xero art

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

we get it.

while the gallery remains similarly empty of objects, the contrast between barbara kruger's show and ACCA's previous headline show, martin creed's the lights off, could hardly be more striking. while the minimalist darkness of creed's piece might be seen to recapitulate the gloom of a london winter, kruger's work is a visual and (and aural) taste of new york's brash public advertising and opinionated conversations.

kruger's show consists of five rooms. the first two have scrolling text projected onto the floor. the next has a list of "products" stuck to one wall. the fourth is the exhibition's centrepiece, with text on all four walls and the floor, and the final room houses 'twelve', a video piece of conversations projected simultaneously onto all four walls.

in the final two rooms especially, the viewer is dwarfed and overwhelmed by the work. she has taken the scale of billboards and cinema screens, and put them in the same room as you. while in both cases it is technically and stylistically interesting, the resulting experience is not especially pleasant.

while creed's darkness (if we credit it with artistic authenticity) was something primal, kruger's verbal onslaught is a strikingly modern voice, the voice of new york, the voice of public advertisisng (it is no coincidence that we have seen her work on billboards). to me, it is the voice of talks-too-much, the voice of tv. the only excuse, surely, for using such an already-overused and strident voice is if you have something strikingly original to say.

while at the time, in the early 80s, getting such an ironic and subversive message through this familiar medium was certainly novel, the tune has pretty much stayed the same, and is now starting to feel tired. perhaps it is a testament to her success in the intervening decades that this technique, of presenting a message that is basically anti-capitalist in the mode of capitalism (advertising), has become an artistic commonplace.

kruger certainly does not seem gently witty the way creed does. hers is an art that is shouting to be heard through the noise. as one of the characters in 'twelve' says "life is noisy, it's quiet when you die". in the time since she found her noisy voice however, contemporary art has found it doesn't need to shout, but kruger seems not to have heard. is it any wonder?

Friday, December 16, 2005


"Xero: one" is an exhibition of six contemporary paintings, executed in 2005 and 2006. Stylistically the works owe a debt to geometric abstraction and minimalism. Indeed, at first glance many of them appear simply to be geometric abstract paintings, concerned primarily with line, form and colour. This appearance is not nearly the whole story, however. While the works do work on a minimal aesthetic level, the level on which they are most active is a conceptual one.

“Farewell Mother” is in the shape of an old rounded TV screen. Its friendly lozenge shape is a comforting form from the recent past. Its rounded red green and blue forms initially seem to be geometric abstraction, but of course they are actually the mosaic form of the cathode ray tube magnified. In this, the work evokes not only the technology through which our culture has so powerfully been presented to us for the past 50 years, but also the cyclopic corporate vision that has shaped this presentation. As the work's title attests, both the technology and its pervasive corporate vision will soon seem like historical artifacts. But is the work celebrating or mourning this passing?

A similar stylistic device is employed in the series entitled "Ecce Homo". The title is derived from the history of Christian religious painting and indeed the work reminds us both of centuries of painted crucifixions and of stained-glass windows. And while again it colourful rounded squares suggest geometric abstraction, its form obviously derives from a Rubik's cube. While clearly alluding to the history of religious painting, it is actually concerned with the compartmentalisation of knowledge by the traditions of science and reason, suggesting that these things trap and dissect the natural world like a frog in a biology class.

At the opposite end of the room, on the south-facing wall is "Ghosts in the Machine", a series of text-based paintings. Each of the twelve paintings has a nine-digit number and a plaintive personal phrase, such as "When will I ever figure out what lifes all about?" or "I could have done better". The viewer might wonder what force has separated each of these voices into singular paintings and assigned them a nine digit number. The force that has done this is in fact the internet, the phrases and numbers are excerpted from a site which anonymously publishes its users confessions. Like "Ecce Homo", it is about fragmentation and compartmentalisation. How is it that this technology which brings us together also holds us apart?

At an imposing 120 x 240cm, the largest of the works, "Map of the Human Heart" is also text-based. It soon becomes obvious that the title is a darkly cynical joke. On the painting's weathered-looking surface are the names of 200 or so sexual fetishes, inked in an antique font. While it has the appearance of an antique atlas, gone are the usual apparatus associated with maps, such as a title, legend, or even distinguishable topography. Is this a rudimentary map of a territory yet to be fully explored, or is it the remains of a romanticism rendered barren by postmodern existentialism?

