Interesting Times

Focus on Contemporary Australian Art
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
22 September – 27 November 2005

In the introductory essay to Interesting Times: focus on Contemporary Australian Art, curator Russell Storer quotes Ingrid Periz on Adam Cullen, one of the seventeen artists in this group show: ‘Art doesn’t make things better, it just makes them bearable’.1 To this cathartic view, I would pose psychologist James Hillman’s remark that ‘Therapy doesn’t heal, it intensifies’.2 Probing and illuminating injustice and discomforting truths does not always offer a sense of relief. It is when one knows this dilemma that the courage, and conceptual and artistic intelligence of John Barbour, Adam Cullen, Neil Emmerson, Merilyn Fairskye, Pat Hoffie, Ricky Maynard, Freddie Timms and their colleagues in Interesting Times, come to the fore.

In a post-September 11, 2001 climate, and with Documenta 11 still in mind, art museums appear more ready to gather in those artists who either directly document sites of conflict and trauma or who in elliptical ways express unease and anxiety. All art is political (it may after-all stand for conservative values) but not all is concerned with the social role of art as a lever for possible change. Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 reflected a very different tenor to the strident and energetic polemics of Lucy Lippard and like-minded activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, when there was an optimistic belief that collective art action could help turn the tide. And sometimes it did (think feminism). By comparison, Documenta in 2002 embraced many artists who projected their socio-political concerns in an individualistic, sly and seemingly dispassionate way. The cool directness of Doris Salcedo’s disfigured metal chairs and barriers evoked perverse forms of human alienation, resonating more with viewers of today than the equivalent of Vietnam’s film footage of napalm victims. We have simply become inured to graphic documentation of violence and death.

Concentrating on works made in Australia chiefly from the 1990s and 2000s, Interesting Times ‘emphasises temporality’, Storer states in his Introduction, reinforcing the notion of ever present change. In his catalogue essay, Nicholas Jose views this as almost apocalyptic, stating that our world is subjected to an ‘emergency [that] is no longer a conceptual hypothesis or romantic speculation, but shared and actual’, while Rex Butler follows with a text which analyses the contested meaning of the word ‘contemporary’. In writing on the two indigenous artists in the show, Freddie Timms and Ricky Maynard, Avril Quaill takes the rhetoric of ‘time’ as a means to address history and identity in Aboriginal Australia.

It was Maynard’s black and white photographs which greeted the visitor arriving in the exhibition by lift. His series Returning to Places that Name Us, 2000, depicts five Wik elders from Aurukun in Cape York, larger in format than his usual photographs. The portraits are commanding, as befits their subject’s status. Larger than in life, they have been cropped to allow our eyes to traverse lines and furrows of the face, as though becoming acquainted with a landscape. Maynard’s other works in this exhibition, from Portrait of a Distant Land, relied upon adjacent commentaries to retain the viewer’s attention. The most poignant, The Healing Garden, Wybalenna, Flinders Island, Tasmania, 2005, is served by Aunty Ida West who relayed in 1995: ‘It’s pretty important you know, the land, it doesn’t matter how small, it’s something, just a little sacred site, that’s Wybalenna. There was a massacre there, sad things…’.

If Interesting Times was approached by the stairs of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), East Kimberley artist Freddie Timms introduced the show. Painting in natural ochres and pigment on canvas, these majestic fields of cryptic interlocking shapes are the landscapes we have come to expect from the Gija people. Timms’ landscapes, including the impressive Blackfella Creek (2002 and 2004) panels attract metropolitan audiences through their deceptively simple compositions and restricted palette, yet Quaill’s essay reminds us that these two panels map a landscape where once again, Aborigines were killed. In the same manner, Timms presented the equivalent of the Ned Kelly narrative with his painting of Major (Wardaman), an Aboriginal outlaw of the early 1900s and heroic figure for the Gija. Rather than Nolan’s bushranger being depicted as a rogue in various scenarios, the figure of Wardaman is the landscape.

That which is not readily comprehended or revealed is true also of Merilyn Fairskye’s contribution to this exhibition. Based on her residency at Alice Springs as winner of the prestigious art award associated with that centre, this artist used film to make one of the most chilling works of her career thus far. Connected, 2003, underscores the fact that outward appearances never yield the whole picture and that one of the overwhelming curses of being human is coming to terms with contradictions and the instability of belief. Fairskye’s three-screen environment of projected video is based on Pine Gap, a hub of American military intelligence situated in a landscape of extraordinary beauty and spiritual significance for the Arrente peoples. The conspiracy of this site, with its incongruous connections between secret men’s business, is relished by the artist. She interweaves the tourist experience of Central Australia—busloads taking digital shots of The Olgas—with scraps of conversations and interviews with long-term Alice Springs residents keenly aware of the nearby spy base. Her method is to simultaneously project dislocated imagery and voices with an informal filming technique; straight footage interrupted by static and interspersed with solarised passages as though radiation has wiped out reality.

