The Melbourne Festival

Visual Arts Program
Various locations throughout Melbourne

Some twenty-five public and commercial venues mounted exhibitions associated with the 1998 Melbourne Festival’s Visual Arts Program. At its heart was the exhibition Remanence, housed in what is now part of RMIT's city campus: the former Magistrates' Court and City Watch House. Fourteen chosen artists, five internationals and nine internationally-recognised locals, were invited to build discrete works inspired by the site's more than century-long association with the administration of justice in Victoria (it was only finally vacated in 1995). Curator Maudie Palmer assembled midcareer artists whose work often deals with difficult social and political issues.

The result was a big show, heavy on accompanying textual statements, requiring several visits to take it all in. The oppressively Victorian space was filled with appeals to justice, guilt and redemption, evocations of personal and institutional memories, even divinities. Most of the work interacted or intervened in the complex legal cultural history of the site, with uneven degrees of success.

From the street outside the stone building at night, the eyes of Linda Sproul's A Better World peered out of the windows. Inside was a reconstructed waiting room, with a pot plant, coffee machine, and desks stacked with yellowing witness and record forms. There was also a kitchen with a clock radio playing to used polystyrene cups, and a spotlit passage set up to resemble an interrogation room just waiting for something for happen.

Mladen Stilinovic's Poor People Law featured real cakes and rum-balls affixed to the walls, and black and white plates with aphorisms about justice. But the ironic juxtapositions of word and image were unsubtle. Next door, in the Chamber Magistrate's rooms––with their palpable atmosphere of bureaucratic excess suggesting recent vacation––Imants Tillers had placed his numbered canvas-board units (Justice is God's Mountain, the last series of his Diaspora Cycle) up high in a discontinuous frieze. More were stacked up in a sealed glass cabinet. However, fragmented assertions such as 'creativity = capital', and serial images of cherubs––a tribute to the theology of hope––were overwhelmed by the space, and the work lacked impact.

Domenico de Clario's My Own Particular Anxiety was staged in a darkened courtroom, with floors covered with wires. De Clario himself performed each day over the two-week duration of the show, blindfolded at the piano with a saxophone. While the sound of birds chirping was nice, the redemptive conceptual aim involving memory-circuits in the carpet (an idea drawn from ltalo Calvino) failed to translate. In Songs of Australia Vol. 5––Life Sentences, Aleks Danko gave himself the unenviable task of daily scrawling with chalk, along the floor of the main cellblock, punitive messages taken from The Simpsons. While its moral––the futility of punishment––was easily grasped, this was more a tour of the cells than anything else, whose graffiti messages and unwashed musty smells offered more immediate seduction.

Given such a literal treatment of much of the space, Daniel Buren's more oblique Inside the Walls: the Sky was deeply refreshing. This French artist's spatial intervention, a striking L-shaped mirror ramp, marked with his signature black and white stripes, was just contained in the courtyard area of the building (a verandah space still marked with signs of prohibition). What appealed about the work was not only the resonance of the stripes, or the grounding of the sky's reflection––with its inversion of the logical order of the space––but also the articulate simplicity of the construction.

Gordon Bennett––who also held a successful painting show at Sutton Gallery during the Festival––created a very personal space with Lavender. In a fully furnished Victorian style room called the Mention Office, Bennett invoked the colonial past of law and order. A courtyard full of lavender and a charcoal sketch of his mother cleaning the very same building fifty years before––with black palm prints––continued his insertion of the black past into Australia's history. The scent of lavender returned later in one of the cells.

Passing doors marked Homicide and Case Room, one came to Ian de Gruchy's Vice's Paradigm and the overpowering smell of sump oil. Three barred windows permitted viewing of a large 3D projection of a rusty vice and chains. While technically superb, the literal visual pun lacked spark. Next to such work, Cai Guo-Qiang's Order in the Court was a striking juxtaposition. A Chinese transnational, he projected four video screens onto the ornately arched walls of a large court room; fireworks, archival war footage, cosmic explosions, and the artist's own documentation of his global experiments with explosives (including one that extended along the Great Wall of China). The different portrayal of pyrotechnics emphasised the non-determined nature of the technology (gunpowder was used for firecrackers by the Chinese for centuries before Europeans used it for weaponry). Of course the original explosions would have been better, but the documentation was still impressive.