The painting, "5", is in the familiar form of the Ishihara colourblindness test but is rendered entirely in shades of grey. While alluded to in the title, the usual information the test might include in its scattering of dots is not apparent visually. Are we missing something? We are confronted with the appearance of a colourblindness test as a truly colourblind person might see it, reduced to complete abstraction. The work poses questions about vision and perception, artistic representation, and our classification by science and medicine.

The final work, "Games People Play", takes the form of a Twister board, presented on two separate canvases. While this clearly alludes to duplications, something of a motif in modern and contemporary art, it is really a vision halved, rather than doubled. By the parlour game being removed from the floor to the wall, and being divided in two, we are presented with a stark and alienated vision of relationships in the modern world, albeit in a friendly and childlike form. It suggests that perhaps it is our individual struggles that prevent us from properly connecting with each other.

press release

The most prominent artistic application of scalpels in Melbourne's recent artistic history has been in the creation of the stencils that sprung up on the walls of city streets over the last few years. But Ash Keating has been slicing and dicing more than even the most determined stencilist in his creation of a series of works based on the mX newspaper.

Every weekday its publishers foist 100,000 copies on the commuting public of Melbourne, who seem to avidly consume its tabloid fare as an alternative to meeting the gaze of their fellow travellers. On August 23, 2005, Ash Keating appropriated 6,500 of those 100,000 copies. In the months that followed he and his scalpel painstakingly cut around the outline of a bird that was printed on one of the paper's pages in each of those 6,500 copies.

Press Release is the outcome of this process, an installation at the Diane Tanzer Gallery in Fitzroy. Its centrepiece is the stack of cut paper, 53cm high and encased in a perspex box. The counterpoint of this is the pile of pages from which this tower of paper was cut, similarly encased in perspex, but now 'stacked' horizontally so that the excisions form a bird-shaped tunnel the viewer is driven to look through.

Framing these artifacts are a few others. Three televisions are set into a wall of newspapers, each of which displays video footage of some part of the process. The first shows the artist de-collating, repeatedly removing the specific page from the newspaper. The second, in time lapse shows him cutting the gannet from the stack of pages. And the third shows him throwing the birds into the air of the gallery space, the logical and emotional outcome of months of painstaking work.

Attached to the walls are two other perspex boxes. One small and holding a stack of paper similar to the central stack of excised gannets - a stack of one thousand butterflies. On the opposite wall is a much larger box containing a stuffed specimen of an adult gannet, on loan from the Melbourne Museum and complete with identifying tag hanging from its ankle.

This work is about the tensions between nature and culture, between experience and representation. While even traditional portraiture and landscape represent absent presences, this work is more determined to point at those absences.

The experience of art is one we might usually imagine as more rarified and valuable than the mere consumption of media. We come to a gallery to get something we cannot get from TV or the newspaper. yet here we again find ourself watching TV and reading a newspaper. The closest we come to a sensory experience of the world outside is the dead bird in the box, whose blue glass eyes accuse us of having lost touch with the real world. Indeed, we seem to be at the stage of wondering if there ever was such a thing.

The stack of newspapers and televisions which forms the back wall of the installation is, as the artist points out, an intimidating presence, which visually threatens to collapse upon the viewer. Of course this is a representation of the overwhelming ubiquity of corporate mediation in comprising our popular understanding of the world. The back of the page from which the birds were cut features an article on Hollywood's seedy history of sex-scandals and murder, with the headline "To-die-for Tinseltown" and the mugshots of Hugh Grant and Divine Brown. What force, we might wonder, is capable of freeing us from this oppression, what scalpel is capable of cutting through this suffocating web?

Ironically enough, the answer seems to flicker on the screens of those very TVs. There the artist sits, taking pages from the stack one at a time, and carefully cutting from it the picture of a bird, before finally throwing them into the air. While most art seeks to obfuscate the deranged and obsessive behaviour required to bring it about, here it is writ large. The intensely manual artistic process central to the work seems a singular response to the insane philosophical situation. Art, this work seems to saying, is the force that will free us. Or at least, it is our only hope.

