Tan creates or presents some gorgeous individual images, a blue dyed dog skulking thorugh an indigo factory, a young man with a bicycle kneeling on a broken concrete slab as he prays in the Iraqui twilight and the sight of a whole car body carried atop a camel on a mountain pass might be forever memorable.

The travelogue screen might be the visible, the external version of our engagement with Asia, but facing it is a slow luscious film that can only represent the recesses of our minds. In deep reds and blacks this projection is a slow close up tour of the shelves and corridors of what at first seems an oriental junk shop. Everything is here, Buddhas, birdcages, masks, dragons, elephants, clouds of silk and spice. The confusion of culture and category in this cabinet of wonders feels intentional, it presents an Orient of otherness, of familiar versions of the exotic. Each of the objects and artefacts here represent something bigger, a broader looser vision of the inscrutable strangeness of the East. This is made all the stranger by an unexplained man who appears in what might be the saffron robes of a monk, he seems like a keeper, of a shop or of memories but you suspect that we have only seen a little of his domain and that the shelves are a tiny part of some Borgesian labyrinth. Tan is accomplished in her medium and much more than a creator of tableaux, the pacing of the smooth camera moves and the subtlety of the edit creates an ethereal feel. There is the layered shimmer of lacquer here, the light of consciousness is being reflected and captured constantly so that you can almost see our own assumptions and beliefs about the Orient in each object.

When one looks between the two screens it is clear how much more vivid and detailed the inner imaginary world of symbols and signs is than the messy, shaky reality of the travelogue. On its own this would be a glib observation (but plenty of works have been created on single insights far less profound than this) but the density of the veneered layers of image and idea make 'Disorient' a beautifully puzzling work.

No less beautiful, but perhaps less complex, is the second work, 'A Lapse of Memory'. This is an almost narrative piece that follows a curious old man around a rococo oriental place (which turns out to be the Royal Pavillion in Brighton, England). We learn the man's name is Henry and that he once travelled and may or may not be Asian. The film mostly observes the ritual;s of his day as he scuttles through the extravagantly colourful, but peeling and shabby, Chinoiserie of the building. He too might be a keeper, but this time of something lost, of an absence. We are told that "Henry is waiting for a story he can make his home" and what we hear about are fragments of arrivals, departures and voyages. Henry's memory palace is made to feel afloat and adrift by the sound of ocean borne gulls on the soundtrack and that sense of dislocation is pervasive.

Again Tan combines a beautiful technique, notably here the sound design, with individual images of pervasive beauty. A sequence where Henry lays and gathers lengths of inspection lamps in a long corridor is breathtaking and the frames where he lays himself to sleep beneath an umbrella feels unexplainably poignant. My sole reservation is with the voice over. The knowing self referentiality of reading the shooting script is irritating and the only occasionally poetic non-sequitirs of the script tend toward the pretentious. It's a difficult line to follow, the images Tan creates are pregnant with possibility, light of touch and confident. Prose is oddly far more concrete, it exists to describe the specific and negates some of that wonder Henry's story, or stories, or the story which he seeks, is held in his rituals and his traverses of the rooms not in the narration but it also comes from what we might imagine that story could be, after all it not only Henry who is searching for a narrative.

These works are far more interesting than their PR descriptions. All too often the press releases and verbiage that surround shows don't do them justice, they obfuscate or attempt to connect with art touchstones rather than describe an experience. I think that this is the case with Tan's work here. It doesn't matter that one work was made for Venice and that subsequently it can be seen as an essay on that serene republic's pivotal role in east/west trade, nor does the identity of Henry's home, the Regency chinoise Brighton Pavillion. It's not uninteresting but it presents the viewer with a terribly limited lens and to come at works such as these with a pre-conceived idea of meaning is a great shame, they hold so much more than these locational puns. Tan's work is a gorgeous, serious and thoughtful meditation on memory and identity. It is powerful because as it deals with those subjects it doesn't reduce them to badges and positions or a précis of Edward Said, but instead captures the fragility of consciousness and the shifting sands of identity through time. These two pieces are small wonders and we are lucky that they are on show until June.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Wilderness @ AGNSW

For all of the galleries that cluster in particular Sydney neighbourhoods, amidst posh terraces or polished concrete warehouse conversions, there is precious little evidence of contemporary artists, in particular painters, at work in our few public galleries. It's a great shame. No matter what their best intentions the showrooms, and that is what they are, of commercial galleries are scary places and it would be disingenuous to believe that a casual engagement with art is likely to flourish into something more serious under the gaze of hawkish gallerinas. As a result the public conversation around art is limited to travelling blockbusters and celebrity portraits.

It's good to see 'Wilderness' a show of contemporary painting supported by The Balnaves Foundation at Sydney's AGNSW. The show's title is a little misleading, the common thread between these fourteen Australian artists is not the landscape per se but figurative painting. That might sound like a pretty loose thread, but it's unusual and refreshing enough.

