Art Monthly Australia
I haven't been to a nightclub for a while. I think the last time was in the late eighties with Gareth Sansom, just before the recession and the back pain put paid to Bacchanalian nights. As I remember, when I left the Prahran hot-spot at three in the morning he was still going great guns on the dance floor. The decor was nightclub average with beer -sticky carpets, mirror globes, and about as much rap music as you'd ever want to hear in a life-time.
Things are different these days . In a sort of zoom-to- the-millennium, let's-try-anything posture, some nightclubs have apparently introduced booths which can be hired by the quarter-hour and hosed down afterwards, A bit like an elongated version of a high-tech Paris toilet. I am led to believe they are as sparsely equipped as a Florida condemned cell, with the small addition of a bottle of baby oil and a tissue dispenser.
If you wanted to see what one looks like but couldn't bear staying up till midnight, then you should have headed to The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in May, where just such a booth was installed in the gallery's back garden-really a garden within a garden, for it is surrounded by the greater Domain parklands. A full–frontal view of this love-booth resembled nothing more or less (and in this context less is more) than a Donald Judd sculpture, its port-hole windows perhaps referencing the wilder shores of John Armleder or Richard Artschwager.
This work was part of Flower Show, which, in turn, was part of the Next Wave Festival. David Chesworthk, Noni Nixon and David Rosetzky made a number of subtle and blatant interventions into the garden, including high-tech birdtables and soundscapes along with the love booth.
When city-wide festivals occur, I always reckon everything is fair game for my attention, whether or not it is part of the official program. In the case of Next Wave, the official program gave us much of interest, from Dan Armstrong at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Real Wild Child at The Performing Arts Museum. Chinese Whispers at the Chinese Museum in Cohen Street, and Ruins in Reverse at the radically renovated RMIT Gallery, which is a sort of re-vamped Dr Who set which looks like the worst place in the world to hang a painting (but an architect, maybe).
I was delighted to step from the garden at ACCA in to a major exhibition of the work of Mikala Dwyer (not officially part of the Wave), which was literally hanging around the Smorgon Gallery. Dwyer is no slouch when it comes to pastiching the work of the modernist male canon. particularly that of Morris Louis and Claus Oldenberg. But if you're bored bv this kind of never- ending self-referentiality you could just enjoy the formal spring-Iike cxplosion of synthetic colours that knocked the hell out of the drab, russet–autumn palette in the parklands outside'. You could also have been rewarded by three catalogue essays by Linda Michael, Rex Butler, Edward Colless. Butler's introduction set the scene as well as you could have wished:
"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", Sigmund Freud is reputed to have said in response to unchecked psycho analytic readings that saw ' phallic symbols' everywhere. Interestingly, he never felt the need to say the same about a similar reading-in of female symbols. But it is now this reading that threatens to overwhelm art. Any number of female artists Rachel Whiteread, Janine Antoni. Rachel Lachowicz amongst others - are currently taking back or remaking what was once considered male art as female.' And a little further on: 'Art history is becoming feminised. If for so long women were repressed by and excluded from art history, today it is impossible to make masculine art (even for men).'
As someone who has always regarded Freud from a distance, and with suspicion (perhaps it's the cigar smoke I never liked). I don't want to buy into that debate. However, two of the most intriguing shows I have seen this season were happening just up the road in Flinders Lane. The first was by Julie Gough at the Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery, the second by Julia Ciccarone at the Robert Lindsay Gallery. They dealt with notions of truth, fiction and identity but in strangely contrasting ways.
Both artists have very different skills. Gough is a neo-conceptual artist or, to put it another way, she injects humour, colour and post-modern game-playing into the old monochrome, text-based conceptual charades. She is also a deconstructionist in the sculptural rather than the literary sense. Fence posts and barbed wire became a giant musical staff against the gallery wall while across it racist musical scores floated behind kitsch objects. Opposite, a real washing machine and mangle chundered away, flanked by colonial and post-colonial spears and arrows of outrageous punning.
Gough's formative years in the art world were at least as intriguing as those of Joseph Beuys. In her case, an eagle rather than a plane fell through the skies and knocked her off the pillion seat of the Vespa she was travelling across the West Australian desert on. This near-death experience, coupled with the discovery that she was of Aboriginal descent, caused her to rethink her life and swap a career in English and anthropology for visual art and advanced weirdness. Her on-going project has taken her around the UK, where she met the leaders of the Jamaican Ska movement,then back to Perth, where she worked in the world's largest army and navy store, which possibly gave her this penchant for arranging things on shelves.
Since her appearance in Perspecta three years ago, Gough's work has become immeasurably stronger and more subtle. Her visual voice is by turns humorous and horrifying. She does not condemn so much as cajole us into looking at ourselves and our histories. The final statement however, like that of all good art, has something to do with self-portraiture.
