dying in spite of the miraculous

joachim koester, saskia olde wolbers and justin lieberman, bas jan ader, jeremy blake, mel o'callaghan, ulla von brandenburg
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne
8 October - 6 November 2010

‘Dying In Spite of the Miraculous’ was a group exhibition which explored the various psychological states we inhabit and experience as our lives play out through their choreographed moments. It was an investigation of the real and the unknown, it sought to elucidate how sites play an indelible role in informing our ways of being, whilst also exploring the grey conceptual spaces that often emerge between an artist’s initial idea and the finished work. Curated by Emily Cormack, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Simon Maidment and Brett Sheehy the exhibition was presented as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

As you entered Gertrude Contemporary, the front space was shrouded behind a wall of languid fabric draped elegantly from the ceiling. You made your way through this shroud, meandering precariously through visible pathways before stumbling upon the viewing space. It was an unnerving experience that was mirrored in Ulla Von Brandenburg’s work Singspiel (2009). This video work—shot in black and white and projected directly onto fabric—documents a selection of arbitrary human interactions and intimate moments staged within the surrounds of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoy. The camera moves slowly and gracefully, using the hallways and rooms of the Villa Savoy as characters in their own right, informing and eavesdropping on each scene from the background. As spectator, you are drawn into these private moments, into scenes of supposed serenity, into realms of the personal which are exposed for all to see—you become aware that these mise-en-scène are entirely choreographed with actors playing out pre-ordained characters. Overlayed with haunting music which appears to be mimed by the characters in a stream of consciousness loop, this work is entirely unnerving—the vignettes appear to be woven into an elaborate reality, functioning on a plane between the real and allegory.

From blurred realms between performance and the everyday to narratives of fantasy juxtaposed against a backdrop of strange biomorphic hospital interiors, Saskia Olde Wolbers work Interloper (2003) continued the exhibition’s exploration of internal psychological states. Here Wolbers appropriates a narrative which details a doomed relationship between a doctor and a mistress. It is a tale that is haunting and ultimately about lust for someone against one’s better judgement, as the protagonist spirals further and further out of control. This tale—told by a hypnotic and mesmeric voice—is overlayed against imagery of a sterile white hospital. The interior landscape appears to melt away into the ether, no longer resembling the sterile lifeless spaces that we are accustomed to. It is a beguiling backdrop, as glossy white blobs float from hard surfaces, morphing into something new and entirely different. These surreal landscapes invite the viewer to peer into their own private worlds, questioning and interrogating the reality that surrounds them.

Fantastical landscapes also featured prominently in Mel O’Callaghan’s work To the End (2007), though this time on an immense scale. Windswept, desolate and harsh, the landscape is situated front and centre in this work as it dwarfs and eventually consumes the lonely male protagonist. Employing filmic techniques to illustrate his futile struggle to find identity in an exiled world, there is a sense of hopelessness that pervades this video. Appearing as a spaceman in a barren landscape, O’Callaghan’s lonely explorer perilously teeters on the edge of being engulfed by the world that surrounds him—in one sequence he literally sinks into a bubbling bog—which can be read as a metaphor of nature’s tendency to both provide and take away life. Exploring human will and its unwavering search for meaning, O’Callaghan’s work is as much about the articulation of profound loss as it is a visual record of the poetics of place.

More human in scale but nevertheless extending thematically on notions of loss, premonitions of failure and distress, Bas Jan Ader’s work I’m too sad to tell you (1971) adopts a first person perspective, displaying the artist’s own emotional journeys. In this work—which engendered a more intimate and personal experience for the viewer—Ader appears emotionally vulnerable as he becomes resigned to the anguish he faces. It is a sadness that emanates slowly from within, an internal grief that we can empathise with as he cries. As Cindy Loehr argued—when reviewing a retrospective of Ader’s work held at the UCR Sweeney Art Gallery in California—he remained aware of his ultimate inability to express the sadness he found in the sublime. This failure, which may have deterred him, instead became the focus of his work.¹

Dying in Spite of the Miraculous was an exhibition which beautifully navigated the grey spaces between the illusory and reality, between existence and the metaphysical, as well as exploring the various psychological states that accompany loss and hopelessness. It also featured Joachim Koester’s work Morning of the Magicians (2006) which displayed garden imagery in black and white silhouettes slowly morphing into a hallucinatory enveloping darkness, and Jeremy Blake’s painterly digital animations which explored Sarah Winchester’s gothic mansion ingeniously renovated to ward off the spirits of the people that were killed by Winchester firearms. The exhibition successfully brought to the surface the multitude of internal moments that are repressed in the human condition. As I stepped back onto the footpath on Gertrude Street, my surroundings seemed to melt away into the ether as I became preoccupied with thoughts of my own existence—a moment of internal retrospection sparked by this profound exhibition. 

notes: 

1. Cindy Loehr, ‘Bas Jan Ader’, New Art Examiner, vol 27, no.6, March 2000.