Contempora5

Mikala Dwyer, Louise Hearman, Rosemary Laing, Ricky Swallow, Louise Weaver
lan Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Ricky Swallow makes very funny art. Model for a Sunken Monument, a huge bust of Darth Vadar, which appeared in Contempora5 on the heels of the merchandising explosion that accompanied The Phantom Menace, seems to melt into the floor, exhausted by the burden of its failed attempt to signify evil. It has been robbed of effective power by a culture willing to slap images of The Dark Side onto t-shirts, calendars and coffee cups, anything-so long as it sells. Furthermore, placement in an art museum, where objects are yanked from the site of their primary effect and held up for cool contemplation, rubs salt into the wound. Poor old Vadar. This is a gracious monument to a failed devil. All of Swallow's pieces are variations on this theme. They suggest the moral contest lies, not in the on-screen battle between good and evil, but in the slippery network of commerce/culture which feeds ravenously on our desires and simultaneously scrambles to make sense of it all via the story-telling mechanisms of the gallery and museum.

Also investigating the spaces of the museum, Mikala Dwyer's installation recalls the minimalist project of involving the viewer in a whole-body type of perception. This project, extended in installation art to the contemplation of relationships between perception and the act of 'reading', is territory Dwyer occupies extremely well. A billowing organza wall-garment delicately weighs towards me, seems to fold me back into the room behind. This room is Iffytown, through which I must bend, curve, pick my way and peer. Outside, on a gravelled terrace, blankets inside slatted wooden cocoons suggest this could be someone's home. The success of the work lies in the way it confounds all of the boundaries it suggests: private/public, inside/outside, thinking/feeling. In Dwyer's hands the gallery seems to pull apart, blur, become porous, a quite different sort of place, available as the stage for another sort of thinking, repository of a different type of knowledge. Louise Hearman's work comprises a large number of small paintings, mostly oils, hung at uniform height, around four walls. The work is lit in an intense, uneven strip of light. Altogether it reminds me of the frames of a film, a fitful dream sequence. It is as though you need to use dream logic or peripheral vision to view these works, they are clearer if you do not approach them head on. Restoring potency to mystery, they evoke exquisitely the indistinct, unresolved disquiet of the uncanny. it is provoking to be moved thus in the context of an exhibition which is otherwise heavy on deconstruction. If it is not Darth Vadar haunting me-who is it, actually? Hearman's art contains veiled thoughts on this subject.

Louise Weaver's installation: blood-red, crochet-covered party lights, softly glittering; white clad branches; icicles; and bejewelled birds, seem suspended in infinity, as though by magic. It has got to be magic because it is nothing like being on Earth, in there. The catalogue describes the work as hybrid, but I find it art of utter transformation, surpassing the hybrid in ex-orbitant visions of the never before imagined. It grips like a vice. Paradoxically, along with the sense of suspension and of being gripped, comes a feeling of acceleration. The works gather momentum around the room from the first bizarre effect of a crocheted tree, to the climactic, pyrotechnical display of Rainbow Lorikeet an extraordinary embroidered mirror decked and sequin-covered bird. One wonders, 'Where will she stop?' I wish they had given Weaver the hundred grand. The conceptual supernova would have been worth it.

I am thrown by the appearance of a human figure in Rosemary Laing's photographs. I admire Laing's earlier series Greenwork, in which technology and sense perception intertwine to illuminate the cyborg character of the viewer. Now there is a woman in a bridal gown dramatically suspended in the sky like Xena, warrior princess: handsome, ferocious. Is this an examination of aerial space as gendered? Conventionally reserved for fighter planes and the male prerogative of speed, the invisible infinity of space is here recast as the native place of the feminine. I feel I am clutching at straws and I miss the confronting implication of the earlier works. These, and their relationship with the video Spin, seem unresolved. New directions, still evolving. I will watch with interest, but do not quite get it this time round.

The Message from the then Victorian Premier at the front of the Contempora5 catalogue explains that this prize and exhibition seeks to showcase 'the most challenging' and 'most exciting' of Australian Contemporary art. 'The winner', one of five selected artists, receives a prize of $100,000. There is no doubt that the prize and its attendant fol -de-rol sits awkwardly with the interests of the work it seeks to reward. The concerns of postmodern artworks such as these are to destabilise pompous notions about the importance of originality and the spectacle of the new. Furthermore, there is really no way to assert the out-and-out superiority of Ricky Swallow's work, either in the context of this exhibition, or of the contemporary artworld in general. Nevertheless, I believe practical effects of the prize compensate for these ungainly tensions. So far, in both 1996 and 1999, Contempora5 has resulted in two art exhibitions which, unfettered by the curatorial imperative of some deadening theme, have indicated connections between contemporary art and the political climate in Victoria and provoked public debate on that topic. Further, the work of two really good artists has been acknowledged with a really useful whack of cash. That the prize may have other, more insidious effects remains open for discussion. Of course, this may all be retrospective conjecture, now Victoria has lost its Caesar. Contempora5 is a sitting duck for the type of symbolic excision that can accompany a change of Government. Let's hope that it is not excised and we get a chance to continue the debate for a few years yet.