Inherited absolute

Artists with children
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melborune

How does the act of bringing a child into the world relate to the act of making art? This was the question posed by Elizabeth Gertsakis in her gathering of fifteen artists for the exhibition Inherited Absolute. Of course, any curatorial thesis is to be judged partly on the kinds of works it brings together: is it useful as a frame for relating the work of different imaginations? However, the nature of Gertsakis' thesis is defiant enough to focus a review on its substance and the curatorial strategy it inspired.

Gertsakis' curatorial essay, "Artists with children", concerns the culture of the child with which any contemporary artist engages. She argues that moderns focused on childhood with a scientific concern to 'validate' a system of knowledge. Childhood for modernists represented the laboratory outside of normal adult life in which the essence of human nature might be examined pure of self-consciousness.

The child, and radiating from it every aspect of the society, carried within it the threat and compulsive attraction of the unknown. This could not be tolerated, and like all objects of social currency entered into the battle for ownership, cultural investment and control.

Gertsakis presents here the judgment that modernism moved within an order of the same by which difference was a stake in competing ideologies determined to exercise their powers on the hitherto uncontrolled elements of their field.

The natural complement of this totalising modernism is the relativistic generosity of postmodernism, with its offers of heterogeneity and multiplicity. The basic dilemma addressed in Inherited Absolute is how to fit the modernist drive to unity within a tolerance of difference. This indeed is a paradox: how to represent the absolute as simply another alternative:
In contemporary usage, these absolutes are now component parts. Like grammar in language they have become arbitrary concatenations rather than verifiable units of whole parts, transmitted through cultural production and cultural reproduction; cell-like they no longer make up any single coherent system of meaning but reproduce their original modernist schema, the plan' for a plan within each repetitive fragment or duplication.

This is a kind of arrangement which Gertsakis seems to favour: 'ideality is best when it is fragmentary'. However, the curator does not rest in this mode of 'anything goes'. She confronts the flexibility of postmodern relativism with the 'absolute' logic of reproduction: the act of creating another person brings into play a duality of life and death which brooks no quotation, strategy or translation. In examining how artists have responded to the personal experience of parenting, Gertsakis finds 'absolutes of culture' that are maintained 'across the multiplicity of dispersions'.

Gertsakis' method unsettles the blase pluralism which invites the absolute to come into the picture with rebel factions of meaning such as error, self-doubt, guilt and indecision. Being of democratic spirit, we are inclined never to be seen to be excluding any one person or notion from the official picture. 'Why can't they all be true?' is the innocent reply to the possible exclusion of any particular position. While Gertsakis verges on this in her argument for ideality as 'fragment', she faces up to the paradoxes of this position in the challenge she sets artist.

I would like to believe that the absolute is never properly fitted into a relativistic position. This belief would be grounded on the dialectical assumption that there is always an opposite implied in the statement of a position: to say that everything is equal implies some presence of an hierarchical system as postmodernism carries itself on the back of modernism. What the Inherited Absolute draws on might be seen as a more enduring contradiction between what Hegel refers to as divine and human law: the intrinsic contradiction between the familial cycle of life and the practical powers of society.

This can be a creatively dynamic opposition, as witnessed in Lyndal Jones' performance Prediction Piece #10 (Melbourne International Festival, September 1992). The performance held together two disparate logics. In one logic, actors in white coats addressed the audience with anecdotal discourses which placed magic, science, art and life on the same plane of understanding. Here, wonder and scepticism could co-exist. Threaded through these monologues, however, were two dancers dressed in thirties' costume performing a self-contained routine seen to accommodate their dialogue of absolute passion. Their actions bore no direct relation to the quasi-scientific discourse of the actors and threatened to unwind their easily intoned reveries. The performance allowed relativity and absoluteness to co-exist without reduction to a simple inclusiveness. Relativity provided the schedule of meaning and absoluteness engineered the flow of movement.

Maybe this sounds like the errant patter of feet, threading their way through an adult world. A modern adult life, with its self-contained concerns for optimising personal, economic and political resources, lacks the extension beyond self which deals with the human concern for mortal limits. The question of what continues a 'beyond self' is more fraught at the end of the twentieth century with the absence of historical schemes which proffer collective finality in forms such as a final judgment, peace on earth, or even nuclear apocalypse. Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic becomes even more pointless when the ship manages to survive its threatened disaster.

Gertsakis places artistic practice in this kind of historical crevice- it is indeed a challenge particularly suited for those whose vocation it is to create meaning out of nothingness. It was a bold curatorial decision for Gertsakis to limit the selection of artists to those with children. This is based on the assumption that the personal experience of reproduction provides a necessary condition for posing this question. In a way it was this decision itself as much as the art on the walls which provoked the presence of absolute in Gertsakis' exhibition. To extend the choice of artists to anyone reflecting on childhood would have weakened the absolute nature of the election particular to parenthood.

Rather than resenting this undemocratic exclusion of the childless, it would be more productive to use Inherited Absolute to reflect on parallel contradictions between linear and cyclical biography. As a freelance writer who was socialised into the institutional culture of an academic archive, the question of what kinds of intellectual residue I both inherit and deposit is critical. As concerns of government become more focused on the 'matter at hand'—adjusting an economy to immediate demands—this question is likely to become more troublesome.

notes: 

Inherited Absolute, curated by Elizabeth Gertsakis.