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Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne
I find it more and more difficult to talk about works of art. Not that I have any sort of problem. Certainly not with talking. On the contrary, I find lots of stuff very easy to talk about. Sometimes endlessly. This is about that, I say, and that's about this. But when it comes to art, I just don't know. Perhaps it's just me. Then again, perhaps it isn't. Alain Badiou notes that 'the ideology of modern parliamentary societies, if there is one, is not humanism, Law, or the Subject. It is number, the countable, countability'. Quite. He adds that, under such conditions, art becomes an 'unpronounceable word'. In the place of 'art', what we get instead is 'culture'. And we get it everywhere: museums, galleries, art schools, universities, media and their assorted personnel blare endlessly about survey shows, representation, art today, culture today, cultural studies today, Australia today, good financial planning today, strengthening industry links today, audience maximisation today. Architecture merges with art which merges with writing which merges with publicity which merges with ... As McCamley remarked to me: at the very moment that all this stuff becomes 'necessary', is presented and publicised as 'necessary', a repulsive arbitrariness reigns over all. And arbitrary necessity - let's not be misled - is always the master's discourse. He's going to force you to speak about it.
How, then, do you try to make art in such unpropitious circumstances? In the catalogue to their exhibition, Burchill and McCamley quote G.K. Chesterton: 'It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe'. So it's by such secret treasons that art is going to have to be made, silent, covert, insidious-and yet, presumably, out of the very elements of the cultural universe itself. So the things you create will be bristling with references to other artists (Warhol, Riley), writers (Gertrude Stein , Chesterton), photographers, filmmakers, situations (1990s Berlin, Americanisation, the state of Australian art), and so on. You might deploy a staggering variety of materials (aluminium, steel, neon, perspex, acrylics, enamels, canvas, foam, etcetera), techniques and media. You might have to do it with other artists (the 'collaboration' between Burchill and McCamley itself), not to mention a range of consultants and specialists. You might have to do it by way of peculiar quasi-doublings and splittings, repeats and reruns (for example, Arc Landscape I and Arc Landscape II, each paired cacti poised upon bent tram-lines, or the various other works in '2 parts' that tend, in turn, to become elements of disjointed series). And you might insist on the consistency of the ensemble: a show is not just a collocation of disparate works contingently gathered, but must be given a peculiar coherence. Or, at least, it has the effect of coherence, even if its binding principle is not easily discerned. This is one of the freakiest aspects of Burchill-McCamley's work: it's all absolutely one and theirs, though all is multiple and comes from elsewhere.
The title piece is a neon assemblage proclaiming ALL THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE in electric blue, except for the elongated red 'A'. The cords droop, casting shadows; the neon rests upon flattened balloons of perforated steel, laser-cut. Other balloons rise (presumably) around. Arc Landscape I and Arc Landscape II are, as mentioned, rictus-grey aluminium cacti produced by a kind of 'lost cactus process' (Burchill). The double collage I need Iovin' features images sliced from elsewhere, a goat peering out from under the legend 'Acid House' and a '70s chick with bad hair and jeans and a machine-gun slung over one shoulder. As for those shady four-leafed clovers hovering behind the perspex? AK47 reads just like that, AK47, in reanimator-green neon, positioned over an anodised aluminium box with the outline of the aforementioned weapon incised into the top. Then, along one wall, a sequence of wall-pieces: Safe, The Belief, The Landing I and II, Heaven and hell are just one breath away. Each has its charms. The Belief, for instance, acrylic on masonite, large, yellow, bordered by heavy black around a wavering thin white line, presents an enigmatic and intricate tangle of roots.
But attempts at brute description do not come close. They falsify the effect and import of Burchill-McCamley's works, since those works are not simply material objects. As they write in the catalogue: 'We aim to make our works highly condensed, both materially and conceptually'. Everything's right there, in front of your face, yet not-quite as well, being struck by a 'quality of opacity'. Burchill-McCamley aim to create a 'new personal genealogy' through painstaking, committed, protracted labour. But that sort of genealogy-precisely because it is new, personal, different-is going to be hard to follow, even to recognise. Certainly to speak about. So if cultural institutions have presently dedicated themselves to value-adding, art chez Burchill-McCamley is a kind of value-subtraction, the secret treason of strangely beautiful things.