Friday, December 16, 2005

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.


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