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Terence Maloon, Director of the ANU (Australian National University) Drill Hall Gallery, joked that they could have made Incommensurable: Photomedia in the era of globalisation a satellite event of the Sydney Biennale that had recently opened down the Hume Highway. What he meant was that the works in this exhibition were similarly contemporary, on the same wave length as the international art offerings of a Biennale and covering similar ground. But in this he may have sold himself short.
Incommensurable was actually better imagined than many an international art show that is overdrawn on buzz words and fashion-consciousness. Incommensurable was that rare thing; an exhibition where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
Some of the strongest commentary about the global era is being pursued currently, beyond journalism and academic discourse, in image-based art forms. International art has the power to open up to us the contradictions and trauma of different lives lived globally in the glare of media and social media. In many ways, artists are more capable than they ever were of ‘making statements’. And yet, the financialising of international art, and the creating of art-experiences as tourism, also compromises this.
For a small gallery, Drill Hall was punching above its weight, with stirring photomedia from artists Merilyn Fairskye, Anne Zahalka, Nick Danziger, Ciara O’Brien, David Stephenson and Martin Walch. Remarkably different images, they colluded to provide reflection on the moral force of image-making in the global era and to do so by mobilising the aesthetics of photomedia. It was admirable curation.
For example, the juxtaposition of several of David Stephenson’s large-format photographs from his series Light Cities, of global cities at night, addressed both the more studied moments of Anne Zahalka’s Leisureland Star Casino images and Nick Danziger’s claustrophobic black and white photo-realism of poverty in the third world.
Meanwhile, Merilyn Fairskye’s Radiant, video installations of natural settings disfigured by nuclear sites, amplified the deceptively placid landscapes of David Stephenson and Martin Walch’s collaborative Watershed (also video installations). The images talked among themselves, producing strange commentary on the power of the lens to capture not just the realist forms but the histories and portent of their settings.
Several characteristics of photomedia were recruited in this exhibition—the drama of large-format work, the beauty of colour and light and the power of framing scenes.
At the entrance to the gallery, Ciara O’Brien’s billboard-sized image of life jackets discarded on a Mediterranean beach testify to the lives lost and changed under the weight of global ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. The bright colour belies the sinister rendering of a humanitarian crisis, as seen on high-rotation on CNN and Al-Jazeera.
In Zahalka’s Imax Cinema (1999), spectator-consumers watch the screen that projects giant images of a profoundly foreign place, Egypt. The image shows them immersed in their sensations of it from the safety of a first-world leisure location. Open Air Cinema takes up the same idea from a different perspective as viewers watch an enormous blank screen on the edge of the harbour against the backdrop of Sydney icons. The framing suggests the temptation for viewers of media to project the desires of ‘the technological sublime’ onto fetish objects like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
Star City Casino (after Breughel) (1998) portrays a frenzy of desires in a blurred cacophony of detail—a grotesquerie worthy of Breughel, Zahalka suggests, in a market that is driven by barely-controlled speed and avarice. In the background we see the banks of pokies, onto which punters project their great gamble of free money—a gamble they eventually lose. In Star City Casino (1998) a sadder rendition is offered, in which the aesthetic of carnival is engaged in the figure of an uncanny employee-as-clown figure pushing a catering trolley. The froth of bubbles disguises an industrial ceiling, and fantasy tree-pillars support the pavilion of pokies. A solitary figure on the right embodies the loneliness of this world of commodified desire, manufactured hope and final disillusionment.
The images of Zahalka’s Leisureland are framed by the faux glamour of high-end capitalism and David Stephenson’s Light Cities images are similarly lit by ‘a veritable fairyland of megawattage’. As emergent global cities—‘spectacular islands of wealth and privilege’—the skylines of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Melbourne shimmer with artificial light, betraying a superficial beauty that hides the environmental cost of globalisation.
Merilyn Fairskye also counts this cost in the portrayal of nuclear power stations and test sites set in the natural environment—beautiful images of pasture and the local beauty of coastal places—birds thrown into wide skies and clouds; cows grazing beside unassuming rural houses; pebbled beaches, all juxtaposed with industrial concrete bunker-like power stations and barbed wire that encircle them in a half-hearted manner. But archival images, and the disturbing soundtrack of emergency drills, clash with the apparent serenity of the visuals.
This is a kind of commentary, the photo-journalist at work showing the world of global capital in its oppressive weight on the environment, as figured in the frail beauty of seabirds’ flight, grasses, sky and sea. Likewise, in Stephenson and Walch’s Derwent River Project the soundtrack of logging trucks interrupts birdsong while we gaze at tranquil river stills.
At last, in Zahalka’s Derrida Lecture (1999), the spectacle is extended to theory itself, to critique becoming a consumer event in the televised appearance of a philosophical celebrity. The theatrical-plush interior of the Sydney Town Hall expands the ambition of a postmodern moment, where cynicism is as much courted as it is diagnosed. And yet. It is Derrida in Spectres of Marx (2006) who tracks the uncanny trajectory of capital that has given a particular cast to the global era, when he writes of the ‘new tele-techno-media conditions of public space, of political life, of democracy’.1
So does Incommensurable bear witness to ‘how much the world is out of joint’? It dramatises, in the language of spectacle which is its native tongue, the ‘incredible disparities in the circumstances and conditions of different parts of society and different parts of the world, in people’s lived experience and what they can possibly hope for’.2
Anne Zahalka, Star City Casino (Oasis), 1998. Type C print, 115 x 145cm. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery, Melbourne.
Merilyn Fairskye, On the Beach (north-east view, Dungeness Power Station B, Kent U.K.), 2015. Pigment print, 92 x 275cm. Courtesy the artist.
Nick Danziger, Abbas, 15, Niger, 2005. Detail. Archival print, 50 x 40cm. © Nick Danziger / *nb pictures.
Ciara O'Brien, Lifejacket Graveyard, 2016. Detail. Inkjet mural print on phototex, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
1. J. Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf, Routledge Classics New York & London 2006, p.127.
2. Terence Maloon, Catalogue essay in Incommensurable: photomedia in the era of globalisation, ANU Drill Hall Gallery Publishing, p.21.