Regarding Fear and Hope

Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
5 – 28 July 2007

“…The narrative ends in the rubble and it is left to us to create the counter-narrative. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.”1

Earlier this year noted publisher Louise Adler posed the question: ‘Why does writing matter in the age of the image? When we are inundated by images of despair, disenfranchisement and deracination, why do words carry so much significance?’.2 She went on to exalt the power of literary writing, over and above that of visual art, to respond adequately to the current age of anxiety and uncertainty. Raising significant questions, such as whether literature should continue to explore the notion of human inhumanity, or whether writers can afford not to examine society’s darkest places, Adler concluded that the writer’s brief is to ‘bring understanding to bear on the fear to which we must either capitulate or resist’. The issues raised were significant, yet she was wrong in presuming that visual artists are unable to respond to such dark places with as much power, passion and moral insight as writers.

Perhaps Adler had not seen Victoria Lynn’s exhibition ‘Regarding Fear and Hope’, which provided ample evidence of artists grappling with the grave moral and political issues of today. The exhibition assembled the work of eleven Australian and international artists whose interests intersect strongly with politics, although not the vacuous often party politics reported daily in the Australian press, which tends to focus on the personal and the trivial. Rather, these artists are concerned with some of the most significant global issues pervading the world today—profound religious and political anxieties and conflicts (notably those in the Middle East and Ireland), environmental issues, Aboriginal politics, immigration, the rise of surveillance and censorship, to name a few.

Fear can be profoundly debilitating, and has proven to be a useful and highly successful political tool in recent years. Yet Lynn asks in her catalogue essay, ‘… what kind of hope does fear engender? Hope is an emotion that most of us have experienced at one time or another. But a sense of hope in the wake of fear is altogether different. It requires faith in human behaviour.’3 Arguably, what art does best is to touch us in ways that are as hard to define as they are to forget. The artists in ‘Regarding Fear and Hope’ are not interested in positing solutions, or in political sloganing or identity politics. Rather, in the exhibition, they provided a diversity of multi-layered responses that ranged from the poetic and whimsical, the raw and confrontational, to the ironic and conceptual. The works were variously ambivalent, idiosyncratic, contradictory, confounding, beautiful and elegiac; that is, they were profoundly human responses to complex human issues.

One of the most powerful works was by Irish artist Willie Doherty, the video Closure (2005), which explored one woman’s Sisyphean determination in the face of adversity. The camera tracked her solitary path around the boundary of a confined urban space surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron. On a seamless loop that appeared to have no beginning and no end, she moved slowly, accompanied by a dreamlike voiceover that alluded to the breakdown of her domestic life. The piece had a meditative quality to it, and the artificiality of the stage-set—for that is what it was—was cleverly imbued with brilliant blues and reds that subtly evoked the deep divisions which continue to scar Ireland today.

The video by Rea also explored the world through the eyes of a woman, this time the artist herself. The three-screen projection maang (message stick) (2006-07) overlaid imagery of the Australian sky and surf with words from her own Gamilaraay language, one that she cannot speak. The piece incorporated original footage of the Pitantjatjara people arriving at Warburton Station after the atomic tests at Maralinga in 1957, played against Paul Keating’s famous 1992 Redfern speech in which he proffered an apology to the Aboriginal people for past injustices. A dreamlike collage of historical and personal memories, maang was a reflection on several key and sometimes shameful moments in Australia’s history.

Another image that lingers in popular memory is that of the hooded prisoner under interrogation at Abu Ghraib prison. Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley made reference to it in Drawing for hate, kill and falsity dolls after Sturtevant’s HATE KILL FALSITY (2007), a piece appropriating the work of American artist Elaine Sturtevant. In another work they employed yet another persistent image—the Old Testament’s snake and apple connoting original sin—in neon, and applied to it the enigmatic title of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, Fear Eats the Soul (2003). Fear was evoked and explored in several works, including the four-screen video The syndrome of suspicion (2004) by Cuban artist Lázaro A. Saavedra González, which focussed on the artist’s eyes in an anxious interplay between observer and observed that suggested a cycle of secrecy and complicity.

The most spectacular work was David Griggs’ installation of paintings that have stemmed from his recent residencies in Manila, Philippines. These combine an electric array of popular imagery (including tattoos) sourced from Manila street gangs and Catholic iconography, laid against the more innocent illustrations appropriated from children’s books. Painted with violent energy onto canvases, bedspreads, and directly onto the wall, the result was an unsettling and provocative cacophony of cultures, and religious and political references.

Lynette Wallworth’s Damavand Mountain (2006) was a mesmerising sequence of stills taken during a residency in an Iranian mountain village, while Sriwhana Spong’s 7 Days (2006-07) parodied the anthropological photographic tradition. Tom Nicholson’s conceptual 2pm Sunday 25 February 1862 (2006-07) engaged with the resilient power and persistence of the historical archive. ‘Regarding Hope and Fear’ was a strong demonstration that artists today are profoundly engaged with the deeper and often dark side of human nature, and that the visual can be just as powerful a tool as the written word. Artists too are in the business of giving, in Don DeLillo’s words, ‘memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space’. 

notes: 

1. Don DeLillo, ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, Current, July 2002, no. 444, p.36. Cited by Louise Adler in Why writing matters, the Redmond Barry Lecture 2007, State Library of Victoria, 30 July 2007.

2. Adler, Why writing matters, 30 July 2007, op. cit.

3. Victoria Lynn, Regarding Fear and Hope, ex. cat., Monash Museum of Art, Melbourne, p.5.