Localities of desire

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

Localities of Desire is an aptly titled exhibition of twenty seven artists from many different cultural origins and ten countries. Primarily the show investigates, in a non-didactic curatorial style, the complex conceptual, formal and thematic aspects of cultural difference manifested in the diversity of media, styles and techniques included. The curatorial rationale of the show not only critiques the complexities and orthodoxies mutating between western metropolitan culture and its peripheral (post)colonial regions, but it foregrounds the often (in)visible local origins, histories, sites, and traditions that have shaped the aesthetic and textual architecture of the exhibits themselves.

One of the show's more successful critical aspects was its emphasis on illuminating the socio-cultural and historical dynamic that informs these art works within a context of enhanced global digital cross-cultural communications. Hence, traversing the large gallery space we encounted art steeped in a pictorial and spatial language that spoke of multifaceted encounters between national and ethnic groups, as in Soungul Kim's video exhibit, Narelle Jubelin's delicate postcolonial installations or Fiona Hall's and Simryn Gill's appealing collaborative work Bio-Data.

Clearly this exhibition was interested in exploring: firstly, how contemporary cultures impact on each other in many complex unpredictable ways and, secondly, how local and global indigenous cultures and traditions should be seen in the larger context of human social interaction. Further, as a fundamental corollary of these two vital features of the show, we appreciate how artists of diverse ethnic and national origins generate their personal meanings and communicate to each other along informal (rather than the more conventional) global and national channels of communications. This is a significant critical and curatorial idea which underpins Localities of Desire, as is the attendant notion that governmental culture (witness the recent Creative Nation document) is attempting to reconstruct Australia as a stable unified mythic society, a notion which marginalises any group which does not necessarily subscribe to this recent nationalist prescription. Although, in recent times, cultural hybridity is in danger of rapidly becoming a worn-out curatorial and theoretical concept—this show happily contests such a problematic usage of a vital idea that has been forging the concepts, techniques and agendas of many artists, theorists, writers and filmmakers interested in creating art forms that speak of the cultural plural, the indigenous, migration and marginality.

The show's anti-monolithic conceptual architecture and its non-linear presentation of the works were conducive to a substantial re-thinking of the relationship's of authority between periphery and centre. Localities of Desire not only italicises the dialectical tensions between the First and Third Worlds, but its exhibits suggest the substantial discursive value of acknowledging and experimenting with the hybridity we have amidst ourselves. The show represents a post-colonialism of evolving non-hierarchical ideas and forms of cultural dissonance.

Consequently, many of the exhibits denote the tremendous cultural and social ferment that has featured in the lives of the relevant artists. Similarly, there is a textual energy in these works that suggests a variety of strategies of experimenting with indigenous cultures and histories as much as with high and low American-European art forms. This usually signifies a basic questioning of the temptation to generate nostalgic art: in Fiona Foley's sand sculpture and photographic installation the artist is able to reconfigure her indigenous cultural heritage as an element central to her contemporary condition. This reworking is evident also in the exhibits by the native American Edgar Heap of Birds and the New Zealand Chinese Yuk King—both works display a richly inventive approach to the artist's ethnic identity and history and the related issues of bi-cultural displacement, fragmentation and memory. The works of these and other artists like Gordon Bennett, Maria Cruz, the Utopia community artists (from the Northern Territory), and the American Elaine Reichek manifest a preoccupation with the contradictions and tensions between outside/inside cultural spaces, histories and multiple images and materials.

Localities of Desire manages to clearly delineate, in a playful, questioning manner, the many aspects of hybrid plurality, marginal cultures, intertexual concepts, forms and techniques that are central to the contemporary world of 'international art'. It is a show which also includes a variety of critical positions that contest the more problematic institutional and pedagogic aspects of contemporary cultural theory. In other words, it thankfully avoids in engaging in any curatorial and/or theoretical concept or practice that suggests the conforming strictures of politically correct thinking. Relatedly, it eschews any kind of convenient critical and exhibition labelling structures.

The works attest to the critical value of promoting our internal cultural plurality in the context of the larger backcloth of today's international artistic and cultural dialogues, of local 'cultures of survival' and of the vertiginous vector flows of global media. Tracey Moffatt's photographic exhibit Beauty 1 in Cream-A Tribute to Andy Warhol, deftly undermines our expectations of what constitutes the "look" of an American cowboy thereby not subscribing (in an unproblematic idealist way) to an art which speaks of 'authenticity', race, and culture. This show makes similar important curatorial claims. It presents in its pleasurable gallery spaces the criss-crossing ideas and histories of cross-cultural contact which are transforming our basic perceptions of our cultural selves.