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‘All you could do with words’, declares a character in The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel about art, ideology and violence, ‘was turn them on their sides like furniture during a bombardment’. Here we see in literature what is already a distinct sensibility in contemporary art—the entrancing glamour of direct political action processed at a certain cool aesthetic distance.
Like the novelist, Melbourne artist Marco Fusinato came of age during the incendiary climate of 1970s social liberation struggles. And like the novel, his practice thematises this contemporary fascination with prior historical radicalism. As in the novel, revolutionary struggles function as a repository of creative source material: surveyed as rhetoric, radical activity is broken into systems of representation, as units to be reassembled, re-interpreted, redeployed. The result of this ‘turning things on their side’ is an aesthetic characterised by its highly cultivated ambivalence.
This is the logic behind Fusinato’s solo show, The Colour of the Sky Has Melted. The ‘Years of Lead’—that incendiary period of Italian political history animating Kushner’s book—is also at the heart of Fusinato’s Double Infinitives (2009). A series of large-scale panels emblazoned with images of anonymous protesters in precipitous action shots, Double Infinitives’ currency is the riot punctum: the body captured in the moment of imminent violence. The shirtless torso uncoiling like a spring to hurl a brick. The hands rising in triumphal salute amidst the haze and chaos of fleeing bodies and burning rubble. The bandanna’d face grimacing against the rolling onset of police tear gas. Armed insurrection and primal property violence: propaganda by the deed, depicted in the moment the deed is done. Though these are images from different struggles, different lifeworlds, they are made to equate: all harvested from the ceaseless flow of media imagery, stripped of unique identifiers, and processed into a uniformed product. Here is Lyotard’s ‘great central Zero’, with its ‘desire to immobilise bodies that can only ever “be” as representation’. To compound the reduction of political activism to a set of signs, they are rendered in the half-tone dots metonymic of print media. Here, specificity is exchanged for a trope: the Demonstrator. But demonstrating what? In this work, the urgency and commitment of the frontline is equated with the machine of media power with which grassroots protest remains uneasily co-dependent. ‘Being’ as representation is core business, as it turns out, for the protester, the media and the artist alike. Fusinato’s skill is in the proposition of this equivalence.
This same studied ambivalence characterises THIS IS NOT MY WORLD (design: Joseph Churchward) (2012), a banner originally created by Zeljko Jerman, member of the 1970s Croatian political artist collective Group of Six. Fusinato offered the original work to international graphic design luminaries for ‘reinterpretation’; the result stands as both an example and a deconstruction of the operation of commodity logic. These works show just how simple it is for something that was once so meaningful and historically specific to become the complete opposite: more or less arbitrarily Photoshopped into a new life as a piece of contemporary design.
A similar point is in play in the series Noise & Capitalism (2010), in which Fusinato re-presents a collection of fashionable late 20th century insurrectionist literature, including works by the enigmatic French philosophical collective Tiqqun. Here, the reduction of the radical to a design object is even more pronounced: reproduced in the pamphlet format of the radical press, but frequently overprinted, the writings are effectively illegible. Noise & Capitalism, like Double Infinitives, exemplarises the recuperation of spectacle by capital—it is easy to imagine the shirtless rock-thrower or decorative pamphlets gracing boardroom walls or in an ad campaign aimed at 99%-ers. However, in the case of Noise & Capitalism, Fusinato’s transformation of these verbose and frequently obscurantist critical tracts into images also makes a point about the density and unreadability of (philosophically) radical chic. Interestingly, it is his act of literalising obscurity that comes closest of all the works in the show to actually taking a position.
Defacement practices resurface in Mass Black Implosion (2007-), an ongoing series in which Fusinato reworks scores by avant-garde composers like Iannis Xenakis and John Cage, adding sprays of radiating black lines. As commentary, they signal a gesture by contemporary experimental musicians, like Fusinato, to throw off the dead hand of serialism and the strictures of the (imagined) centre of avant-garde canon. As graffiti, these become a new work; propositions for even more radical musical performances.
Fusinato’s treatment of radical ‘legacy brands’ as source material is consistent: certain aspects of the original power persist, while others are negatable, co-optable. Which aspects these are is indeterminate, of course—this is ambiguity carefully managed with a distinctive lightness, even wryness, alive to the perils of overt deliberation or earnest parrhesia. As an artist whose work is all about politics, Fusinato’s studied apoliticism comes across as chameleonic, but not capricious. For the commitment to ambivalence is in itself a kind of sincerity; given, as Žižek has said, ‘uncertainty is the only emotion that does not deceive’. Ambivalence does not foreclose, as it is a state of potential; thus the work becomes about the possibility of taking a position with regard to a problem.
This sense of potential is strongest in the centrepiece work of the show, Aetheric Plexus (2009), a sensor-activated installation consisting of a metal rig delivering 13,000 watts of white light and 105 decibels of white noise. Triggered by the movements of the gallery-goer, it has a tendency to invite simplistic generalisations about work that ‘requires’ the viewer’s participation. However, the work’s real power lies in the Artaudian density of the wall of white noise that assaults the spectator of this work. For every argument about noise music’s ‘revolutionary’ power is an uncomfortable alternative reading, a comparison rooted in the phenomenological experience of this kind of work with totalitarianism’s enforced bodily submission of the subject. And yet, as fans and newcomers instinctively know, noise music’s critique is (necessarily) coded in a deliberate language of ambiguity which circumvents certainty for an ongoing disclosure of radical possibilities on (or for) either side of politics. Fusinato harnesses this uncertainty in Aetheric Plexus: this is the art of continual deferral. And so ultimately, the message of The Colour of the Sky Has Melted is that this is art that is committed to being non-committed; as in the conclusion of The Flamethrowers, ‘The answer is not coming. I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, and tear myself away. Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question’.
Marco Fusinato, Aetheric Plexus, 2009. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.
Marco Fusinato, The Color of the Sky Has Melted, 2012. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.
Marco Fusinato, Double Infinitive 4, 2009. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.
Marco Fusinato, Double Infinitive 3, 2009. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Colour of the Sky Has Melted was curated by Charlotte Day, a joint project between the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane and Artspace, Sydney, with support from Besen Family Foundation. Marco Fusinato is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney.