OUT OF THE BUNKER - Review of Adelaide Installations
'Adelaide Biennial' Broadsheet Winter, 23 (2): 18-24 (1994)
The Adelaide Biennial broke with tradition by locating its focus outside the Art Gallery of South Australia. The gallerys director, Ron Radford, described the installation art that has fled his space as breaking free from the parameters associated with traditional artforms. Like post-Cold War commentators who find communists still in power under a different guise, one obvious critical attitude towards the Artists Week program is to investigate vestiges of previous paradigms, notably the elevation of art from the life that surrounds it. Will the magnifying glass reveal traces of good taste clinging to installation art? While this approach suits the tabloid approach to criticism, it fails to address the more positive claims of the three curators involved.
Alison Carroll (Beyond the Material World) brought together eight artists from North and South East Asia as a challenge to the timid spirituality she finds in Australian life. Carroll notes that despite a popular belief in God, particular metaphysical beliefs do not infringe on or control the lives of the majority of people...The same could not be said of Asia. The expulsion of art from the gallery seems mild compared to Carrolls parallel move to release spiritualism from its confines in the church. Beyond the Material World deserves scrutiny for its capacity to lure the mystical response out of its private sanctuary and into the rational world.
John Barrett-Leonards Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art located the work of eleven artists/collectives around the problems involved in the politics of identity. He heralded them as making (the) issues involved more complex and more untidy. The primary strategy, for Barrett-Leonard was viewer involvement in the construction of identity, so that the works house a process of becoming that involves continuous self-invention rather than a reference to absolute, authentic origins. While Barrett-Leonard presented his aim as an antidote to growing nationalism, the strategy itself was quite abstract. Is confusion by itself enough to counter the misplaced certainties of nationalist ideals?
Doreen Mellors Moving Sands: Forward Momentum offered the direct contact with earth present in Aboriginal culture as relief from the multiplicity of devices and layers which stand between white settlers and their ground. She advised viewers to, let some of the qualities of the land which will form the basis of the four works, speak for themselves. Mellors program complemented Alison Carrolls challenge to the alienation in contemporary Australian life, though hers offered stability (a literal groundedness) while the Asian component promised consternation (a literal disorientation).
The three curatorial strategies suggest that the Adelaide Installations program be measured not on formal aesthetic criteria but in terms of their cultural impact on the certainties of modern life. As a critic who still clings to these certainties, I offer my response as a seismographic index of the forces at work in Adelaide Installations. While this will sometimes lack objectivity, I hope to convey threads of excitement and disappointment which lead to some thoughts about the direction of installation work.
WATCH YOUR STEP
The Gerard & Goodman building contained installations by three Asian and seven Australian artists/collectives. With the exception of Soun-gui Kims videos, the works entailed not only objects for inspection, but also passages to be negotiated. In most cases, the effect of these passages was ritualistic rather than simply illuminating.
The most powerful example of this was Pieta by Scenario Urbano (Eamon DArcy, Dennis Del Favero, Tony Macgregor, Derek Nicholson). Their installation welcomed visitors with a floor of crushed glass strewn with chinks of light. Like the nose, soles of the feet seem to understand a language which is subliminal; in this case the sharpness underfoot framed the installation with unease. The three rooms representing loss, possessions and dreams followed a dialectical sequence (disaster, escape, memory) that gave the visit its own logic separate from the rest of the building. The dramatic play of light and sound, text and video imbued Pieta with real power as tragic theatre. A more conceptual use of passage was employed by Ruby Haze (Hewson/Walker, Shaun Kirby, George Popperwell). Unlike Mike Parrs maze, the choices available in #31:8:55:19 were prescribed in advance, more like the transit zones of city buildings. The foam and suspended light offered a frozen moment in and out of which one could casually pass. If anything, #31:8:55:19 worked at the other end of the emotional register to Pieta, exploring a space of coolness and distance.
This minimal psychology continued through Geoffrey Wearys installation, The Eye of the Model. Weary explored the repressed industrial spirits of the past, connecting them with ghosts of soviet glory. There was poetry for those willing to wait, but the links often seemed thin.
As the terminal point of her Hero Walk, Pat Hoffies Topeng installation promised a more immediate confrontation with the meaning of the oriental. The chattering, clattering masks seemed successful in disorienting this expectation, but it was diluted by the chalked message Ethnokitsch which wrapped up the work too easily as a token for a debate about hybrid art (its the kind of special issue title you might expect from a respected art magazine). Hoffies boldness is exhilarating but her work seems better accompanied by the Brett Goodmans seductive catalogue photograph (artists & co. reclining on Philippine canvases) than a premature label.
