Between Cliche and Rapture

We Used to Talk About Love; Balnaves Contemporary Photomedia
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
31 January - 21 April 2013

What does it say about contemporary photo-media that the most poignant work in a recent exhibition of it, We Used To Talk About Love, was one composed only of words?

Grant Stevens’s imageless projection, Crushing (2009), miraculously ignited feeling; it displayed the gagging pathos of the language routinely used about relationships today. ‘I wish I could stop thinking about this’, ‘you said you didn’t know if you still loved me’, ‘without you my life feels hollow’.

Its laboured clichés, set to a stock piano mantra, brought up the horrifying loneliness of the lover’s predicament. A tangle of pain in a net of prosaic phrases—‘hoping for you to call’, ‘your housemate never liked me’, ‘baby I’m really tired’, etcetera, etcetera.

But then, Rapture (silent anthem) (2009) was its antidote. Angelica Mesiti’s filming of the transcendent silence of the slow-motion crowd’s ecstasy put the viewer in touch with feeling, pure and simple. An experience is had by the mass, together, but in their own solitude; nothing is communicated of their reaction to a performance that remains off-camera, except their delirious affects.

 These two pieces were the stand-out works in an exhibition that struggled to meet the schema of its curatorial contrivance. What does a short story by American writer Raymond Carver (‘What we talk about when we talk about love’) have to do with new Australian art? The ‘mile-wide inch-deep’ approach did not work to capture much about the works themselves.

The catalogue aggravated the effect, dragging in the usual philosophical suspects with which to decorate the margins. Under the heading ‘love and photography’, Natasha Bullock reminds us of Roland Barthes’s revolutionary approach to photography in which he ‘does nothing less than attempt to relate photography to the elements of madness that are produced in love.’ (p.11). And proposes that ‘his thesis about the affects of photography prompts us to ask how artists might work with the raw material of feelings now … especially in a post-conceptual, post-postmodern world full of images’. The muddled evocation sidesteps his lucid account of those affects and how word and image might fit together.

To quote Barthes, ‘the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude … spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), but warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts).’ (A Lover’s Discourse, p.1)

He tells us, while the guests at Plato’s Symposium tried to produce a doctrine of love rather than an account of experiences of it, ‘today … there is no system of love: and the several systems which surround the contemporary lover offer him no room … none answers him, except in order to turn him away from what he loves.’ (A Lover’s Discourse, pp.210-13)

In the face of this unintelligibility, perhaps the hope is that images will fill the breach? Perhaps this is the connection that We Used To Talk About Love is reaching for—that images occupy the vacant space of a ‘system of love’ which is nowhere theorised or understood?

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Gail Jones whimsically narrates Walt Whitman’s life between a loving gesture and a photograph. And meanwhile, a love story could be found between these two quite different works at either end of the exhibition: Rapture, as a wordless video of ecstatic spectators and Crushing, the purely visual projection of words.

Grant Stevens’s ‘system’ makes Barthes’s point exquisitely. The claustrophobic madness of the cliché, driven into loops of its own devising, takes over where the diarising, facebook frenzies and bad poetry all fail to capture the lover’s anguish. In watching his sequenced word-images appearing and vanishing across a black field of interiority, we experience that painful thinking which is love’s stream of consciousness. The phrases cannot take form as system, because that would be to master them; at that point, the lover would be released from the bonds of love.

But the discourse of love, says Barthes, is driven into the backwater of the ‘unreal’ where it has no recourse but to become the ‘site of an affirmation’. Rapture (silent anthem) is undoubtedly an affirmation, in the strict sense of an emphatic rendering of nothing propositional. The slow-motion emoting of the vulnerable young faces—all beachified and soaked in sweat—captures something beautiful about love, at its best an affirmation of being without system, beyond capture, already engulfed and long gone from common sense.

As We Used to Talk About Love was bumped out, it found a strange reprise in a showing of the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media finalists (The Space Between Us, Art Gallery of New South Wales) that followed.

To the delirium of Whitney Houston’s love song ‘I have nothing’, Laresa Kosloff took a camera into the gallery’s permanent collection and showed us the gaze of art-lovers in intimate moments with the old masters. The pitch of Houston’s ecstasy—‘Don’t you dare walk away/I have nothing/nothing/NOTHING /if I don’t have you’—was counterpointed in ingenious banality by the backpacks, iphone cameras and water bottles of the visiting viewers.

Today’, as Barthes might say, portentously … Perhaps today is not a day that is equal to the rigours of systematising love.

Angelica Mesiti, Rapture (silent anthem), 2009. Still. High-definition video, silent, 10:10min. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. © The artist. 

Laresa Kosloff, Eternal situation, 2013. Video still. 4:53min. Commissioned by the AGNSW for 'The space between us: Anne Landa Award for Video & New Media Art'. 

Grant Stevens, Crushing, 2009. Still. Digital video, 4:13min. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney.