Sceptical in deed

The sceptical image
Sydney College of the Arts Galleries
1-30 August 2014

There are so many openings for scepticism (if not cynicism) in the contemporary environment of art in the university that seeing it exhibited was bound to lead to fruitful reflection.

The exhibition, The Sceptical Image, accompanied The Image In Question conference held at Sydney College of the Arts, and was billed as integrating creative art research into the conference. The show was an interesting collation of new work by leading Australian theoretically-informed art practitioners, all of them associated as students or teachers with university art schools. 

Among the artists exhibiting were John Di Stefano, Merilyn Fairskye, Tanya Peterson and Ryszard Dabek. The conference led this integration with a video installation, ‘Madame B: Explorations in Emotional Capitalism’, by Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker. Professor Bal, from the University of Amsterdam, has a long-standing reputation as a theorist and was also the keynote speaker at the conference.

If an image can be said to be sceptical, it may be because of the established ‘theoretical fact’ of a double-take internal to it. It represents something that it is not, and which is no longer present. From this feature can be built a logic of paradox around the image, in which it is never what it seems, pulling in all manner of art-historical, political and philosophical scepticisms.

So, as the conference explored, ‘scepticism is part of the life of images’,1 and the explosion of photography, film and video means we now live in an image-saturated, image-proliferating world, challenging the traditional complacency that seeing is believing.

John Di Stefano’s Merge and Register were textbook renditions of the paradox. Register, a series of large photograms, utilises the fortuitous misalignments of data known as moirés, common residue of digital and print imagery when pixilation or banding misregisters, to produce cryptic abstractions. 

Merge, a video work, moves into greater and greater enlargement of an image, unveiling microscopic structures. As the abstract develops, indexality is preserved since it remains a photographic image. The artist finds that ‘this disruption is indeed the ground for scepticism’. 

Ryszard Dabek’s Phantom Bid makes the point vivaciously with a video setting of a catalogue of movie memorabilia from an auction by 20th Century Fox. ‘This is the chair that Tyrone Powell lent upon, this is the bottle from which Bogart’s shaking lips imbibed.’ Movie stills, studio promotional shots and catalogue images evoke the mytho-historical space of the Hollywood studio era, in the provenance of the actual object. But, as the artist writes, freed from the context of the catalogue, the images take on their own blank strangeness. Dabek is clearly informed by a concept of the uncanny, which has a developed theoretical provenance in academic debates over many decades.

And it is the uncanny look to the odd array of objects—toy bears on wheels, old cabinets, and scenes of actors in antique conviviality—that evokes the dislocation of these images from their context. This too is evidence of scepticism, and accounts for part of the visual delight. The sumptuousness of the era-made-strange is further proof. 

Merilyn Fairskye’s March, an atmospheric and menacing work, traces ‘faultlines between empire and ordinary people’, in sequences showing navy shipyards, Russian monuments and sound grabs from Russian and British television. The artist is intent on affective reactions in this work, ‘There is a deliberate sense of agitation in this video’. Sequences are partial and elliptical, but subtitles remind you that ‘on 19 March 2014, Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea to the Russian Federation’, and there is recurrent footage of a chained-up dog barking. The demonstration of meaning in the eye of the beholder is intensified by the insertion of a small video loop at one side, replaying a conversation held between rebels as they discover that Flight MH17 was a civilian plane. Scepticism of a political kind is the connection with the conference theme.

A stand-out series from artist/writer Tanya Peterson was Available Light, six large inkjet prints of the late afternoon light on a hot February day, when bushfires filled the sky with smoke. They were accompanied by a ruminative piece of writing that drew in star maps and the aerial images of the bushfires taken at the time from the International Space Station. ‘When I think about photography, I think about light’, she writes. This is ‘thinking’ about light that is more than academic thought, and that shows the concentration of ideas in the visual that can animate theory in a way unique to creative work. Theorists struggle to articulate the specificity of practice-led research but Petersen’s work seemed to meet one criterion suggested by Lelia Green: that it is ‘the only methodology available through which to pursue some research questions’.2

Other work in the show came from Anne Ferran, Cherine Fahd, Justin Trendall, Janelle Evans, Yanai Toister, Margaret Seymour and Stefan Popescu.

But now let’s suppose the whole thing to be an exhibition: the medium of a conference, the setting of the Sydney College of the Arts, the occasion of an international art theorist’s visit and keynote, the surroundings of the ‘Art and the Document’ research cluster as part of a university research self-description. Its place against the background of the research culture in higher education and the material base of salaried work in art, etcetera. 

What does it mean to ‘integrate’ creative art research? The curators, Merilyn Fairskye and Nicholas Tsoutas, note that the works exhibited respond to the theme of scepticism ‘within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’. Which seems to put the event squarely into the current necessity to make art a kind of research, as per the instrumental priorities that have taken the university from hallowed hall to export engine in a couple of decades.

As Andrew McNamara puts it, in his ‘Six rules for practice-led research’: ‘the integration of art schools into the university-led, tertiary education framework is still viewed with scepticism as a de facto process of institutional and educational homogenisation’.3

Does the scepticism of the context vitiate the supposed claim to creative engagement with the idea of the sceptical image? Or does it demonstrate it? The staging of such an event rarely reduces to its instrumental ends. The art works in the show stepped around the way dictates of research can flatten the artistic impulse, and they also avoided the inchworm effect of ‘measuring the marigolds’.

Do they stand for real engagement with the sceptical image in company with the more academic papers on the conference program? This is less sure, since the sceptical image was always a theoretical device invented for discursive purposes. The exhibition can respond to ‘the theme of scepticism within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’ only by accepting that the context for scepticism is critical inquiry. Creative arts research will be free of scepticism when it gets to define its own context for the (sceptical) image.

Installation view (partial) of The Sceptical Image at SCA Galleries featuring work by Tanya Peterson. Photograph Isobel Markus Dunsworth.

Merilyn Fairskye, MARCH, 2014. Two- channel HDV installation with stereo sound, duration 1 x 2.00 loop, 1 X 7:00.

Ryszard Dabek, Phantom Bid (lot Nmber 511), 2014. Pigment print on archival cotton rag paper mounted on alupanel, 80 x 72cm. 

notes: 

1. All quotes are from the conference abstracts published on ‘The Image In Question’ website at www.theimageinquestion.net/ unless otherwise noted.

2. Lelia Green, ‘Recognising practice-led research … at last!’ presented at Hatched 07 Arts Research Symposium available at www.pica.org.au/downloads/141/L_Green.pdf

3. Andrew McNamara, ‘Six rules for practice-led research’, Text, Special Issue ‘Beyond practice-led research’, 14 October 2012.