We Used To Talk About Love

Balnaves Contemporary Photomedia
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
31 January - 21 April 2013

We Used To Talk About Love saw the Contemporary Galleries of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) reconfigured by Jan van Schaik, from Minifie van Schaik Architects, in collaboration with the exhibition’s curator, Natasha Bullock. Reorganised into a labyrinthine passage of interconnecting rooms, this architectural intervention worked to choreograph the audience’s movements, quietly guiding visitors from one artist’s work to the next, from start to finish. Intimate spaces opened up onto expansive vistas, then twisted back round into angular passageways that ebbed and flowed in scale and sympathy with each of the selected works. Complementing this constructed progression was a narrative that was articulated through titled zones that created poetic, affective clusters—‘To begin with the flesh’, ‘Expressive abstractions’, ‘An archive of feeling’ and ‘Filthy, crushing, ending’. Together the architecture and chapters heightened the sense of the audience’s body in relation to the space, arousing feeling in the movement through it. It was a well thought out detail that set the scene, especially considering that ‘emotion’ was on the agenda, and as Bullock suggested in her catalogue essay, ‘love is enacted, even performed’.1

As the second iteration of the biennial Balnaves Contemporary, We Used To Talk About Love continued the series’ aim to provide young and mid-career Australian artists with the opportunity to present recent works in a major Australian gallery. Featuring Polly Borland, Paul Knight, Angelica Mesiti, Darren Sylvester, David Rosetzsky, Eliza Hutchison, David Noonan, Justene Williams, Glenn Sloggett, Grant Stevens and Tim Silver (listed in their order of appearance within the exhibition), We Used To Talk About Love did this without stretching itself too far. Nearly all of the selected artists had either exhibited at the AGNSW or at an equivalent institution in Australia or overseas before, and many of the works selected were their most seminal or recognisable—Angelica Mesiti’s Blake Prize winning Rapture (silent anthem) (2009), Darren Sylvester’s photograph Let hopes and dreams be things we can achieve (2005) and Tim Silver’s reprisal of the figure Rory—albeit in adult form—in his sculpture, Untitled (Rory grown up…) (2012–13).

This was not necessarily a bad thing, particularly considering the breadth and diversity of the AGNSW’s audience. Instead the selection exemplified clear curatorial deliberation and set it apart from similar recurring exhibitions that favour new work commissions or act as artist’s ‘debutante’ moment. This was also represented in the title’s use of the collective ‘we’ and past tense ‘used to’, which framed the exhibition as being reflective and generational in scope, alongside the artists’ unifying engagement with photomedia in its various guises. However these aspects of the exhibition remained more of a subtext, with the later half of the title ‘love’ being presented as the most articulated and didactic concern in the exhibition’s captioning. This made me wonder why the exhibition was so shy to lay claim to the particular history informing it? I also wondered if this would have provided a clearer framework by elaborating the reasoning behind the otherwise narrow and linear viewpoint on love that the exhibition offered, and the benefit of such to the artists involved?

Despite this, many of the works selected and their arrangement rewarded viewers, if they gave them time. The placement of Polly Borland’s playfully fashioned figures near Paul Knight’s sensitive photos of couples in the midst of sex, offered alternate depictions of bodily desire. Likewise Eliza Hutchison’s and David Noonan’s respective series of images drawn from archives sprawled across the galleries walls, expressed the associative power of the image through their different approaches to collage. In many ways David Rosetzky’s feature length How to Feel (2012), formed a conceptual backbone to the exhibition. Positioned roughly in the exhibition’s centre and at an hour long, the video directly engaged with the slippages and tensions between feelings as they are felt and the language used to represent them, through purposefully self-conscious performances interspersed with dance choreography. On the other hand the least expected choice in the exhibition was Justene Williams. Her rambunctious, embodied videos and installation provided a clear counterpoint to the other works that were mostly contained within the rectangular frame of the image and subdued in tone. However even the usual chaos of her work appeared surprisingly manicured and subdued in this context, with her performance on opening night comprising a person, all in white, asleep in the space.

While the attention to detail and care taken in the exhibition’s construction was more than apparent, the experience of it left me wanting. On this front Bullock’s essay in the catalogue went some way to provide greater depth and satisfaction. By referring to Roland Barthes’ Camera lucida: reflections on photography (1980) and Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ (1981), as well as raising for discussion contemporary shifts in photographic practice—particularly the proliferation of images and the meaning of such for artists working contemporarily—fuller expression was given to ideas in the exhibition. By favouring the experiential and a ‘universal narrative’ over the social, historical and cultural references informing the artists and their works, in the end We Used To Talk About Love, while immersive and affective, seemed to be slightly lost ‘in all of its expressive emotional ambivalence’.2

Paul Knight, Untitled, 2012. From the series Intimate couples 2008-12. Folded type C photograph, 83 x 92cm. Edition 1/3. Courtesy and © the artist. 

Polly Borland, Untitled XXXII, 2010. From Smudge. Chromogenic print, 76 x 65cm. Courtesy the artist and Murray White Rooms, Melbourne. © The artist. 

David Rosetzky, How to feel, 2011. Still. High-definition video, colour, sound, 148:39min. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. © The artist. 

notes: 

1. Natasha Bullock, ‘We used to talk about love – and photography’, in We used to talk about love, ex. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2013, p.9.

2. Ibid, p.35.