Ground is overlapped between the various works, both in terms of theme and pictorial style. One tendency is a certain airbrushed sfumato used to render naturalist images flat and graphic. This is a technique shared here by both Andrew Browne and Mary Scott. Browne is represented by three large monochrome images of dead branches and detritus. Each is picked out in a chalky bone palette on a deep black ground. The images are suggestive of other things, animal skulls, faces, contorted limbs. However they are more reminiscent of a gothic Howard Arkley, their closest relation being the sinister enchanted forests of the Grimm's tales. Mary Scott's hummingbirds are similarly less interesting than their backstory. The large flat surfaces look like they could be rendered on a giant LCD screen as over sized birds come out of ghostly camouflage. It's somehow unsatisfactory and reminded me of giant canvas prints of frangipane flowers that you see in homeware shops. Of this fuzzy tendency the strongest showing by far is that of Fiona Lowry. Her forests are rendered dreamlike by one or two colours on a white ground in a feather light paint. One piece in particular "They come to me days and nights and go from me again" is compelling in its otherworldly directness. A full length image of a bearded naked man seems to hover in an hallucinatory forest. His head thrown back in a kind of ecstatic surrender he might be related to the saints of Zurbaran or Rinera or he may simply be an old man liberated from the world. It's an arresting and memorable work.

The show also contains a lot of pop-art psychedelia which is more eye-catching than it is interesting. Alex Pittendrigh's big swirly canvasses look less like inner distorted visions and more like an hommage to hippy album covers and tie-dye posters and, as such, pretty pointless. More worthy of consideration, but no less ugly, are Stephen Bush's day-glo fantasia's of melting ecology. "Shout on the Hills of Glory" presents a children's book log cabin amidst dripped and dragged masses of glossy paint. It's heavy handed and not accomplished enough to convey much more meaning than 'look at me'. It's not a huge surprise that work like this should be included, it's a distorted view of landscape painting. However that oppositional stance doesn't really ring true. Landscape painting, whether the chocolate box variety or something more academic is fairly peripheral to the established canon of contemporary art, so it's a pretty soft target. The size of the works too betrays an exhibitionism that has overcome any real insight or sensibility.

On artist, well represented here, who has taken on a range of pictorial conventions and created something genuinely moving and stimulating is Julie Fragar. A series of works here show a man, the same in each, posing with the carcasses of animals he has killed whilst hunting. The images range in size and colour, each is painted in a loose impressionistic way, catching a sense of immediacy and drama. Each too may well simply be copies of trophy photographs, for the pose in each is familiar from those magazines such as 'Bacon Busters' or 'Boars and Babes' that are so often the object of internet mirth. Some images are then painted over with cryptic slogans, that never quite obscure the scene beneath. What makes these interesting is the blank expression of the hunter, his face a little bewildered, slightly suspicious. It's not a patronising rendering, it manages to be sympathetic, but it seems to represent an existential emptiness, perhaps even a suppressed dread. These are very good, very thoughtful and intellectually subtle works.

Less easily explained but fascinating and charming, is James Morrison's polyptych 'Freeman Dyson' A man who might be clad in moss has fallen to earth, perhaps from space, maybe from another time. The piece has the same obsessive detail and illustrative quality one sometimes finds in outsider art. It shows a hyper-real world where details are so clearly rendered they seem to be demanding our attention. It's a strange and charming experience this imaginary portrait of a quantum physicist and futurist who is now in his nineties. Its real achievement is not the narrative and interpretative possibilities it opens up but how strange and magical it makes a mundane landscape seem through its almost molecular detail.

It shouldn't be a surprise that so much of the most interesting work here is that which casts strange new light on people and their experience and perception of the world around them. Louise Hearman's beautiful and disturbing little canvasses might remind us of the dreams of Magritte or the nightmares of Goya but they work very specifically in their own way. She isolates faces, objects and animals in fields of darkness or oddly lit landscapes. The work has a surreal sensibility but is suggestive rather than explicit, it begs questions but it's never quite clear what those questions might be. Her use of nature is effective because the subtle naturalism helps achieve that disjointed dream like association. The work is beautiful and uncomfortable, which seems appropriate for a show called 'Wilderness' as our relationship to nature hasn't been and isn't always easy. Hearman shows how we internalise nature in order to articulate things for which we have no other vocabulary, how our interiors are every bit as strange and picturesque as the world around us.

Sunday 7 March 2010

On Sylvie Blocher @ MCA

Sydney's MCA is a having a good 2010. Almost overlooked on the fourth floor, a detour away from the excellent Olafur Eliason show, is Sylvie Blocher's 'Living Pictures' a group of simple large scale video works that you must see if you care about art and people. The show has, in the late summer cacophony of festivals and events, been very quietly promoted, which made its discovery all the more pleasurable, for this is assertive and essential contemporary art that proves to be acute and intimate.

