fallout

Curator Mary Lou Pavlovic
Victorian College of the Arts Gallery, Melbourne
14 - 20 December 2001

Follow me, comrade aviators! Swim into the abyss ... I have overcome the lining of the coloured sky, torn it down ... infinity is before you.1

With this heady exhortation, Kasemir Malevich identified art as revolutionary action. In his case it was less to serve a political imperative, narrowly defined, than to command a kind of sweeping sensory violence. Yet what he surveyed as he leapt into the void of his allwhite canvas was not a deathly abyss but a plane of pure potential on which to reconfigure 'the entire architecture of earthly things'.2

On September 11 , the spectacular destruction of the World Trade Centre Towers seemed at first to signal that the architecture of earthly things really had been turned on its head. That it had been was one of the propositions interrogated by the exhibition Fallout. For only one week thirty-seven artists exhibited works across a wide range of media in response to the attack; a response which also ranged over related issues such as globalisation and the refugee crisis. Works were made either within weeks of the attack, or else produced earlier but with meanings which were immediately and unavoidably made over in its wake. Mary Lou Pavlovic's action in setting in motion a response that was at once expeditious, extensive and highly discomforting, was to distil some of the energy of the attack itself-suddenly generated, far reaching and raw-as a counter to its predictable syphoning by a supposedly reassuring discourse of revenge.

Some of the works made pre-September 11 were prescient without being overtly political, such as Rowan Douglas's Plane Film (June, 2001). His video shows a small model plane, visibly attached to a wire, tracking shoppers at head level as it 'fties' through the streets and department stores of Melbourne. Set against a menacing spy-thriller sound track, the movements of this tiny plane, seemingly on a sinister mission, would be purely comic. However, in the wake of September 11 its relentless flight-a hair's breadth from the heads of these urban dwellers-images instead the claiming of the 'first' world 's consciousness by a new fear.

As if to consolidate this claiming , the monitor is positioned above and to the right of Lou Hubbard's Fountainhead (July 2001), two polystyrene 'towers' perched precariously on the gallery stairs. The juxtaposition ensures that we cannot help but recall the image of the impending strike on New York itself. If a fear was unleashed on that morning , what some of the earlier works suggest is that the horror of the event lay not so much in its being unprecedented, but in the fact that a space had already been prepared for it, images already constructed of it, in the western psyche. More chilling , and virtually taboo, is the prospect that 'we' in the west, or certain dominant discourses of power, may have helped think it into being.

At a distance Janenne Eaten's Reflecta-no go zone appears to dispense with all discourses. A plain black square images the ground zero of representation. Yet close up, one's own reflection is glimpsed on its glossy surface. A reflection caught, but darkly, suggests a tension between wanting and not wanting to see. lt seems the ego can make a blind spot, a no go zone of whatever threatens its familiar self-representations, until something happens which brings it hard up against the real , where meanings fall apart. The ruins of the World Trade Centre are clearly such a site. Eaten's piece brings us to this breach of meaning, to consider what might be generated between the total failure of sense and its co-aptation by the familiar.

Virginia Fraser and Destiny Deacon's Transmission looks at the media's remaking of meaning after its collapse. Two walls are lined with photographs which each capture a moment of night-time news. An awkwardly smiling Mal Waldon is juxtaposed to an incongruously serene Bin Laden, and both to the caption 'terrorist hunt'. In this contraction of signs nothing quite seems to fit. The towers flame and crumble to the shrill catch cries of 'war on terror' and 'America under attack'. Such grabby jargon dies on the tongue, failing to transmit genuine emotional intensity such as the deep stillness of real fear. As if to highlight this emptiness, the artists have frozen the barrage of words mid-utterance. The sole sound is the cavernous cry of a child, beyond consoling. Words founder in the face of it.

In Julie Davies's installation, George Bush is shown exhorting the world to 'make no mistake' about America's attack on terror. The recording of the presidential address is 'stuck' on this phrase, condemning Bush to its endless delivery. On a monitor to his left, a dead rat is similarly caught. Vertically suspended, it rotates continuously. With arms pinned out to the side it resembles a prisoner on his upright execution bed addressing his accusers for the last time. A digital print suspended above the screen repeats another image. What look at first like human hands cup each other in a gesture so reverent as to seem made by saints or gods. But this saintly image is not on the side of right, or Bush's version of it. Tufts of hair on the 'fingers' reveal that the hands are in fact enlarged images of the rat's paws. If the viewer has made a mistake, it raises the question of whether Bush has done so inversely, by reducing his aggressors to vermin to be 'exterminated' when 'smoked from their holes'. As if to emphasise Australia's automatic adherence to America's position, a sheet of plastic clings to the screen bearing Bush's face, and unravels to expose the faintest tracing of the map of Canberra on the ground before him.

Subtle ridicule gives way to irony in Sanja Pahoki's Lick 'em, two photographs taken in 1998. A gleaming Washington Monument soars into a brilliant blue sky, whilst the American flag, flying high, seems to flicker like a tongue of fire against the building. lt is not clear from the title who is licking whom. The idiom sounds American, yet America's enemies have since seized on the imperative. The flag that stands for a flaming pride, can now just as easily suggest a country licking its wounds. The phrase 'lick 'em' also implies a kind of re lish-a taste for death. This is imaged directly by Mary Lou Pavlovic in her recreation of Timothy McVeigh's execution bed, replete with tiny, hand-painted, polystyrene hundreds and thousands. The 'public' execution of the Oklahoma bomber raised the question of why death is something we want to watch. On the one hand Execution Bed presents death as alluring spectacle. But like hundreds and thousands which are not food, which dissolve into nothing, and must be consumed in huge quantities to be tasted at al l, such spectacle finally fails to sustain us. For Dorothea Olkowski, a diet of stale representations-whether violent or virtuous-excludes the possibility of humour in which meaning is ruptured.3 Execution Bed risks humour, in the form of incongruity and surprise, not to trivialise execution, but to rescue it from the banal. Elizabeth Gower's documentation of a century of human horror, in Sept. 14th, 1901-Sept. 11th, 2001 , provides the clearest representation of a world tragically unchanged by September 11. Sheets of transparent paper, stretching almost from ceiling to floor, are printed with a list -immense, yet necessarily edited - of attacks launched in the last one hundred years. lt starts and ends with acts of aggression in America, yet no teleology is implied: the successive attacks do not, finally, explain each other; or they might, except that there is so much information to draw out and hold together. The piece suggests the possibility of a kind of God's-eye view, and in this the hope that we might transcend this violence; but not, as the work also attests, for as long as we know what we do and continue regardless. In this sense, 'lest we forget'-the memorialisation of past horrors to prevent their repetition- is held up here as a flimsy, transparent thing, always having, despite itself, to accommodate fresh inscription.

Fallout suggests that the world has not been undone by September 11 . Instead the artists represented have focussed attention on what still needs undoing. Following Malevich their works tug at those intransigent categories of identity and opposition-in this case good versus evil, old world versus new, and us versus them-that inevitably fuel any literal tearing down of the sky, whether it be by cruise missiles or hijacked jets.

 

 

Julie Davies, Make No Mistake, 2001. Mixed media installation. Courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Zhadova, Larissa A. Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art 191 0-1 9 30, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, p.283.

2. lbid, p.286.

3. Olkowski, Dorothea, Gil/es Deleuze and the Ruin of Representation, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999, p.187.