The sameness of difference

'Hybridity' in Australian Perspecta 1995
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

As this century faces its declining years, a light breeze elbows its way through the ruins that bare witness to Modernity's abandon, whispering that from the warm ashes of hybrid fires a new type of cultural production is being born. Issuing predominantly from the ranks of the 'different' and the 'displaced', this emergent body of artistic work represents something more than just a marginal response to those opportunities and anxieties characteristic of our present historical moment. In fact as the discourse of postmodernism wallows in gloomy self-referentiality, centre stage has been usurped by the project of a new cultural politics of difference.

In view of these remarks it is not surprising to find that over the past few years an extraordinary number of both local and international exhibitions have been organised on or around the theme of hybridity.1 In a wave of militant rhetoric and carnivalesque pluralism, these exhibitions are overwhelmingly characterised by a series of inflated claims to displace discriminatory cultural hierarchies and restrictive binary oppositions. In curatorial terms, however, they are linked by a common preoccupation with hybridising strategies as a model of resistance and reinvention.2

Almost to the letter this is the point of departure for Australian Perspecta 1995, curated by Judy Annear, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Established by Bernice Murphy in 1981 as a broad survey exhibition of contemporary Australian artistic practice, the eighth Australian Perspecta represents something of a radical break with tradition in that is it the first to be both organised by an outside curator and structured around a unifying theme. In many respects, this shift in focus and direction means a total redefinition of the role and position of Perspecta in contemporary Australian art. Structured loosely around the theme of 'hybridity', Annear appropriates the rhetoric of 'partiality' from the writings of Homi Bhabha in an effort to justify the exhibition concept. In a short introductory essay to the catalogue, the curatorial premise is defined as follows:

Given that Australia, as a post-colonial society, is hybrid, the manifestations in art are also hybrid both conceptually and in their forms. An acceptance of this diversity allows for an understanding that connections across cultures, across art forms are not negative contaminations but agents for movement and change.3 Ignoring here the issue of the rather spurious status of (White) Australia as a 'postcolonial society', there are at least  three major problems with the adoption of hybridity as a marker for this kind of 'postcolonial pluralism'. One of these problems of appropriating hybridity as a differentiating sign of postcolonial identity is that it obscures the fact that all cultures are essentially formed dialogically. In short, one might ask to what extent is any artistic practice or cultural milieu ever originary or undivided? 4 Secondly, the great value of the hybrid in critical discourse over the past few years has been its ability, in specific instances, to contest monolithic forms and to disclose discriminatory hierarchies lurking within apparently innocent cultural designations. Yet by extending the term to include almost everything, A near effectively renders its strategic potential useless.

The most worrying aspect of Annear's appropriation of the rhetoric of hybridity, however, is that by simply celebrating and glamorising the idea of the partial or schizophrenic postcolonial subject, as positive and radical creator, she obscures the negative but crucial flip-side of this coin: the violent experience of displacement, dislocation and mixing. Whether intentional or not, such curatorial expediency effectively serves to belittle the efforts of those for whom hybridity, as opposed to a bland international pluralism, remains an important aesthetic and theoretical tool in the on-going political struggle for decolonisation.

Yet these criticisms are not simply confined to the curatorial premise. A brief examination of the catalogue reveals, for instance, that far from being constructed from any explicit 'postcolonial' or even 'hybridised Australian' viewpoint, the majority of the artists included in this exhibition claim 'hybridity' as a consequence of an appeal to aesthetic experimentation or of the privilege of travel. Perhaps the worst offender in this regard was Melbourne artist Neil Emmerson whose appropriation of the image of a young handsome Chinese boy, ostensibly to make a statement about homosexuality and AIDS, seemed quite superficial.

While a full and proper interrogation of these issues begs an analysis of a number of difficult questions, in particular 'Who claims hybridity? And For what purpose?', the failure of Perspecta 1995 to engage with the complexity of the concept of hybridity was really just one example of a far more general structural malaise. At the risk of labouring the point, I would like to examine briefly three major conceptual problems with the exhibition structure and accompanying catalogue.

The first major conceptual problem was that no serious attempt was made by the curator or essay writers, with the exception of Bruce Adams, to locate the work or the exhibition in general within a larger national or even international context. As a consequence, it was never really made clear why certain artists were chosen over others or what relationship heir work had to the organising thematic. One example of many here was the work of Hobart artist Jane Eisemann. In spite of a quite disturbing aesthetic beauty, there is very little visual evidence that Eisemann's erotic photographs of headless naked torsos-beyond perhaps an obscure Duchampian reference- could be classed as anything like 'hybrid'.

