Anywhere and Nowhere Utopia: Uto(no)topo(place)

While this brief piece of writing has as its base two recent group exhibitions, it is not a "review” of these exhibitions and is only peripherally about them.

I am not going to provide any verbal descriptions of the works, nor provide lists of names of the artists involved. So, in the light of this exclusion of both the artworks and the artists, this piece of writing could well be perceived as yet another instance of "theory” usurping the place of art, the critic ignoring the object of criticism, or of the words somehow failing to represent what might really have been going on.

The problem I want to deal with here is primarily concerned with this last point; the difficulty of representing what really is going on. In part, this may well be a question of description, of working out a way of fitting writing to images. However, the problem is compounded by the fact that the images themselves may also suffer from a lack of fit.

Clearly, the difficulty that is being constructed here turns on the issue of representation, or at least a particular way of characterising it. What is of interest is not just the way individual works of art might be taken to represent some object or emotional state, but the manner in which specific exhibitions are taken to represent a particular style of working, theoretical perspective or geographical location.

There are a number of ways this process of representation might occur. For example, in the exhibition The Politics of Picturing, the works stood as representatives of something that might be generally termed "political art". However, there was no necessity for them to exhibit any characteristic other than their "politicalness”, however that might have been recognised.

Similarly, the Institute of Modern Art's 1986 exhibition Past and Present included a body of works that functioned as representatives of a dominant Queensland style: figurative expressionism.

The way the dominance of this particular style was represented, both in the exhibition and the material surrounding it, has tended to operate a little like the gerrymander: figurative expressionism gets to represent the State of Queensland, even though a close counting of votes doesn't indicate a clear majority, and some of the candidates are "forced" to change party mid stream.

At the level of the international art world, survey style exhibitions are sent out to Europe and America and are taken to represent Australian art. Similarly, exhibitions which travel south from Queensland are taken somehow to represent the art of the State. This can clearly be seen in the way Max Dupain characterised the work in Occlusion, shown at the Australian Centre for Photography late in 1986.

"My recollections of Queensland are of bright, wide open flats of land, studded with cattle and horses, homogeneous people, hot sun, sweat and a rush of organic energy; human contact delightfully at minimal level. Most of these pictures don't relate to Queensland, they could have come from Poland, Nicaragua or Britain.”

At one level it is possible to be slightly amused by Dupain's apparent disappointment at the lack of fit between a kind of beer commercial image of Queensland and the works in the exhibition.

However, a more subtle reading might note that the three countries he has indicated as possible origins for the work happen to have experienced a degree of social and political tension in recent times. Perhaps there is an unintended slip here between what may count as representation and the process of working around the issue of occluded images.

The expectation that art represents its place of origin can be limiting in the extreme, particularly when work does not fit the available categories. The works in both Anywhere and Nowhere Utopia: Uto(no)topo(place) do not, in any clear way, represent their place of origin, nor are they presented as representative of any particular style or politico-aesthetic perspective.

Instead they work on the question of representation itself. What does it mean to produce work that could come from anywhere? How does Canberra as a specific, premeditated site impinge on cultural production? How do modern technologies, such as photocopy or fax, affect the notion of regionally specific style? Is it possible to represent something while talking about everything but the thing itself? What might count as a representation of anywhere? A representation of nowhere (in particular)?

Sally Hart installing her work at Bitumen River Gallery