Pat Hoffies work had an affinity with Heri Donos schoolroom heads nodding with mechanical assent at the Nintendo dreaming projected before their eyes, though these heads had no trace of hysteria about them. The materials, especially the open winding mechanism, gave Fermentation of Minds quite a spectral feel, yet in the end it was difficult not to feel yourself like one of those heads, nodding rigidly at Donos message about the corruption of Western culture. His performance, Kunai Binal, was a stunning spectacle of fire and monsters, but was clearly transplanted from another culture. It would be interesting, very interesting, to see what kind of work Dono might have created in response to his stay in Adelaide.
Santiago Boses work was more familiar in materials if not in content. His installation Imagined Enclaves and Ephemeral Borders contained elements of the office, altar, living room and house all awash in red sand and covered with a film of obscure symbols. The artists presence at the site was a much appreciated medium for deciphering the meanings housed thereindeed Boses physical presence itself seemed the most convincing testament to his deviant mapping of social space. His construction of mythical maps was enacted in Artists Week during an arduous performance in which he strapped a large part of the G & G installation to his back and journeyed between his works at G & G, the Torrens River and Botanical Park leaving a trail of painted footprints.
Bose and Hoffie were not the only artists that extended their works into the streets of Adelaide. Alex Dankos HIDING IN THE LIGHT (a light vision) incarcerated the crime writer Robert Wallaces script in a suburban crypt (the tin shed). The darkness within was blasted by light outsidecasting its psychic shadows across Adelaides grid. Matthew Jones also alluded to this homophobic sewer in his toilet office for Discover Adelaide Tattoos. Jones went further than Danko though in sending tattooed messengers out into the wilds of Rundle, King William and Gillies to taunt the beast of banality. It would have been interesting to hear reports from the front.
ON THE COUCH
Lyndal Jones top floor installation, From the Darwin TranslationsFirst Translation: Room with Finches, offered an ambiguity that is worth a more extended description. A white passage offered access to the first room which contained a cage of finches flying manicly from branch to branch of an ideally reticulated tree structure. Beyond this room is another cage of finches, opposite which images of a male body against a background of ornate rugs are projected, punctuated with occasional text. A female voice is heard from the final darkened room where most of the visitors have settled. On the wall is a video whose desiccated sequences offer fragments of movement by a male body, unveiling on his way to a rug-lined couch. The monologue delivers moments of consciousness ...in the heat of this room, I keep seeing those mountains, the snow, the moon, rich gardens.. It is a kind of free association, with overt connotations of unveiling desire, yet without the interpretive audience provided by an analyst.
It was difficult to leave Jones installation without a dazed yet readied frame of mind. At the other end of the floor is an alcove with the words over and over and over... stencilled on the wall. To go further, to descend the stairs, requires some envelope in which to place this experience. Standing at the head of the stairs, Jones appears to have committed an act of theoretical foreshortening. In the name of jouissance (pleasured play), she short-circuits those metanarratives which provide direction for the knowledge pursuits of Darwin and Freud. Dispensing with their reverence for logosthe secret order revealed behind mental and biological varianceone is left with its gathering places, like railway stations on a defunct train line. The branch and the couch have become dramatic locations for the play of desire.
This is a rather indefinite point of departure. No doubt the story would have been extended if Jones had been able to stage her performance at artists week. Having learnt from her previous series of ten Prediction Pieces, we might expect that the flesh of her method will become evident with future sequences.
UNDER MY SKIN
It was fortunate that Fiona Halls and Simryn Gills Biodata was separated from the main installations program. Their exhibition warranted an allegorical reading that is more familiar to the gallery space than the theatrical opportunities offered by a warehouse. While this exhibition has no doubt received much comment elsewhere, its worthwhile noting here the rich series of folds and unfoldings presented by almost every piece. The occluded politics of third world labour found a powerful visual language in its re-packaged form as art objects. (In the course of a critical workshop, it was more than enough for participants to write separate review of single pieces.)
What was most striking in the exhibition as a whole was not necessarily the hermeneutical puzzles distributed around the galleryI could always find a way of congratulating myself in deciphering the various postcolonial inversions. What got under the skin was the visual violence threatened by the sharp edges manifest in these pictograms: tweezers, syringes, graters, flayed mangoes, shredded coke cans and the bed of nails. I left Biodata not only with series of associations that led third world labour right to the front door, but also with eyes grazed by a more immediate assault from the household implements inside. One had to hold both the conceptual and physical responses together to avoid lapsing into an easy disdain of the corrupt world. While together, they formed one of the most powerful impressions of the installations program.
