THE FIGURE OF A WITNESS, as the name suggests, offers a knowledge which we do not yet have. Rather than a being in its own right, witness is a function which mediates between the real world and its representation. Most basically, this function provides a point of view by which an audience can orient itself towards an unfamiliar picture of things. Well, what’s so new about this?
We think of an old-fashioned device, such as the actor who takes the stage at the start of an antiquated play to advise the audience what to look for in the events to come. As modern people such a figure seems quaint and unnecessary: just give us the facts and let us judge for ourselves what to look for! The presence of this figure is an uncalled for statement of our ignorance, reminding us that the actors at this point know more than we do. As a defence against this, we can champion a modern justice where everyone is in equal possession of the facts of the matter. Isn’t that what the project of information technology is all about? As Timothy Leery says, the modern world ‘means you are in charge of your own universe and your own reality’ (‘The Age’, 13110189). Then why go back to the witness figure?
One way of answering this question is to imagine what the flavour of life would be like without this figure. We might imagine a world where information arrives to us from elsewhere without the implied presence of someone who has known it in advance of us. Missing would be the voice of the newsreader, whose intonational changes respond to the seriousness of the story. Missing would be the face of a grieving relative who knows what it’s like to have been there. None of these missing elements offer us information: we’d still know the number of injuries and deaths, etc. What would be absent is the means of orienting ourselves towards that information. As residents of the ‘global village’, we should be able to do without this function, yet it persists. Why?
As modern people, the survival of the witness function appears unwarranted. This attitude is perhaps most obvious in the notion that artists are ignorant of the real worth of their work. The current reaction against ‘theoretical’ art puts the artist in the position of a heavy-handed preacher who makes it more difficult for us to appreciate the work itself. Here we suspect that the artist is trying to imply something we don’t know. The act of viewing the work then becomes a struggle in which we eventually recognise the intrinsic worth of the painting purely on what is before our eyes. And what we thought the artist wanted us to see in the work is shown to be a false bottom which we were wise enough to look beneath. But isn’t something lost in this encounter? Can’t we entertain a point of view that is different from our own?
Perhaps what makes it easy to push aside this point of view is its external position in titles, catalogue essays, and interviews. If this is so, then such a response is made more difficult when this knowledge is incorporated in the work itself. Rather than be perceived as a demonstration of another’s intelligence, it may then be regarded as a platform constructed so to invite us to take a point of view that is different to where we are already. But as modern people, should we accede this space?
There are occasions with an old friend whom we still see despite changes to our lives when we wonder whether the relationship persists simply through inertia or guilt. In order to be true to our new selves it might be best to say goodbye and continue unhindered into the future. But there are usually lingering doubts worth taking into consideration. The same might be said of our modern status as consumers of information technology. TO be true to the twentieth-first century it might be best to leave behind the function of witness as a purely historical phenomenon that is specific to a religious past, when it was thought that the world was planned according to a divine knowledge outside human understanding. In forgetting this, we can at least face the challenge without relying on the comfort of someone having been there before us. But can we face the unknown without a face? The aim of this exhibition is to touch on that question.
THE IMPETUS OF THE EXHIBITION came from the discovery of some young painters who were actively employing point of view in their works. Their activities seemed to warrant a space in which this strategy could be granted license.
Julia Ciccarone and Fiona Jeffery both implicate a point of view within the Australian landscape. Julia Ciccarone opposes the classical landscape to devices that unfold its presence, suggesting journeys or dramas. By this means the popular landscape tradition is given a place within the lives of its consumers. Fiona Jeffery engineers a more static context, providing a theatrical platform that holds us on the brink of suspension of disbelief. The theatrical effects of both painters provide a means of incorporating the act of looking into the painting itself.
Louise Forthun and Gregory Pryor more directly refer to the presence of an invisibility within an urban experience. Louise Forthun re-contextualises the unheraided layers of the city: in this case it is the excavation site as a negative displacement that makes the visible power of a city possible. Her artistic practice of breaking up the image by using stencils provides us with the distance by which we can go about recognising the strangeness of what is at hand in our city lives. And Gregory Pryor’s works provide for a similarly complex re-construction of shadowed phenomena: they refer to both what divides city from country and what links the second and third millennia. In both painters, the artistic labour of representing an unknown presence provides us with the space to travel to where we might already be - a journey which the presence of the artist makes possible.
This sense of journey is given more directly in the works of Louise Murray and David Keeling. For Louise Murray, the artist sitting in a chair with a book open on her lap gives us a way into the landscape which suggests possibilities that are not only present in the scene itself, but in the narratives that precede our arrival. The presence of the artist here provides a hushed concentration within which the world can acquire a preciseness. An attentiveness to things is also made possible in David Keeling’s two paintings, though here the primary sense of naming is reflected in the landscape itself. For both painters there seems a linked development of world and witness. We might think that while the world requires images and names to assume presence, in this process the figure of witness begins to assume its place.
Finally, Greg Creek’s series of three paintings allude to the theatre of painterly presentation. The ‘pretension’ of the artist forms a prologue to the argument. This in turn is contrasted with a more ‘authentic’ image of a boy washing the dishes. Taken together, the works provide us with a confident gesture of engagement with a critical viewer.
A viewer wandering among the works of the seven artists might profitably ask how it is that each of the paintings locates itself, and what sort of world is made possible in this location.
THE FIRST HALF OF THIS CATALOGUE is designed to lay out a range of uses for the witness function: each of them entails finding a function which mediates between the real world and its constructed version. They are presented in an historical sequence of responses to the possibilities of witness: the traditional use (Renaissance painting, theatre, history, literature, photography, law, crowds); modern counter-reaction (science, advertising); and its contemporary re-discovery (cinema, realities, mathematics). Each instance is presented in two ways: first, an example of use and, second, a quotation that touches on associated experiences. The exception to this is David Odell’s exposition of model theory (see C.C.Chang & H.J.Keisler Model Theory Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Co. 1977) which was written specifically for this catalogue. Odell’s piece follows the purely fictional possibility of being able to produce a description of the world with an infinity of resources. Though this description can be seen as largely independent of the world itself, the necessary presence of the ‘witness’ term retains the ‘poignancy of naming’.