Perhaps the most difficult work in 'Remanence' was Rea's My bLAK (h)Art, which directly confronted the charged issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Three austere rooms each contained altars with candles and a shooting target, a sound installation told a tragic autobiographical story of a Stolen Generation girl, and a song emotionally amplified the terrible loss that is black deaths in custody. But although visitors' comments varied, it seemed an overwrought work of mourning. Also renovating former spirits, but in a completely different register, Dennis Oppenheim's Exorcising the Yard was a simple spatial inversion. In the men's exercise yard, existing old structures were perfectly replicated, and, in a surreal, or 3D-cubist fashion, were misplaced. Against a backdrop of a rusty urinal and a rotting roll of toilet paper, no-smoking signs were repeated and enlarged, a curved roof section, wooden benches, and shelving were reproduced and upturned, and a third rubbish bin added. The bins also emitted an incessant banging sound, adding to an Orwellian feel.

Elizabeth Gertsakis used the spotlit line-up room to rather brazenly compare the experience of criminals with migrants to Australia, by installing a barred map of Australia, and in the viewing gallery, cardboard human figures. Marina Abramovic's Escape, a hyped participatory performance in the women's exercise yard, invited the curious to be strapped down and ear-muffed for a few minutes, before being led to a small room showing a video of people walking over hot coals and a voice whispering 'the spirit never burns'. It was hardly, as they say, an inspired performance. For most visitors, the last work seen in the show would have been John Young's Global Sanctuary. Two changing rooms on trestle tables, one the colour of the night sky and one the morning sky, prepared the visitor for a highly evocative oil painting of a waterfall in a purpose-built circular white room. Young's generic landscape, quite distinct from the other work, was just the trick at this point.

'Remanence', in sum, emphasised art that teaches rather than re-invents. At a certain level, the show was genuinely radical––questioning the legitimacy of an institutional system that delivered legal 'justice', and inviting audience members to participate in a collective effort to expose if not understand it. However, the logic of 'remanence'––'what's been left behind' seemed to imprison some artists in their own worlds. And strangely, some of the work seemed to operate with a misleading sense of past tense; as though injustice ended with the building 's decommissioning. The extent of non-visual material was notable, but for a show of this size and nature the visually underwhelming majority required a lot from the casual visitor. As such, the concise works stood out as the most effective.

Undoubtedly the single most powerful and talked about work of visual art in the Melbourne Festival (perhaps excluding the colourful Chromolithe transformation of Flinders Street Rail Station) was also one of the simplest, and far better in the flesh than on paper. It was also by a visiting big-name American artist. Bill Viola's magisterial The Messenger, a gigantic vertical video projection, was originally commissioned in 1996 for the Durham Cathedral in northern England. Its location in a hall of the Old Melbourne gaol offered less site specificity than you might expect, but it didn't matter; the work needs no additional support. The Messenger engages at an experiential level. A continuous, single-channel, 20-minute video-loop, with no real beginning or end; it opens with a naked man lying face up in dark water, followed by a cyclical series of four submersions. The sheer size and fragility of the image is overwhelming, and each submersion involves a minicatharsis, as the man slowly disappears and becomes smaller and smaller until he returns to the surface, whereupon he reopens his eyes. Once he breaks through the surface, we hear a powerful, primordial roar, replacing a faint, yet insistent sonar ringing––his breath evoking the inner subject's rebirth in the outer lifeworld.

Such grandly existential themes of life and death would be ridiculous in less deft hands, and some remain unmoved. But Viola, whose mid-career retrospective recently toured the Northern hemisphere, is a master at representing the unpresentable through the presentness of video imagery. He is well aware, for example, of the strange qualities that water and light have when filmed. In The Messenger bubbles could be stars, the light seems to curdle in the water, and the radiant body melts as it sinks into the black liquid abyss. Its solid matter breaks up underwater in a curious play of light, the radically slowed down images capturing the mass as it folds and bends and breaks up and shimmers, dissolving into what might be an anguished smoky spirit, before finally re-coagulating. We float and sink within this immersive image environment.

