let the healing begin

institute of modern art, brisbane
5 March - 30 April 2011

The title ‘Let the Healing Begin’ sounds like the sort of thing that might come out of the mouth of a Moses character in a Mel Brooks film. Starting from this mock decree, the exhibition featured artists who, according to the rationale, endorsed, satirised or remained ‘undecided’ about the role of therapy in art. In reality, it communicated bemusement at the idea of art as therapy and scepticism concerning the capacity of contemporary art to deal with emotional depth.

Guided by a bold and idiosyncratic curatorial approach, the exhibition walked a line between provocation and denouncement—something that the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) has done before with the polarising ‘Feminism Never Happened’ (2010). In this instance, ‘Let the Healing Begin’ challenged the boundary between the bleeding heart type of art lover and those for whom art is a way to express anguish or social injustice. However, despite the stated ambition to mix the sincere and the insincere, sincerity was not a prominent concern. Exemplifying this, Australian indigenous artists—for whom the subject of healing in art is paramount—were conspicuously missing. Perhaps the inclusion of indigenous reflections on social injustice would have drawn out a political seriousness that went against the exhibition’s mischievous intentions. As a result of this, curatorial restrictions dominated and foregrounded absurdist and light-hearted characteristics in many of the works.

The curatorial rationale was purportedly inspired by the practice of Stuart Ringholt whose previous performance piece Anger Workshops (2008) revitalised the therapeutic benefits of art in a very non-Beuysian way. His performative component for this exhibition was a naked artist talk that he delivered to those who also had to be naked to attend. It prompted conceptual artists all over Australia to ask themselves ‘why didn’t I think of that?’, and would have provided a very weird but liberating experience to the fifteen or so people in attendance. Whereas Ringholt’s inclusion was clearly justified, adjacent to his photographic works were the paintings of Peter Tyndall, whose inclusion was somewhat baffling. This was not because his paintings were weak but because their juxtaposition to Ringholt and other therapeutically minded artists radically disrupted engagement. Tyndall’s practice appeared to be reduced to healing ideals on the basis of a perceived sentimentalism rather than an actual artistic preoccupation.

One of the most compelling pieces in the exhibition was provided by Matt Mullican. As with many of his performances, it involved the staging and filming of himself under hypnosis in order to draw out the relationship between sign and expression; exploring the complex mess that underlies the notion of fundamental expression in art. However, the work’s location near the reception desk in the middle of the IMA bookshelves was distracting and without the metonymical implications that I had expected from such an unusual placement. A more successful installation was formed by the works of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Mike Kelley and Ronnie van Hout in gallery one. This arrangement was visually compelling yet I could not help but wonder if van Hout’s Bananaman (2005) and Kelley’s The Greatest Tragedy of President Clinton’s Administration (1999) served merely to dampen Abramovic’s pathos—an aspect that was repeated in varying degrees throughout the exhibition.

Zock Exercises (1967), by the Austrian artist Otto Muehl, was situated between a work by Julian Dashper and Polly Borland’s fashion-infused photographs in gallery two. Particularly in Europe, the mere decision to exhibit Muehl incites debate concerning the moral obligations of curators. As a convicted paedophile whose anarchic and misogynistic outlook fed his art practice, his work now raises the question of how curators bridge artistic concerns with broader moral or social values. In the context of this exhibition, Zock Exercises resembled a kitschy film from the vault of a collector of cultural rarities. Although his practice was theoretically well-suited to the theme, the flippancy with which other works related to the healing thematic turned it into a relatively exoticised provocation. When juxtaposed with more incongruous works by Rose Nolan, Dashper, Tyndall and Borland, the curatorial rationale became largely irrelevant and rendered the works which better suited it into quasi-lurid eccentricities. As well as Muehl’s and Mullican’s work, this also played out in the videos of Mike Parr, Dani Marti and Gillian Wearing.

Perhaps a more accurate thematic basis of ‘Let the Healing Begin’ was the parody of confessional art. This was communicated explicitly within certain works and was generated via juxtaposition and spatial arrangement in others that were earnest but safe enough to caricature. Whilst this in itself is a highly creative curatorial approach, it was too polemical to produce sustained engagement. Artists largely served to either neutralise or bolster the sincerity of others and, as a viewer, I found myself moving very quickly around the gallery, interacting with each artwork as a quirky symbol, rather than with an individual insight into the place of expression within conceptual or installation based practices.

Benefitting from its location in the separate Screening Room space of the IMA, Grant Stevens’s Crushing (2009) achieved what many of the works in the gallery proper could not. With a sentimental piano soundtrack and constantly moving words and phrases derived from an imagined relationship breakup, Stevens parodied deep emotion whilst revealing its universal grip. The video made me think of a bad advertisement for the Australian TV show The Secret Life of Us (2001-2005), fashioned by someone who is cynical of mainstream ideologies yet identifies so strongly with them.

In many ways, ‘Let the Healing Begin’ could have been an exhibition organised by Charles Saatchi in the early 1990s, particularly in its anti-intellectual undermining of a serious theme in order to display reverence for populist and immediate encounters with art. I was disappointed that the quirkiness and the restrictive interpretation of therapeutic aesthetics made my interactions centre on the organisation of the exhibition rather than the artists’ individual works. However, despite my misgivings, this was yet another ambitious project organised by the IMA which attempted to ignite debate. Whether inadvertent or not, its success lay in its capacity to generate reflection on the role of empathy in art and how far one should go to contemplate otherness. 

Marina Abramovic and Ulay, AAA-AAA, 1978. Performance. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.