alex gawronski: testing ground

Artspace, Sydney
22 August - 14 September 2002

For anyone wondering about the cultural importance of American Psycho, it lies in the fact that the film is one of the closest approximations in our time of Greek cathartic tragedy. It uncloaks the disquiet, the inner spiritual disease of contemporary society, through exposing the hypocrisies of its greed and the hollowness of its ideals. For happiness, prosperity, and respect in the capitalist world, the protagonist supposedly has it all: a top-class education, peak fitness, good looks, a great apartment, a coveted job, and of course plenty of money. But in this world (then of the eighties) of yuppified regulation, the rules are so dehumanized that anyone following them too literally will fall foul of them. It is a condition that dates at least back to the French Revolution – when the rhetoric of physical purity and civic virtue becomes fanatic dogma, it will always result in madness and terror.

Alex Gawronski’s exhibition, ‘Testing Ground’, was a miniaturized callisthenic themepark, coupled with a long board-room table affixed with a row of microphones. Above this was a projection of the goings-on in the exercise area, which had been domesticated with a swathe of steel-blue carpet. To the left was a placard declaring, ‘Macroeconomics’, with an oversize picture by Paul Klee. Taken from a university textbook, it was a strange union bordering on the aesthetically indecent – but telling. For Gawronski revealed to us that the higher aims of modernism has been assimilated or bowdlerized by the world of corporate formulas and economic rationalism, for which any quality exists only to be translated to a quantity.

Gawronski’s contraptions derived from those most often seen in community parks for outdoor exercise and recreation, usually so that the passing runner or power-walker can supplement his of her fitness with a couple minutes of extra muscle-toning squeezes and jerks. Without the little instructions that normally feature next to such apparatuses, and with the structures somewhat modified and reduced, they looked uncannily like Modernist sculptures: self-assured, architectonic or geometric blocks, bolted or butted together, without the slightest concern for the natural curves of the human body, reminiscent of Gerrit Rietveld 's famous De Stijl chair.

These quasi-sculptural objects were also the symbols of the everyday regimen of the good corporate body. But, once again, the body-cults and health-drives of the beginning of the twentieth century, have been shorn of their utopian fervour - we have already forgotten, it seems, the strict exercise programs put in place by the Gestapo - exercising with machines, unproductive labour that is, is an expected part of our professional urban curriculum.

But it is as if every requisite activity, from corporate training to bodily well-being, is on the same plane. The point that Gawronski is making is a perennial one. Qualms about the alienating effect of the marriage of technology and money is as old as the two themselves, except that we have discovered afresh the connection between technology and pathology. Art, moreover, can also no longer be viewed as the outside, critical, other to all of this. That too is a rather reckless dream.

The projection up on the far wall of the gallery could have been read in terms of surveillance, our movements being checked by those we imagine assembled along the board-room table below. Another way of thinking of it was as the pool of Narcissus. We are reminded of the American Psycho preening himself, observing his perfect nakedness in readiness for another day at the office, and where every day is drowned by his own interior monologue. The observer is observing himself observing. The profoundest loop of all is the corporate truth, a fiscal narcissism, that the best way of making money is with money.

The sharp dystopian edges of the installation were softened by the way it gave Modernist, as well as corporate, seriousness a strong nudge. From a distance, the imposing table, almost a committee bench, seemed large, solid and expensive. As you approached, it became clear that it was all sham. The table was a clapped-up thing covered lovingly with a wood-grain contact adhesive, redolent of your worst flat/rental nightmare. The microphones were not uniform, and worked, but the only ones who dared use them at the time I was there were children. Ironically, the whole installation, with all its faux-sobriety seemed in readiness for destruction by children. With this realisation, our defences down, gulled by innocence, we are back in the artwork's subliminal embrace.