Face Up

Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2003

Review in Broadsheet Vol 32 No 4 2003

In the time leading up to the opening of 'Face Up' here in Berlin, (where I have in the Australian studio since June on the VACF Künstlerhaus Bethanien residency), I had managed to take obscurely against this exhibition. Not in a big way, it wasn't as if the thought of it was ruining my morning coffee nor was it interrupting my sleep with angst: nothing so considered or energetic as that, rather it existed more as a niggle, a feeling of mild exasperation or exhaustion, as when presented with the possibility of an embarrassment. I was aware of it because I was writing a text for the catalogue - for James Angus, so I declare an interest here. Of course, this prophylactic ennui is pretty much a default response to large exhibitions like this; 'For heaven's sake' an inner voice mutters louchely - 'a large exhibition in the Hamburger Bahnhof of Contemporary Australian Art…. well, Isn't it certain to be at the very least a bit embarrassing ...Uncool?... and after all, aren't nationally determined manifestations in international contexts a tad problematised and redundant and to be resisted... Doesn’t the exhibition become reduced to a pointless movement in the complex courtship dances of trade and attempted national definition/projection? And this fastidious voice does have a point. On a more personal, anxious, level, there was a concern that the thing might seem rather gauche and naive, like your parents or family turning up at your school on open-day and behaving in some obscurely mortifying way in front of your friends. It's not as if past experience - both of overseas Australian exhibitions and family - hasn’t made this outcome a definite possibility. An exhibition of Australian Art could seem a bit hicks from the sticks in Berlin, all gee whizz and effortful rawboned attempted sophistication the indubitably big city, with a bloody and big history in bloody big Europe?

From the Australian point of view this gig was a pretty big deal - the Bahnhof is a significant collection and a significant 'player' in the profoundly hierarchical structures of museum culture (...any culture...) in Germany. From the Hamburger Bahnhof's point of view it must be a pretty big deal as well - they have made a full on commitment vis a vis profile and no-one wants to host a waste of space. But in the Berlin context it's a big thing among many other big things...down the road there's a massive exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau tracing the exchanges between the east and west as exemplified by the two poles of Berlin and Moscow. Pretty soon there will be a large exhibition focussing on the contemporary art of Sweden, right now the city is hosting a Festival of Indian Culture, as well as SexCity 7, and at the Art-Fair the previously unsuspected special relationship between Berlin and Canada was up for discussion at twice the number of forums than Australia was getting guernsey at. Over the road from the museum they are slowly building one of the largest new railway stations in the world, the 'Lehrter Bahnhof' to operate as the 'crossroads of Europe' and reanimating links with Poland and the East that the divisions of Europe has eroded. Berlin has a sort of promiscuous outward gaze, a wide embrace made wider by the lack of deep ongoing colonial roots with any particular nation or culture, and so the omni-present German traveler with their towel on the poolside lounger is a cliché from Calcutta to Cairns to Carpentras. Everyplace, as well as being itself, is part of an overarching 'other'. Mike Stevenson - who is now living here - says that there is a seasonal pulse to this. The adverts in travel agents other locations and museum exhibitions featuring them, pick up pace as the skies turn the colour of aluminium saucepans and the city pulls its collar up against the winds of the approaching winter. This profligate importation is amplified by the local and national economic difficulties, where pragmatics and available funding have a role in determining issues of site and locality; for instance the Frankfurt Ballet is about to become the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Troupe to spread the financial load of culture provision. Curiously this hyperactive but flattening matrix has a relaxing, liberating effect ultimately on ones expectations and readings of the show.