'Living Pictures' is a series of something like speaking video portraits where, predominantly, a single person occupies the screen at any given time. They are encouraged to speak, sing or write about a particular subject that might be 'slavery', 'money' or 'beauty'. Blocher records the results, shooting the people against highly artificial high colour backdrops, and intercuts them, some pieces are close to an hour in length.It's perhaps because that conceit sounds so mundane that the results are so extraordinary. The idea that is the genesis of each of the works in this series (some of which have been commissioned with the patron choosing a theme) is an idea that is essentially human, 'What does ecstasy look like?', 'What does slavery mean?' or 'What is it like to feel a lack?' What ensues are 'conceptual' works in the sense they explore certain abstract concepts rather than being concerned with art as a concept in itself. The germinal idea in each, and the human tendency to gravitate to the felt and experienced, means that even within each film there can be a massive range of response, which in itself presents us with human depth and variety.

The first piece we see doesn't bode well, a half naked French guitarist, who has been painted partially brown, singing the words to a Barack Obama speech in an ecstatic falsetto. It's one of those works that requires you to be in on a certain part of the joke to get it, Thus when the next piece, entitled 'What Belongs To Them', is introduced as an exploration of the idea of slavery made in New York some time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq we have every right to shudder. Instead we find a room with something tender and raw as men and women recount their stories or act out their obsessions in front of a vast American flag. A man recounts the story (in high storytelling mode) of shooting his first deer, another struggles to tell the story of murder on a relations plantation in pre-emancipation Louisiana and one woman simply dances with joy to what sounds like The Last Poets. What you get here is America through the lens of its original sin, the twists and evasions and confrontations it pushes people to. There are tales of every day slavery here but even in the hurt and confused or the needy and paranoid there is clear sense of bondage to the need to tell. It's easy, and I don't doubt popular, to see this as work about big abstractions like race and gender. However you don't feel the didacticism of identity politics art here instead there's something far more direct and tangible that's far less comfortable than theory.

That sense of the messy blur of reality of even borne out by the way sound bleeds from room to room and piece to piece. Initially irritating it gives the sense of being in an endless urgent global conversation. Blocher's outlook is global, truly and sincerely, she seems drawn to the sense of displacement felt by migrants, the search for identity and dignity and the immediacy of experience that is lost in either touristic or theoretical snapshots of globalisation. Her filming of the private ecstasy of Indian men, whose faces loom large on the screens, tightly cut to give us a complete sense of separation from stimulus, is warm and close in a way that feels almost intrusive.

Another painfully honest piece is 'Nanling' a piece in which Blocher appears with an elderly Chinese lady who has never met a white woman before. Even now I'm unsure of the totality of my response. The pair sit on a sofa and touch one another: childlike, apelike, sexual, innocent, disturbing, comforting. There is clearly much unspoken, perhaps even unthought and only just felt but that unknown and unknowable subtext makes the work trembingly good. This may be an old refrain on this blog but works that capture our need for contact will always shine whatever the medium or context.

There appears to be nothing that Blocher isn't interested in, nothing that her cool eyed camera is not willing to explore at face value. Her work with the residents of French Housing project, "Je & Nous" at first reminded me of Gillian Wearing's "Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say", but the gentleness of the transitions, the faces given to faceless people as they appear in T-Shirts with statements they had written about self and beauty moves it somewhere else. This is less about the irony that can be pulled from between our inner and outer lives as voiceless invisible immigrants and working class people give access to words and an audience. It is gently moving in the best possible way.
Her work with the residents of Penrith in Sydney's outer Western suburbs, 'What's Missing' is no less extraordinary, and on reflection may be just as exotic as China or India for many viewers. The piece is formally different as each interviewee is duplicated on screen, next to their own image, listening, singing or simply trying to put their best face forward. Each person stands in front of a camouflage backdrop, odd because the last thing these people do is hide, they are in plain view and plainly vulnerable. One woman asks "Why does this country have this big hole in its heart?" and whilst she might be talking about the red desert we can't help think that the piece is about people negotiating their way around that hole, living on the edge of a city. There is damage here and battler optimism, the gap between words and expressions is often poignant. This may look like a social commentary but in tone and mood it has a strangely spiritual dimension, the 'lack' that is spoken of in a card on the wall might be something far more universal than that of the residents of Penrith.

I've rarely spent time in an exhibition and been so determined to go back even before I left. Sylvie Blocher has an incredible lightness of touch and heaviness of purpose that make these works so powerful. Inevitably they transcend any of the bumf and explanation that surrounds them, they feel private and breathtaking, so personal that one feels it is a privilege to share time with their protagonists.