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.

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