THE PRESENT WALL
Situated in the newspaper reading room of the State Librarys Institute Building, Gordon Bennetts Present Wall reflects the formality of European reason. A wall of bricks divides the room, each brick wrapped in newspaper offering commentary on the Mabo controversy. On this brick wall in neon letters a variety of binaries mark familiar symbolic divisions: love/hate, sophisticated/primitive, right/wrong. The floor is part covered in mirror squares. Leaning against one wall is a definition of the word past; at the other a contrasting explication of the word future.
Its a work which demands intellectual labour. Unlike his installation for the Fifth Sculpture Triennial in Melbourne last year, there is no biographical point of identification. In the catalogue, Ian McLeans essay recommends an academic reading: (Bennetts work) is a sophisticated theoretical essay on the historiological needed to re-write Australias history for the making of a postcolonial history. The main target of this installation appears to be the operation of hierarchies within symbolic structures. The presence of the mirror floor suggests the source of these oppositions within an individuals psychic apparatus, just as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reveals the imaginary route of self fulfilment through identification with the other.
The problem such work has is preventing the intellectually equipped visitor simply checking off the familiar propositions (meaning is structured through oppositions, racism as symptom, etc.). The result, ironically, is the voice of the other safely contained within the language of radical academics. There is one moment, beyond this, where Bennetts work might begin to assert its effect. The artists refusal to join in the celebration of exotic hybridity moves Bennett away from the spotlight towards the seminar table where he can share the air with his interpreters. While this re-arrangement might challenge the place of Aboriginal art as a subject of study, it is a fleeting moment in Bennetts installation.
STAMP OUT ART
The Moving Sands program at Tandanya provided a solid counterpoint to the highly conceptualised works elsewhere in Artists Week. Molly Napurrula Martin and Dora Napurrula Long made a ground painting which referred to a Walpiri Dreaming. It provides a narrative map of the bloody battle between Yumurrpa (large yam people) and Wapurtali (small yam people). The reconciliation between leaders which concludes this story struck a note of hope which would have been quite welcome at the forums (there was barely a reference to the Tandanya exhibition in Artists Forums).
David Malangis ground sculpture provided the stage for a ceremonial performance which cast out dead souls. It was strangely uncomfortable seeing Malangi and his Ramingining people stomping over the ground sculpture during the course of their performance. While this seemed perfectly reasonable in a tribal context, it appeared to violate one of the sacred laws of gallery space.
Fiona Foleys piece Thoorgine Rising was the most conventionally aesthetic of the ground sculptures; it employed a more abstract language and delicate play with colours. The symbolism of the fig tree and moon, however, was more obscure than the collective stories told by the other sand pieces.
The challenge at Tandanya for a non-aboriginal (perhaps including urban aboriginals) was to learn how to read these works in a way which went beyond ethnographic curiosity. The physical aura of these worksthe very deliberate ordering of sand, paint and sticksprovided some form of connection with the Dhuwa, Walpiri and Badtjala way of the world. But it was more respect than understanding.
At opening of Mike Parrs Fathers II (The Law of the Image), guests crowded into the EAF bookshop. Only the odd drunken couple dared to explore the maze on the other side. Occasionally, I saw a person come out of a doorway with what appeared to be a studied nonchalance. I read that look as a mask hiding the trauma theyd just emerged fromthe cool look you might feign walking out of the dentists surgery into a crowded waiting room.
I entered the maze at 10am the next morning. Stepping into that black void seemed comparable to jumping out of a plane and I lingered at the verge for longer than was reasonable. That was the first obstacle. Walking tentatively in the pitch black, I let my steps register traces in what I hoped would be workable mental map. It seemed a matter of finding the voids logic. When one avenue failed I returned to the junction and explored the other. I was actually glad when I eventually lost my sense of directionknowing where you are all the time can be a burden. The way out seemed to occur by chance. After weaving through a cluster of tight corners I found a long corridor at the end of which a light beckoned. But when I reached what I thought was the exit, I found in fact that I was back where I began, at the entrance. Clearly, Id taken a wrong turn. Seeing myself as someone who doesnt give in easily, I returned to the void.
