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Satellite of love
'The medium is the message’. We are reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous remarks about television in the catalogue essay which accompanies the group exhibition, ‘Satellite of Love (I like to watch things on TV)’, at the Melbourne artist-run initiative, Bus Gallery. However, as the paintings, drawings, videos and photographs in this exhibition explore the interrelationships between TV and other visual forms, Satellite of Love shows us that this idea of television as a discrete medium and a distinct mode of communication has become highly problematic. With this exhibition Bus continued its programme of supporting local, national and international artists and curators, and presented the work of eleven young Sydney artists, Mariusz Jastkowiak, Phil Williams, George Tilianakis, Peter Newman, Kenzee Patterson, Rebecca Lewis, Ivan Lisyak, Jemima Isbester, Luis Martinez and the Motel Sisters (Liam Benson and Naomi Oliver), all of whom share an interest in the televisual. Formerly seen at Phatspace in Sydney, the works in Satellite of Love variously play with the language and forms of TV to engage with its pervasive impact upon other aspects of visual culture.
Kenzee Patterson’s photograph, CP28WF2 (2005), establishes a connection between TV and photography that highlights their common relation to a perpetually deferred presence. Patterson photographs ‘the death throes of the TV’ at the moment when it is switched off to leave us with the ghost of an image which once glowed with artificial life. The light which illuminates this translucent C-type photograph from behind emphasises this ethereal and haunting quality as it mimics the fading glow of the TV screen. The double meaning of the word ‘medium’ here aptly describes both television and photography.1 As media for channelling ghosts, television and photography can never offer up the liveness and presence in which they both claim to trade. An alternative process of doubling is evident in Phil Williams’s mesmerizing video, ‘Sunlight Variations’ (2005), in which the TV screen bears the image of another (more minimal) form of screen. Williams records the movement of sunlight across a domestic wall which quietly transforms the wall itself into a screen that offers respite from the dazzling flash of colour and light which conventionally emanates from the television screen.
The distinctive modes of spectatorship that are fostered by the screen and the painted canvas are highlighted in Luis Martinez’s paintings of stills from television programmes. In Martinez’s painting, Static I
(2003), the frustrating interruption of transmission which results in ‘snow’ on our TV screens becomes an instance of abstraction. The television viewer’s distracted glance shifts into a more contemplative gaze with this movement between mediums. A comparable shift occurs in Mariusz Jastkowiak’s series of abstract paintings which replicate out of focus images of explosions drawn from news broadcasts. As they pulsate with lurid colour, it is only the titles of these abstract paintings which anchor them to their violent subjects: The Bombing of Iraq, Death count unknown, televised 19/04/04 (2005) or Campbeltown Fire, 3 injured, televised 23/04/04 (2005). This process of abstraction accordingly raises obvious questions about the extent to which all television news broadcasts are simply abstractions of events which are too complex or too horrific to be captured within the limits of a ninety second segment on TV.
Other artists in Satellite of Love play with the content of television to explore its impact upon the viewing subject. Peter Newman’s video, The 5:19 (2005), is a distorted montage of daytime television shows which buzz, quiver and shake into each other in a disturbing shudder of pixels and light. The fragmentation of these images speaks to our own psychic fragmentation as televisual spectators who surf an ever-expanding sea of channels and decode flashes of visual information at an ever-increasing rate. A different form of psychic splitting is explored in Jemima Ibester’s video, 10 000 Leagues Under the TV (foo, thanks for everything Dr Phil) (2005), in which a woman’s enthralled and frightened eyes peer out at us from behind a comforting scarf. As she submerses herself in self-help programmes which promise to entertain and reassure while they rely on the viewer’s sense of anxiety and low self-esteem to succeed in the ratings game, this woman has become subject to the ambivalence of the ultimate televisual fetish.
Our often ambivalent relationship to TV takes on a more humorous form in Martinez’s installation, Dad (2005). This lovingly executed series of five photo-realist pencil drawings of some of the sitcom Dads who Martinez grew up watching in the 1980s and ’90s are framed in cheap, domestic picture frames and grouped on the gallery wall like a series of family portraits. The flesh coloured paper on which these portraits are drawn is also an endearing touch. These Dads’ perfect smiles, open faces and squeaky clean images are strangely comforting and disconcerting at the same time. Perhaps now critical of these standardised cheesy grins as the products of American cultural imperialism, we also feel a sense of nostalgia for a time when as kids we welcomed these Dads and their families into our homes week after week.
The works in Satellite of Love should not be read simply as artistic responses to television which problematically suggests a one-way relation between essentially discrete entities or forms of cultural production. Above all, the artists in Satellite of Love have shown us how television shapes our relations to diverse forms of media and is constitutive of the very language with which we speak. By self-consciously engaging with their own televisual vocabularies, these artists have collectively developed an insightful, critical and often witty commentary on some of the complexities of communication in contemporary visual culture.
1. Jacques Derrida discusses the double meaning of the word ‘medium’ in photography in terms of its power to channel ghosts. See Jacques Derrida, Right of Inspection, Monacelli, New York, 1988, p.7.