Appealing to metaphysical desires through heightened sensory experiences, and completely lacking in postmodern cynicism or irony, The Messenger enjoyed wide appeal, even with a rather steep admission price. Spectacular and yet anti-spectacle, with its mighty ambition of transcending the everday flux of media representations via slowness, it marks a reaction to the indifference of MTV speed. Thus, as its title suggests, it is also a didactic work. Judging by what people had written in the comments' book ('Slow Down!', etcetera), it seemed to find plenty of devotees.

Respond Red or Blue at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, curated by Lauren Berkowitz and Tara Gilbee, featured nine mostly Melbourne-based artists. The pseudo-public site of the hospital, a sterile space where most people would rather not find themselves, offered an evocative setting for work which dealt, appropriately enough, with illness, death, the body, and the institutionalised medical gaze. Digital prints and videos featured strongly, often displayed tucked away in busy zones––as in Nicola Loder's four fascinating tiny monitors gliding in and out of hospital rooms, contrasting public and private wards; and Jane Burton's strips of video stills, plastered to the wall above the lifts (gloomy, à la Lars Van Trier's The Kingdom). Some of the works were shown in semi-restricted areas––such as Gilbee's colour laser prints located in stairs marked 'No Entry'; and Use Kaufman's series of repeated close-ups which culminated down this stairwell in a very imposing triptych of a woman on a phone, with a face aggravated by evidently painful news.

Not all the work was hidden: Darren Sylvester, the only male artist in the show, situated his wonderful detailed largescale digital print of a deserted operating theatre right next to a lift. Nevertheless, the map proved essential, and in following it one had the eerie sensation of overlaying the actual place with the imaginary space of the art experiment. In a manner different from 'Remanence', this raised questions concerning the effectiveness of exhibiting outside the white cube: ideally it will be a productive exchange, but the inevitable risk is that the work's siting will be titillatingly voyeuristic for the poaching art world yet banal or alienating for customary occupiers of the space. Fortunately, social groups and their prejudices are rarely clearly drawn––I observed several patients, for example, engaging with the exhibits in the short time I spent there.

Less likely to cross interpretive divides was Pat Brassington's wry appropriation of an existing set of framed publicity photographs with close-ups of toiletries and garden names in bathroom cabinets. At the end of this corridor, the public address system, footsteps, and other gossipy voices were overtaken by the sound of a piano. As it grew louder, I looked out for a pianist, but as I turned the corner all I arrived at was a black speaker box. Marion Harper's sound installation, a haunting Schubert Song Cycle for piano and voice which he composed while dying in a Viennese hospital, seemed to sing of the pain of modernity. It was aptly located opposite an official history display of the Hospital.

Concluding the show were Kale Ellis's bizarre wax paws, and, by the curators, a building-as-internal-body video (Endoscope) and photographs of recently vacated patients' wards (Traces). Well into the bowels of the building now, a few scattered X-rays, playfully high up on the window, furthered the publicising of the so-called private body. Viruses and Mutations––an Experimenta event presented by Cinemedia––was also parasitic on hospital space, utilising a conference centre at St Vincent's. The exhibition, in conjunction with a forum, aimed to explore the intersection between new media art and the science and technology industry. Both artists' and scientists' works were on display and the result was a mishmash of techno-aesthetics and aestheticised science focussed around the medical body.

Justine Cooper's digital video projection, Rapt, incorporates the latest biomedical technology of vision, known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Slices of the artist's own body are animated in such a way that it seems to melt as it virtually decomposes and spins. Physically disconcerting and beautiful, Rapt was the deserved winner of the 1998 National Digital Art Awards (the output scans themselves were on show concurrently at CCP). Cotis Movie (Cult of the lnserter Seat), by the mysterious international collective, KIT, invited the visitor to sit on a raised padded airline chair, connected by pipes to large boxes on all sides. Once seated, ominous instructions addressed you on a monitor screen, and a surround-sound installation began. The sense of imminent bodily danger called up the increasingly abstract faith we place in transportation technologies.

Other artworks were only slightly less visceral: The Love Machine, Michele Barker and Anna Munster's large scale digital portraits; Tissue of Culture by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (situated next to a documentary video on a microbiologist's adventures in cell-division); Skimming an Eye by John Power, centred around a photograph of a an ape-man; Pool by Christopher Wailer, a table top display reminiscent of PacMan; Geo-Derma, a collaborative 3-D video of Western Australian landscapes and mines; and Penelope Lee's 90% Preventable, a beautiful slide series of various microscopic magnifications of blood cells, and a small circular video image of a pap smear.

