'double take'

anne landa award for video and new media arts 2009
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
7 May - 19 July 2009

It seems ironic that the curatorial focus of the 2009 Anne Landa Award exhibition Double Take is on mutability, given the biennial series’ own shifting disposition. The first two instalments exclusively celebrated the work of Australian moving image and new media artists. In this third iteration, the established model of a national showcase selected by committee has been abandoned in favour of appointing an independent curator and including the work of international artists in the exhibition, although the acquisitive award remains nationally focused. In addition, the show has been relocated from its previous home in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ upper-level Rudy Komon gallery to the ground floor, with entry directly from the vast main foyer. In conjunction with the reframing of the exhibition’s scope and to a degree its function, this appears to point to an overall repositioning of the Anne Landa Award within the Gallery’s programme towards engaging a broader audience.

Under these revised circumstances, Melbourne-based curator Victoria Lynn brought together works by three Australian and three international artists that explore self-representation and identity through the lens of transformation and masquerade. The dominant medium is video, with digital photography and multi-media installation also included. Disappointingly, only one project represents the more experimental media practices being engaged by Australian artists: Mari Velonaki’s interactive installation using robotic technology, part of her ongoing Fish-Bird series developed in collaboration with scientists David Rye and Steve Scheding from the Centre for Social Robotics. In Circle D: Fragile Balances (2008) viewers are invited to hold two sense-responsive wooden cubes that have embedded screens and can communicate with one another using Bluetooth wireless technology. The cubes represent the characters Fish and Bird, whose thwarted love is communicated via intimate scrawled messages that the viewer can read as they appear alternately on the interfaces. Although the concept underpinning Fragile Balances is fascinating and deeply poetic, as the title suggests, the work’s functionality is highly dependent on precise and gentle handling, to the extent that it can be difficult to activate effectively and therefore to become immersed in the narrative of the notations.

The thematic of an intimate dialogue between two entities is continued in the collaborative video work of Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano, Absence of evidence (2008), in which the twin sisters use intuitive gesture to communicate with one another while physically separated, suggesting an uncanny psychic connection that problematises the clear delineation between self and other. By contrast, TV Moore’s contribution explores the inverted logic of the unconscious self. The only major new project included in the exhibition, Moore’s collection of six discrete video and installation works, is positioned as a focal point and feels privileged within the exhibition overall. Announced as the winner of the $25,000 award following the opening, it would be fair then to expect that the project would be a highlight, but instead Moore’s investigation of altered psychological states comes across as mannered and banal, particularly the articulation of out-of-body experiences achieved through drug-taking and mystic experimentation. In the video Nina, Me and Ricky Jay (2009), for instance, Moore is shown in close-up with vacant glazed eyes and clammy skin in an empty smoke-filled room. Dramatically backlit and apparently hypnotised, he mindlessly drones a Nina Simone number into a microphone accompanied by the relentless dull clang of a drum cymbal.

British artist Phil Collins’s work, on the other hand, is utterly absorbing. His large-scale single channel video, dunia tak akan mendengar (the world won’t listen) (2007) is the final component of a trilogy in which the artist worked with local communities in Bogotá (2004), Istanbul (2005) and most recently for this iteration, Jakarta and Bandung. The video shows unedited footage of teenage fans performing karaoke renditions of each song from the album of the same title by cult British rock band The Smiths. Against a changing backdrop of majestic landscapes, the amateur performances range from earnest and contrived to completely uninhibited and wildly funny. The voyeuristic experience of watching is both engrossing and uncomfortable, and part of the work’s success is in how it self-reflexively frames private performances for public consumption. The agency of the participants within this dynamic is a key feature of the work; one young man, for example, performs a silent strip tease to the instrumental track Oscillate Wildly, smoking a cigarette then shedding several jackets and six shirts before revealing the song’s name emblazoned on his torso as the finale.

Beyond an investigation of how people inhabit their own and others’ personas, however, dunia tak akan mendengar offers a broader commentary on inter-generational and intercultural exchange in an era of mass globalisation. The configuration of Indonesian youths in 2007 performing in English the songs of an alternative British rock band from the 1980s within the framework of a sub-cultural activity derived from Japan, sets the scene for a multi-dimensional commentary that is lacking in other works. Exempt from this is Chinese artist Cao Fei’s haunting video from the series What are they doing here? (2005), a collaboration with employees of an OSRAM lighting factory in the Guangdong province that documents and intervenes in the rhythm of their production line lives.

Aspects of the installation also detract from the overall experience of the exhibition, namely disruptive instances of light and sound bleed, the physical marginalisation of Lisa Reihana’s work in the main foyer, and the disjointed spread of Moore’s multiple installations across an awkward central room. However, a more significant shortcoming relates to the exhibition’s restructure outlined above. The expansion of its parameters to address new and recent work by Australian as well as international artists working in video and new media has rendered the show’s remit very broad indeed. This loss of specificity has in turn reduced the focused opportunity the Anne Landa Award previously provided to Australian media-based artists.

notes: 

Artists included in the 2009 Anne Landa Award were Phil Collins (UK), Cao Fei (People’s Republic of China), Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano (Australia), TV Moore (Australia), Lisa Reihana (New Zealand), and Mari Velonaki (Australia).