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Art is full of clichés, and so is the world beyond. So, are art works made by remixing clichés and conventions bound to taste the same? Will the flavour of the raw ingredients overpower the result, or will something magical happen in the process? This is what is at stake as we navigate the linguistic minefield of meaning and meaninglessness in the video work of Grant Stevens. In ‘New Ideas For Cake’ Stevens’ final PhD exhibition, and, like television ads during Superbowl, he’s turned it up a notch. Gone is the familiar white text flashing against a neutral black ground; instead, we see colour, music, three-dimensionality (albeit virtual), and a large-scale dual screen installation. The three ingredients—or new ideas—for ‘Cake’ seem exotic at first, but they are actually as familiar as the staples with which Stevens usually cooks. Like reworking the ingredients of a family recipe, Stevens has simply added a different dressing to a seasoned favourite while the substance remains the same.
The catacomb-like space of The Block, bathed in an ethereal mango-coloured glow (‘visiting shades of peach and nectarine’) envelops the viewer as they stand before the split projection of Turtle Twilight (2006). The left screen rapidly displays a handwritten font revealing the personal yet banal details of a sailing trip gone awry (skimmed from an online travel blog). Pseudo-philosophical musings on the stars and quasi-profound commentary on the state of the world are interspersed with the mundane specifics of holiday diet and sleeping patterns. (Anyone with friends overseas knows just how painfully boring the minutiae of daily travel life is) However the speed of the text and its very insistence as language means it is hard to ignore; it commands attention despite the shallowness of what it has to say. On the right hand screen, a stereotypical sunset image of a non-descript beach in red, orange and yellow hues—or mango, peach and nectarine, to borrow the food-inspired vocabulary of the text—pans and zooms repeatedly, utilising all the technical potential of a low-budget photo management program. The ‘wish you were here’ style text and the postcard image/screensaver quality of the vision, complete with meaningless commentary accompanied by leisurely travel-show music, is all too familiar.
The clumsy poetry of the recollections and the genuine but awkward communication of the sentiment is a transformation all travellers seem to undergo. Suddenly the wafty descriptions and evocative language of the arts is taken up with gusto, like a spoon at an ‘interesting breakfast of tea and protein-packed muesli’. In a similar vein, Bang (2006) reveals a Rosetzkyesque sequence of spoken confessions against a mesmerising kaleidoscopic backdrop of fireworks, which, combined with the dry monologue that drones on and on monotonously, induces a hypnotic-like state in the viewer. Stevens has mined an internet confession site for an inane but strangely captivating stream of confessions: from crying while masturbating, to drinking during lunchbreaks, to not getting turned on by girl-on-girl porno, to sniffing an ex’s panties. Touching stuff. Although some clichés are wheeled out, Stevens’ confessers are more original in their tales of indiscretion than in their recitations of life-changing experiences abroad. (Compare ‘It was an amazing experience—albeit terrifying. It reminded me of the power of Mother Nature’ to ‘I also pull out my pubic hairs and put them in an expensive porcelain box in my bathroom’) The personal experiences of globetrotting have been reduced to travel show catch-phrases and readymade postcard blurbs—Wish you were here! Having an amazing time, it’s soooo beautiful. Met so many wonderful people, you have to come someday! And the food!—while the emerging genre of relationship confessions is ripe with fresh storylines despite the inherently circumscribed ways in which they are shared. How long before they become as familiar as postcard commentary?
The Feeling (2006) rounds out the show to the driving rhythm of club tunes (bought from a stock music site). Spinning 3-D text, pulsing like club lighting, zooms out, rotates two or three times and disappears, to be replaced by another phrase that loosely generates an endless narrative of (again) clichéd romantic drivel.
Hold her close—In the moment—In the moonlight—The tension—A spark—A surprise—Spontaneous—Fireworks—Sparkling—Twinkling—Shimmering—Glowing—Like a sunset—A walk on the beach.
The overlaps between the three works is symptomatic of the formulaic, cut-and-paste environment in which we live. Stevens’ long hours spent in front of his computer, avoiding thesis preparation by trawling the internet for source material, is laid bare in the decidedly low-tech screensaver nature of the visuals. The ubiquity of these ‘tools’ and their familiarity reinforce the convention-bound quality of the written and spoken words. The stitched together daydreams of the desk-bound artist—of holidays, romance and nightclubbing—along with a voyeuristic interest in the darker side of internet escapism results in the release of a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of private thoughts in public spaces. Like another Hollywood blockbuster based on a proven formula, ‘New Ideas For Cake’ only appears different from Stevens’ usual fare, but once you sink your teeth into it, you realise you’ve seen this recipe before. It is the subtle manipulation of flavours and the remixing of ingredients that keeps cooking interesting. And we all love our cake.
If success means that the cake is utterly empty and hollow, then yes, it is a success. But the work’s insistence as art takes it beyond this. Despite the trappings of banality it sticks with you, persisting far beyond the scope of its source material (and Stevens can hardly be criticised for the inanity of those he quotes). But again, this is not a profound emptiness but rather a kind of everyday emptiness, one that, while enjoyable, leaves you feeling rather unfulfilled (like McDonald’s after half an hour). Nevertheless it is a memorable emptiness, utterly pointless and yet somehow able to draw us in, like bad television. Perhaps through its very familiarity, through the fact that it’s not teaching us anything new—just rephrasing what we already know or have already experienced—it reveals something about our current taste for art. Perhaps the one cliché Stevens’ work is really about is that of art actually meaning something important, of it challenging us, or of us being able to get something new and meaningful out of it.