Strolling––the art of arcades, boulevards, barricades, publicity, curated by Max Delaney for the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, was part of the Morning Star/Evening Star Melbourne-Scotland Cultural Exchange. As the somewhat overblown title suggests, the broad curatorial premise for the show drew from a de-radicalised version of nineteenth century flânerie and the Situationists, as well as the history of architecture and urbanism, and a lot else besides. In this particular modernist playground, minimalist theatrics predominated.

Nathan Coley's Villa Savoye ironically explored the modernist aesthetic by cleverly juxtaposing a deadpan commentary of Le Corbusier's iconic Villa with slide-images of a new British suburban brick home. Dislocations, by another Scottish resident, Shauna McMullan, was a carefully cut-up series of country road maps, transforming two-dimensional tracings of transport networks into delicate spidery and seaweed-like hanging objects. This conceptual dismantling was visually quite striking.

Not surprisingly, the 'psychogeography' of much of the work was European in flavour. However, Callum Morton's life-size garage reconstruction, Accademia, was intensely localised, being an obscure reference to a house where Bon Scott once lived in St Kilda. Sweetened AC/DC drifted out of a half open door, enhancing the work's minimalist literalism. Danius Kesminas's détournement of Morton and Geoff Kleem's earlier work provided an amusing––if rather parochial––play on the ruins of an art opening spectacle.

Other artists in the show––which was accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue––were Martin Boyce and Simon Starling from Scotland, and Stephen Bram, Gail Hastings,  Mathew Jones, Geoff Kleem, and Rosslynd Piggot from Australia. Each exhibited recognisable and generally interesting career pieces, but the show as a whole failed to add up to much more than the sum of its self-conscious parts.

The Infinite Space: Women, Minimalism and the Sculptural Object at Ian Potter Museum of Art demonstrated more controlled curatorial ambitions, and was a noteworthy and coherent exercise in revisionist art history. Curator Rachel Kent assembled significant works by eight contemporary Australian women artists who incorporate minimalism into their sculptural practice. None of the work was newly commissioned. Rather, it was a kind of best-of 1989-1998, highlighting the legacy of a historically masculine art movement on contemporary women artists (though several are in dialogue with Eva Hesse).

True to its genealogy, the show's appearance was stylish and austere. But from the evidence, these women's re-interpretation of minimalism has involved––in addition to the now familiar introduction of feminist problematics such as the domestic and the sexed body––the texturing of objects. Kathy Temin's fine White Problem (1992), with its fake fur and bulbous forms, springs to mind in this connection––ironically and playfully subverting the neutral field of perception.

Lauren Berkowitz's free-floating wall of plastic bags, Bags (1994), remains a striking piece, as does Dystrophy (1997), a net of cut-up cricket balls. The other works, all of consistent interest, were by Rosalie Gascoigne, Janet Laurence, Susan Norrie, Rosslynd Piggott, and Gail Hastings. Each artist builds on what Kent calls in the fine accompanying catalogue 'an expanded postminimal aesthetic', one especially interested in the viewer's gendered and historicised experience.

The nice thing about retrospectives is that in the process of taking stock, unexpected new links and directions are forged. While we cannot know the effect of this particular event of contraction and expansion, we can be sure that it is part of the ongoing construction of a history that's always in revision. The gathering together in one fine space, of an inter-generational collection of some of the most important and active contemporary Australian artists, few of whom are anything like household names, was thus a pleasurable privilege for the viewer.

notes: 

The exhibitions discussed here include: Remanence, Old Magistrates' Court and City Watch House, curated by Maudie Palmer; Bill Viola, Old Melbourne Gaol Chapel, curated by jenepher Duncan; Respond Red or Blue, Royal Melbourne Hospital, curated by Lauren Berkowitz and Tara Gilbee; Viruses and Mutations, St Vincent's Hospital, curated by Keely Macarow; Strolling––the art of arcades, boulevards, banrcades, publicity, Museum of Modem Art at Heide, curated by Max Delaney. The Infinite Space: Women, Minimalism and the Sculptural Object, Ian Potter Museum of Art curated by Rachel Kent