Compare the two representations of the clifftop flight of the gannets we are presented with. One, the photograph and story on the page of the mX, the other, this image on the third screen, the artist slowly throwing the paper birds in the air, and watching them float to the floor. The work points to the former mode of expression as crass, populist and tragically ubiquitous. The image on the third screen is its alternative, a glimpse into another world. A dream, which though only vaguely understood, bursts with emotional resonance and drips with meaning.

Of course Press Release functions on a number of other levels: the tension between the minimal aesthetic of the clear perspex boxes and their contents, the 'theft' of the free newspapers as mischievous social protest, the environmental connection between mountains of paper waste and the threatened status of the gannet. But fundamentally, it is on this metaphysical level that the work is most active. Indeed is it positively trembling, with rage at the insane sickness of society, and fervent hope and burning faith that art might be its panacea.

the lights off

The most delightful thing about Martin Creed's 'The Light's Off' is its ambiguity. Is it merely a simple installation? Is it a deliberate courting of controversy? Is it an intentionally scathing critique of the state of contemporary art, or merely a sad reflection of its intellectual bankruptcy? Is it a moving representation of deep philosophical and spiritual issues? Or is it a cynical con?

The first thing that everyone will notice about the work is the idea. Few people will encounter the work who have not first encountered the idea of the work, namely that it consists of three rooms in a gallery left empty and unlit. While the same might be said of any remotely famous work of art, that its reputation will precede its direct experience, the idea of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is much less important to it as a work of art than the idea is to 'The Lights Off'. While it would have been delightful to have encountered it without expectations, it seems an unlikely prospect.

Whether one is passionately engaged with, or overtly hostile to, the contemporary exaltation of concept over skill in art, this work is the icon of that trend. For those who think that their young niece could easily reproduce the work of Picasso or Rothko, it stands as a final proof of the abject degeneracy of modern art. For those of us who are looking for something to think about, it provides equally plentiful ammunition. That the artist refrained from offering any further interpretive cues gives wide range to our meanderings.

We might see in it an indictment of the state of contemporary art, overly commodified and devoid of content. Or we might understand it as a cheeky publicity stunt on the part of an artist whose art consists of courting controversy.

Mostly these are reactions to the idea itself. And while the idea is of course a large part of this work, it is not the whole. My reaction to the work itself was quite different from my reaction to the idea. I thought the idea was interesting and clever, but maybe a bit too clever. It seemed unsubtle and smart-arsey. But encountering the work transformed my response.

It's not just a dark room. It's three rooms, each further from the gallery's main source of light, which at the moment is ambient daylight filtering in through the glass front doors from the street. The first room is dimly lit, the second even more so, and the third is dark, save for the pale remains of light that have filtered through those two rooms, and a lit green sign marking an emergency exit.

Because it is day time, because we are so used to experiencing public buildings, and especially art galleries, as brilliantly lit, and because we have come here to see 'The Lights Off', we are made much more aware of the darkness than we would otherwise be. We do not experience it as the natural absence that it ordinarily is, but rather as an active presence, a thing in itself. Experiencing it in this way, as having been put there, made the work seem an expertly crafted installation, rather than just a smart-alecky idea.

As we went through the rooms, we necessarily became less able to see. The world that we live in now is highly visual, and almost always well lit. Obvious exceptions are nightclubs and churches. This work shows us that just as in those examples, a purposefully constructed darkness necessarily has a powerful psychological, emotional, even spiritual effect. While not especially reminiscent of a nightclub, proceeding through the increasingly dark spaces, and looking back out to the source of the light, necessarily reminded me of a cave or a crypt, inviting reflections on death and rebirth as surely as any cathedral.

For me it also invited further reflection on the western histories of negative theology and its solipsistic inverse, existentialism. The question of how best to express an absence is of central importance to both contemporary philosophy and religious history. And yet i am soon roused from such reveries by the knowledge that all the artist has done is switch the lights off.

That in doing so he has invited these and many more responses is surely a masterstroke. Overriding all of these responses is this, the work's whimsy and wit. The artist of course knows it will be read in terms of philosophy and religion, and also as talentless pretense. To have created such a work in the face of this knowledge surely requires a smirk and a sparkle in the eye that few of us could muster. For me, it is this cheekiness and sense of fun that elevates it beyond merely being a remarkable and moving work, to one of historical importance.