George Gittoes, an artist too often left out of major Australian surveys, continues the interviewing technique in his films on the American presence in Iraq. Like Fairskye he challenges the narrative continuity of standard documentaries with jump cuts and extended shots, eschewing polished editing for immediate (sometimes awkward) engagements. He has been Australia’s unofficial war artist for some time, producing sketchbooks and diary accounts covering the victims of numerous zones of conflict and the soldiers caught up in the horror. When I visited Interesting Times, it was the moving image (through the works of Fairskye and Gittoes) that attracted the most attention from viewers. A generation of youths (used to MTV and CD Walkmans) practically blocked the passage-way where Gittoes’ sketchbooks and films were shown.

Gittoes’ army rappers in Bagdad are unforgettable in Soundtrack to War, 2004, as the artist explores and records the music of the ghettoes that fuels the American army. It is a world of violent sexuality, alienation and turf warfare transported to Uday’s Palace and the ruins of an ancient city. With the thumping beat of a soldier’s hand in a tank with his earphones on, it becomes clear that gospel music perversely deadens the pain of killing and being killed; and sharing the experience became irresistible.

Given the ten year-plus artist career parameters of this exhibition, Gittoes’ film made sure younger audiences were catered for. The raw, graffiti-like paintings of Adam Cullen might also have broadened the audience base. His startling use of colour and frenetic brushwork reveals the underbelly of Australian society, where Goya’s Los Caprichos hits a contemporary vein. This black sense of humour has ferocious dogs like puppets dancing a marriage of hypocrisy for a canvas titled Holy Sordid Experience, 2005, and pits women against women (destroying their own kind) in another. I was less convinced by Robert Boynes’ employment of painting for images derived from photographs of solitary figures in shadowy interiors, with glimpses of surveillance devices. They begged to be taken to the realm of filmmaking or possibly to the high-end of computer print technology where bland surfaces match the dematerialisation of the subject.

Characteristic of Interesting Times, was the sensitive juxtaposition of exhibitors, avoiding unintentional jolts to viewer concentration. What could be termed the poetics of political dissent and inquiry encompassed the adjoining work of John Barbour and Madonna Staunton. In my notebook I jotted ‘piercingly hurting’ when encountering Barbour’s floor piece Hard Times/Killing Floor and Flags for a Republic of One, produced in 2005 (the former, with the MCA’s exhibition in mind). Introspective and unstable, his pinned fabrics on the wall with their unravelling embroidered texts are the stuff of pathos. The needlework messages act like sutures of the flesh—Pure Joy a transient episode. They approach the flat intensity of deep depression, of trying to make oneself heard through a sea of opinionated and powerful voices. Next door, Staunton was seen at her best with five large free-standing assemblages made from scavenged wood. Ladders, chairs and crates: objects once utilitarian were now put to work as testaments to trauma and the voiceless. With Cell, 1993, for instance, the only addition to the ready-made packing crate with its wedged-in chair were the simple loops of rope, one at neck level, the other corresponding to where the ankles might be.

Compassion and anger (especially as regards global conflicts and racial oppression) has always informed the practice of fellow Queenslander Pat Hoffie. For this exhibition, she produced one of her most ambitions installations to date. Based on the inhumane mandatory detention policies of Australia’s present government, Hoffie erected a wooden box-like structure into the gallery space which clearly stood as a cell for asylum seekers. Red and black painted signs on the surrounding walls referenced Russian Constructivism, which reminded participants of El Lissitzky’s agitprop strategies early last century when the Bolsheviks came to power and feudalism was dismantled.

Titled Maribyrnong: no place to weep, 2005, Hoffie refers specifically to a detention centre in Victoria, where four people are confined to each room and ‘…you cannot even find a place to weep on your own…’. This remark was printed in the catalogue, not in the actual installation—in the early 2000s, raised social consciousness through art most effectively takes the route of understatement.

Of the other artists at the MCA, mention should be made of Neil Emmerson, who like Hoffie has maintained activism in his art for at least twenty years. He brings Queer politics into the arena, this time in a critique of the Coalition of the Willing’s occupation of Iraq. The artist’s 2004 installation the picnic (a title as ironic and seemingly insouciant as the exhibition’s), comprised grided friezes of woodblock and photo-lithographic prints with an obelisk and blanket draped mound in the centre of the space and three giant red flags. Printmaking here has left the realm of poster protest to subtly take the viewer into ocular shaped vistas of decimated landscapes, some with chemical-suited soldiers. Slyly, Jean Genet’s homosexual lyric: ‘I was his…’ was shaved into the blanket, pointing to illicit desire in the mayhem of war.

notes: 

1. Ingrid Periz, Scars last Longer: The Work of Adam Cullen, Craftsman House, Melbourne, 2004, p.43.

2. James Hillman, notes taken by the author from a workshop conducted by Hillman for the Open Centre on the implications of war, New York, 8 May 2004.