If Gough's work is linked to Julia Ciccarone's, it is through a shared interest in such subjects as mapping, time travel and colonial conceits. In less than a year, Ciccarone has produced a large series of inter-related canvases which take their inspiration from the genre of novels known as Fictitious Voyages. We are informed by the catalogue that these have their roots in works such as Campanella's City of the Sun. Moore's Utopia, and Bacon's New Atlantis. But it's not until we are pointed in the direction of Swift's Gulliver’s Travels that the jigsaw puzzle really starts to come together around us.
When I left the gallery, I made immediately for Book City in Collins Street where I bought a copy of this novel, which I had not read since childhood, and proceeded to the Chloe Bar. There I settled down with a bottle of Taylor's Shiraz and mused across the centuries.
Imagine living at a time when new creatures were being discovered almost by the day. On Monday someone returns from Africa with a giraffe, Tuesday it's an Indian elephant, Wednesday the sighting of pygmies in the Belgian Congo, Thursday it’s malaria, and Friday .a squid the size of a London tenement. No wonder Wordsworth headed towards the Lakes for the clouds and daffodils. No wonder novelists of the late seventeenth century, whose contemporary equivelents would be the producers of the X–Files, had top really stretch their imaginations to come up with stories stranger than the truth, they did so by producing literary trompel’oeil. The Penguin Classic which I picked up for six bucks reproduces the original title page of the 1726 first edition which reads: 'Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver,First a surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships.’ The book went into it’s second printing â€¨almost before the first was off the press. Fifty years later Dr Johnson wrote about it’s â€¨reception that ‘Criticism was for a while lost in wonder; no rules of judgment were applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity.’
I felt much the same wondering amoungst Ciccarone’s paintings, each one of which was accompanied by a small text panel. The paintings were in a style which I would not normally give more than a cursory glance to, and the subject matter swerved between softporn and sci-fi album-cover art. Yet text,image and over-all concept fused together as surely as do Komar and Melamid's parodies of socialist realism and late twentieth century pop iconography.
Next to an image of what appears to be a large red-skinned bearded male suckling a baby we read: 'Birth of the Australian – As soon as an Australian has conceived, he quits his Apartment, and is carried to the Hab, where he is received with Testimonies of an extraordinary Bounty. They have a certain high place. upon which they go to bring forth their Child, which is received upon certain Balsamic leaves, after which the Mother (or person that bore it) takes it and rubs it with these leaves and gives it suck without any\ appearance of suffering any pain.' Or. Beside it, a canvas called War, with the text '...there appeared eight thousand Australians upon the shore. The Europeans ("sea monsters") fired a great many pieces of canon, but few did execution. In the mean time the Australians surrounded those few that had landed, in a little house which they had before forced open in which they defended themselves for some time, but at last they were forced to number and not one man escaped to carry the news to the Fleet.'
These images of Terra Australis Incognita are drawn from the writings of Gabriel de Foigny and Robert Poltock, seventeenth century chroniclers who were perhaps masks for one James Saduer or, I speculated, as I drained my glass and left for the Next Wave opening at the NGV, even Robert Lindsay himself.
On my way there I saw one of the saddest sights I have seen in the art world in over twenty years of reviewing. Around the great Willem de Kooning Standing Figure Sculpture, in the forecourt of the concert hall, someone had constructed (with the help of a dozen sponors) a Tinguely-esque sculpture with electrically-driven tapping hammers and rods attached to a giant metal cage . It made the sculpture look like a captured animal being baited in a zoo. I cannot describe how angry I felt at seeing this wonderful sculpture being reduced to the status of an organ grinder's monkey. Whoever was responsible should be driven out of town and never allowed near another art project.
Inside the Gallery, however, my spirits rose. The work on exhibition here was an intelligent mix of The Next Wave with The Wave Before Last. Such old hands (at waving) as lmants Tiller’s, Rosslynd Piggot, Peter Tindall and Gordon Bennett were cleverly placed alongside the young turks of multimedia and their billboard-sized computer generated imagery, scan prints, palm tops, C–prints and videos. Gordon Bennett's installation, freshly reassembled after its debut at the Adelaide Biennial, seemed to hit the right mix of form, content and new technology. I would, however, have preferred to see it on a larger scale, perhaps using a video projector instead of a small monitor.
I left in search of some paint, which I found by the yard at Charles Nodrum Gallery in the recent work s of Stewart MacFarlane, who increasingly seems to be producing a synthesis of the paintings of Robert Yarber and the novels of Elmore Leonard. An unbeatable combination and, in many ways, the antithesis of Julia Ciccarone's Fictitious Voyages. Where she is tight and illustrative, he is loose and painterly. His down-home clumsiness parries with her sophistication and scholarly research. His exhibition, with itstacky scenes in American nightclubs and mob deaths down by the river, is appropriately called Outcast. Its opening night corresponded with the launch of a handsome book about his work called Riddles of Life. This is one book you can judge by its cover.