Second time around there was a new obstaclesomething more terrifying than the dark labyrinth itself: another human being. From a distance I could hear the steps, and then the voice calling for reassurance. I replied, happy to lead the way but terrified that we might come face to face, or breath to breath. Despite my progress, I seemed to be getting closer to him. Im not sure which sense told me, but eventually I was certain that he was right in front of me. I stopped. The voice thought we should team up. This seemed against the artists intentions, but I was interesting to see how two people could work together without taking subtle cues from each others appearance. This seemed to go smoothly until my fellow traveller double backed suddenly from a dead end and our heads collided. We decided to go our separate ways and more voices started filtering into the maze. Once again I found the beckoning light and once again it proved to be merely the entrance.
The maze now was seething with voices, including one hysterical man shaking the walls and threatening to burn the whole fucking stupid thing down. But I felt that I was getting to know the maze well enough now to avoid trouble. Using an illuminated watch dial, it was possible to signal my presence to the approaching footsteps and avoid collision. Another trick was asking how long a new voice had been in the maze in order to measure my distance from the dreaded entrance. I finally began to lose faith in the void when one voice asked me how long Id been in. I looked at my watch: it was midday. Rather than continue as a source of dismay for newcomers, I felt compelled to take the next entrance as a final exit.
Of course there was no actual exit. My initial reaction was to admire Mike Parrs cunning: Id been waylaid by a puzzle that had no answer. But then if I hadnt persisted with a linear expectation, I wouldnt have discovered the comforts of the void. With this homage to the Black Square, Parr intended his audience to confront the void inside themselves. What often happened, however, was that the audience ended up confronting each other. In Triste Tropique, Lévi-Strauss describes trekking for weeks through the incredibly dense Brazilian jungle searching for the most isolated tribe in the world, only to find at the end a Lebanese shopkeeper. The mystery contained in Parrs void was not always the other within, but often the other standing next to you.
BRING YOU OWN ART GALLERY
Adelaide Installations certainly had its moments. It is striking how many of these involved loss of footing, like Shim Moon-Seups wooden staircase leading to the heavens and Ruby Hazes unevenly spaced steps. The Adelaide works seemed to go a little further than most installations in engaging physically with their visitors. Indeed, the organisers deserve praise for allowing potentially dangerous exhibits such as Simryn Gills bed of nails to go ahead.
You might wonder whether this has something to do with the increasing rarity of presence in the conduct of everyday life. When it is now possible to be connected at work through a home computer, opportunities for direct physical contact seem rare and exciting in themselves. But theres no doubt a simpler reason as well. This development can be seen as an attempt by the artists to re-construct the passage to their art that has been lost in the departure from a gallery space. In the absence of a ready made entrance and solid walls, artists have been forced to invent a new means of framing their work off from the outside world. The virtue of this necessity is that it provides an alternative to art as picture: in this case, art was sometimes journey (Scenario Urbano), analysis (Lyndal Jones), maze (Mike Parr) or even absence itself (Alex Danko).
One practical lesson that emerges from Adelaide Installations is the extra patience required of this custom-made art. There were many more moments lost in the revised budget estimates and in-trays: Roberto Villanuellas abandoned river work, Lü Shenzhongs tardy ice-blocks, Lyndal Jones cancelled performance, and Toshikastu Endos delayed fire and water sculpture. Clearly more staff are required to realise these tall orders.
As a focal site for art pilgrims, there were more than enough impressive installations to justify the return air fare. The urban mysticism promised in Beyond the Material World found its most effective voice in Santiago Boses own private festival of place making. The strength of the Biennial component seemed its interest in what was happening on the streets of Adelaide. Unlike the more transnational Sydney Bienale, the Adelaide version was able to use the bon homie of festival to make contact with a local referencein this case the sinister undercurrents of daily urban life.
What next? The longer this celebration of marginality continues, the more we might wonder whether there is any centre left for it to oppose. The scene evoked by Adelaide Installations is an avant-garde, curious at the absence of return fire, warily crawling out the trenches and beginning to explore the empty landscape. Pot shots at church facades, river banks and even toilet blocks seemed to draw no obvious hostile response. As art ventures out of the gallery, its requisition of abandoned warehouses is likely to be a temporary move, particularly now the economy is growing. A natural progression would be to go further out into the worldinto offices, car yards, or even hospitals. And then? In a future Biennial, will the Art Gallery of South Australia herald the return of the prodigal artist?
While this years Adelaide Installations attempted to reach boldly into the bad conscience of daily life, it remains uncertain whether there is any life left in the bad conscience. If contemporary art is to continue to define itself against its enemies, it may soon have to start making new ones.
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray