trouble in paradise

stephen birch, emil goh, brent grayburn, david haines, tony schwensen
Scott Donovan Gallery, Sydney
January 2002

The exhibition, Trouble in Paradise, was notable primarily as a showcase for recent videos by Sydney artists. lt admirably filled the normally uneventful January period when many galleries remain resolutely closed. The show was the second in a series of events at Scott Donovan Gallery concerned with current temporal art. Whilst the exhibition was not entirely consistent, it still provided a dynamic arena for the projection of video work in a well organized and accessible format. Overall Trouble in Paradise was distinguished by its heterogeneity, a fact that disallowed it neatly proffering any generalised assumptions about a prevailing video Zeitgeist.


David Haines's work was divided ostensibly into two parts. The first featured a slow panning shot of rugged ice-capped mountains. This was interspersed with static aerial footage of a city illuminated at night, replete with myriad winking lights. Combined, these images suggested familiar nature/culture dichotomies. However in this instance both wilderness and metropolis were entirely computer generated rendering them equally artificial and icy. Contributing to this effect was the artist's deployment of a bird's eye perspective that suspended the viewer in nether regions of virtuality. Haines's piece alternated almost imperceptibly between drift and stasis, sameness and difference. Overall this lent it an unnerving and mesmeric quality that at times became mere repetition. Similarly disquieting was Brent Grayburn's black and white projection. In it we witnessed an isolated female character apparently trapped inside a train carriage. Grayburn's work, like Haines's, was marked by its duality, in this case the tension between the primacy of narrative and the materiality of video. Ultimately this bifurcation served to partially unhinge the work. On the one hand the artist's mastery was assured and seductive, mapping subtle phenomenological shifts in light, shade and movement. The sinuous articulation of the carriage was counterpoised by the quivering stop motion disintegration of its occupier. However here the figure's gesticulations and deranged facial expressions were unnecessarily theatrical, partially displacing the many subtleties already inherent in the work.


Equally fidgety in feel though considerably more light-hearted was Emil Goh's latest video offering. Goh's approach was performative, indirectly locating the artist as the subject of the work. In this case the role assumed was that of urban voyeur. Goh's camera became an extension of his gaze as it hastily isolated the colour red from an anonymous passing crowd. Each red item whether a piece of clothing, a handbag, or shoes was momentarily scrutinised. Together they provided a visual accent but more importantly unveiled the everyday conflation of desire and commodification common to shopping. Although stylistically and conceptually related to the artist's other recent video work, the weaving of the camera in this particular piece proved distracting. Likewise durational considerations so crucial to previous work here seemed slightly arbitrary and unfocused. Possibly the most effective of the projected works in Trouble In Paradise were Tony Schwensen's short videos. Schwensen's video-bites intelligently combined performance, absurdist humour with a critique of various national stereotypes. In the first of these Schwensen was filmed against a pile of dirt as he attempted to reactivate an antiquated water pump. The second showed the artist in a Dutch football jersey with an elasticized soccer ball tied to one foot as he aimed to master his sporting footwork. The third portrayed Schwensen shirtless as in the first video dancing beatifically to kitsch Euro-pop. In the last of the series the artist's shaved head beat a rhythm against a blank wall. In all of these Schwensen's deployment of his own physicality was humorous and self-effacing. A work like Pumping, for example, succeeded through its metaphorical mixing of crass sexual suggestiveness and the apparent masturbatory futility of sustained creative endeavour. At the same time it could be read as a wry criticism of a barren, indifferent, culture. Trouble in Paradise as an exhibition was commendable for its openness. This openness was further emphasised by the inclusion of Stephen Birch's video-object. This consisted of a realistic tree section rendered in fibreglass from which a smoker's pipe attached to an LCD monitor had apparently 'grown'. Discreetly positioned and possibly overlooked, the work nevertheless encapsulated an air of hybrid mutation in which Screen and Object were uncannily united. Finally, Trouble in Paradise prompted two additional considerations. Firstly, it must be asked why there were no women in the show particularly as contemporary digital technologies have often been cited for their gender inclusiveness. Likewise it was an unfortunate oversight that Vicky Browne who scored the sound for Grayburn's video was not credited in any accompanying exhibition information. In summation, Trouble in Paradise was a positive and refreshing affair. By focusing on temporal experimental practices the exhibition demonstrated that the intellectual agenda of contemporary commercial galleries need not be wholly limited to narrow economic rationalisations.

David Haines, Production Still from the Fifteenth Century, 2002. Computer generated image, video still. Courtesy Scott Donovan Gallery, Sydney and the artist.