on the line

dylan rainforth
Catherine Bell, Semâ Bekirovic, Olga Chernysheva, Domenico De Clario, Miranda July, Sarah Lewis, Jan Nelson, Kate Swinson, Anne Wilson
Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne
23 January – 23 March 2009

A lazy Google search for the origins of the phrase ‘on the line’ yields a typically motley range of interpretations and uses. Is it from gambling: to literally lay your money on the line, such as when shooting craps? Or commerce: from an origin meaning readily available funds (hence forthright or honest), or the current foreboding of ‘your job is on the line’. One web user insists his ‘academic proffesor of gender studies’ (sic) said it referred to the measuring of penis sizes in taverns in medieval times. Such connotations of (often sexual) frankness lead directly to the body and the usage ‘putting your body on the line’. Googling this last phrase returns hits on ‘the question of violence, victims and the legacies of second-generation feminism’. Blogs written from occupied Palestine, as well as commentary on the footy (AFL) are also highly ranked, suggesting just two more ways bodies are constructed and contested, deployed and destroyed.

I am interested in these results as, in their competing claims and confusion, they reveal the scope and the stakes that ‘On the Line’ curator, Anne Wilson, could claim in this hugely ambitious exhibition that brought together the work of nine Australian and international artists, whose processes, according to an accompanying statement, involve ‘risk or who use their immediate environment to explore universal themes’. That is a broad church: the little ‘or’ in that sentence was made to work hard, as far reaching links were sought between apparently disparate works. The show’s curatorial premise was most obvious in works such as Jan Nelson’s excellent Vertical Composition/Vertical Collapse, documentation of a performance of her mounting then falling from a precarious stack of office chairs. Presented on slides, the regular clatter of the automated carousel became physically evocative of the artist’s body hitting the hard floor as she toppled from the chairs. But risk was to be understood psychologically as well as physically, as in Catherine Bell’sSnow Baby, a performance video where the artist cradles an icy block to her stomach, channelling the grief experienced by a friend who has lost her pregnancy. The Baldessarian linguistic games displayed in Dutch artist Semâ Bekirovic’s arresting videos, evidenced more distanced, formalised kinds of risk while focusing on the construction of nature as a cultured environment—snails traced excreta over a hand-ruled grid and birds of prey flew free in a corporate boardroom.

Russian artist Olga Chernysheva’s video work succeeded in making visible the links between risk, (gendered) bodies, the immediate environment and wider narratives, specifically the ongoing construction of ‘nation’ in post-Soviet Russia. Her video, March (2005), spontaneously documented a parade that took place near the Palace of the Soviet Army; a military band regurgitates past glories, juxtaposed with the palpable boredom of eight-year-old cadets in full uniform and the exposed midriffs of a group of cheerleaders putting their bodies on the line for a nation that no longer remembers which spectres it is haunted by. Though her video means are modest, Chernysheva’s cinematic training shines through, recalling not only Dziga Vertov but also the great modern director Alexander Sokurov.

A single projector, in the gallery’s smallest room, alternated between the kinds of works—like Chernysheva’s—that internalise narrative in compact visual forms and more dramatic, theatrical modes epitomised in works by American filmmaker Miranda July (best known for Me and You and Everyone We Know but represented here by a string of early personae-based videos). A clear distinction between cinema and visual art problematically persists here—July’s work is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition, both in duration and emotional investment, whereas the ‘visual’ works succeeded in metonymising narrative in singular moments. To reject the various self-performed personae in July’s work—and frankly her acting is terrible, its anti-naturalism notwithstanding—is to be left with nothing at all. Her performance succeeds or fails totally, something that is impossible to say of Jan Nelson’s performance, for example, regardless of whether one likes it personally.

Viewers saw very different exhibitions depending on if they walked into July’s hour-long compilation of four videos or caught some of Chernysheva’s half-hour program of five. I do not mean to fault Wilson for this—that the show could have filled a museum many times larger, that it attempted to articulate sub-themes that there is no room to even discuss here (memory, failure and loss notably), that it brought together an eclectic grouping of works and included artists largely unknown in Australia—all of these things made ‘On The Line’ far more interesting than if it had confined itself to its clearest definitions of risk. Risking failure through ambition, and in putting its own practice on the line, the exhibition succeeded even through its rare failures.