The second major problem was that for an exhibition on or about hybridity and the 'diversity' of contemporary Australian art practice, why was this show characterised by such a unified block of Sydney and Melbourne artists? Of the thirty-six artists shown, only three were from South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory combined. While in past years there has been a certain expectation that Perspecta would review national trends in Australian art, the shift to a thematic exhibition, to be fair, does tend to place an added importance upon the selection criteria for artists, regardless of where they live.5 Nonetheless, if Perspecta is to retain any claim to being a national exhibition, then some proportional representation is essential.

The third problem is more complex and relates to the formal artistic strategies employed by the artists. In general, the exhibition could be divided into four main groups of works. Firstly, those artists employing traditional means like painting and photography to explore hybrid themes from Adrian Hall, DEFY!, 1995. Multi-site installation. Photographic images, hardware, sundries, silicone mastic, electro media. Dimensions variable. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. Cross cultural perspectives (Guan Wei, Fiona Foley, Geoff Lowe, John Young) to cross media relations (Jeff Gibson). Secondly, those artists exploring minimal and conceptual strategies using objects (Paul Saint, John Barbour) and sculptural forms (Filomena Renzi, Linda Marrinon). Thirdly, those artists employing multimedia and technological practices (Linda Dement, Tray Innocent, Leigh Hobba). Fourthly, conceptual and installation artists combining aesthetic and social concerns (Adrian Hall, Mathew Jones, Luke Roberts).

In spite of this impressive formal diversity, the initial category of painting and photography was over-emphasised at the expense of other means. In addition to this, the entire exhibition was characterised by the exclusion of those artists, with the possible exception of Megan Marshal/, producing 'grunge' or 'pop-povera' installation and sculptural works from found and recycled objects. Irrespective of personal tastes, this exclusion essentially served to deny an important and potent aspect of contemporary art making, turning the whole exhibition into a 'middle-aged affair'.

One of the most important aspects of Perspecta is that it provides a forum for an examination and discussion of the nature and direction of contemporary Australian art. As the most substantial exhibition of this kind in the country, it also offers an invaluable record of the prevailing trends and attitudes at a particular time. In view of this, it was interesting to note that in contrast to previous years, Perspecta 1995 was not dominated by a preoccupation with formal processes and perceptual concerns. In fact many artists included in this exhibition addressed complex social issues like rape and domestic violence along with the construction of ideas of sexuality and identity.

It is important to point out, finally, that there were a number of works which, through individual quality or sheer personality, managed to transcend the limits of the exhibition structure. Brisbane artist Luke Roberts's installation and part-time alter-ego "Pope A/ice", for instance, combined highcamp and kitsch in an obscene act of sparkling sequined showmanship. In stark contrast to this, Melbourne artist Megan Marshall's untitled manipulations of strips of sanitized plastic and latex offered a fascinating exploration of the possibilities of a minimal material poetics. Lastly, Sydney artist Linda Dement's computer-generated pleasure-pit of sex and violence, Cyberflesh Girlmonster, was so weird and wonderfully irreverent as to be refreshing.

While there is no denying the attractiveness of Perspecta 1995 as a visual spectacle, this does not in any way excuse its conceptual shortcomings. Confusing cultural hybridity with aesthetic pluralism, this exhibition reduced the specificity of all forms of 'Otherness' to an homogeneous and undifferentiated category of the 'hybrid'. As a consequence, the much touted celebration of difference championed by Perspecta 1995 offered, in the end, little more than a reduction to indifference.

notes: 

1. Just in the United States alone these shows include, Beyond the Borders, Art by Recent Immigrants, Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, 1994; Space of Time: Contemporary Art From the Americas, Americas Society, New York, 1993; Mistaken Identities, University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1992; The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1990. Just in Sydney these shows include, Localities of Desire: Contemporary Art in an International World, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994; The Boundary Rider, Ninth Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of NSW, 1993; Art From Latin America , La CitaTranscultural, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1993.

 

2. These issues are explored with great insight in Annie E. Coombes, "Inventing the 'Postcolonial ': Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating", New Formations, Number 18, Winter 1992, pp. 39-52.

 

3. Judy Annear, "Partial Cultures", Australian Perspecta, Exhibition Catalogue, Art Gallery of NSW, 1995, p. 7.

 

4. This forms the basis of my critique of Bhabha's theory of hybridity. See Benjamin Genocchio, "The Location of Bhabha", Art & Text, No. 50, January 1995, pp. 14-15.

 

5. In a recent interview Annear in fact alludes to the importance of the selection criteria, over 'national' interests, in her final choice of artists. See "The Annear View", Rea/Time, No.5, Feb-Mar 1995, p. 5.