First impressions however were not confidence building. When you're coming up to the Haupstation on the elevated railway you can see two banners proudly flying above the venue with the title in a sort of Bob and Roberta Smith Uppercase bold. The slow approach of the train gives you enough time to realize quite what a bloody weird title. 'Face Up' is. Obviously at its heart lies an inversion of a Men at Work-esque 'Down Under', (as in… 'I come from a land...') but like a love that dare not speak its name, it's coy at mouthing this construction, so inverts it and arrives instead at a formulation that does rather send the brain fizzing off in all directions like a match tossed into a box of fire-works. Is it an obscure allusion to the coins landing in Two up - practically Australia’s National game after all - come in spinner!? But isn’t this knowledge a little aussie-arcane and how does it play in Germany? Does it reference the rather peculiar John Travolta, Nicholas Cage John Woo movie 'Face/Off' of a few years back, where the goody and the baddy end up with each others faces and chase each other around trying to get revenge, justice, the nukes and their faces back. If so, what does this mean?...maybe the constant struggle and flux of the negotiation of Australian Identity in the Asia-Pacific region? Maybe the theft of other identities that compromise nominal constructions of 'Australian Art' in shows like this, that Rex Butler flew here to tell us about. How does John Travolta inflect this reading? Or is it exhorting us to get the moral fiber together to 'Face Up' to something? And what is this uncomfortable truth that we have been ducking? Not that of Australian Art surely? (and quite what is it about this have we been avoiding?)

Things don't get a lot clearer as you walk up the path under the banners to be confronted by Callum Morton's comic and threatening twin shark heads: the smiling jaws of which you have to pass through to access to the main building. US fighter planes are bought to mind as much as Luna Park. This surprising American inflection however makes dispiriting, sense if you stop in the bookshop to browse the handsome catalogue. Prefacing the usual texts of cultural commissars describing the importance in the histories of Australian Art of their particular areas of operation, is a forward by Alexander Downer which, in the circumstances, should have been left accidentally on the edit-room floor. He is after all a Foreign Secretary in the Bush's 'Coalition of the Willing' that only a few months back was hissing ugly invective at Germany for their role in the 'Axis of Weasles' owing to their independent and principled opposition to the illegal non U.N mandated war. Particularly as the Weasley party are turning out to have been pretty much in the right somebody should have taken him aside and said 'not this time Alexander.... it's just plain embarrassing. It's Germany mate, remember?... why don’t we make like WMD and disappear."

In retrospect, the Sharks in their Scooby Dooby Doo way also signal that you are about to enter an exhibition which is really rather strange. Initially it seems to be a round up of the usual-ish suspects -no shame in that -after all this is what these exhibitions do, but when you exit you shake your head a bit as it has a loading that is unexpected and there's a spooky element which comes through in Britta Schmitz's selection which prevents the experience from being merely anodyne. First you are confronted with James Angus’s fantastical inverted Hot-air balloon that fills the arches of the ex-railway station with its dropsical curves, here seemingly menaced by a grey lead jet fighter by Anselm Kiefer on the floor beyond. If you sneak through this space as I did my second visit, you pass through gigantic Warhols and Beuys's before walking through a room filled with photographs by Darren Siwes, which use double exposure to make his smartly dressed blackman's presence ghostly against the spotlit solidities of South Australian Architecture. The other way through to the cloakroom takes you past strange empty domestic spaces in Malaysia documented by Simryn Gill. Either way you then up in Patricia Piccinni's 'Sandman' Installation, which is dominated by a large black fiberglass Ute that's metamorphosing into - or being digested by - some melting carapaced aquatic beastie. Around the walls there’s shiny photographs of the shagging wagon, this time yellow and marked Xanadu and a girl with gills hanging out in badly-lit pool-halls and telephone boxes. And a large video projection of our heroine happily floating underwater with some leviathan moving mysteriously behind. It's a weird combination of a suburban lite white version of early Tracey Moffatt colliding with Star-Trek' or maybe Doctor Who given the lumpiness of the gills, Which is as uncomfortable as it sounds but delivers 'strange' big-time although perhaps not for all the reasons that it intends. Round the corner there are more collisions and mysterious events - this time by Rosemary Laing where red-ochered piles of Ikea furniture are placed isolated in the outback and then torched in romantic and striking photographs which also unnervingly bought the work of Tim Storrier to mind. This probably is a problem particular to Australian viewers.

My fledgling theory of some sort of the 'Gothic of Oz' was given feathers by the second floor of the exhibition. First you move through the mute porcelain busts by Ah Xian which form a processionary avenue between their sealed gazes, their skins turning into patterned motifs drawn from nature but filtered through culture, and then into the larger complex of space which immediately is dominated by Callum Morton’s work: in particular the large model of a modernist building which can't help bring to mind other works that are large models of modernism except for the remarkable fact that this one is either inhabited or haunted You can clearly hear lonely piping voices calling repeatedly 'Help me' 'Help me', from somewhere inside it . Which does something very strange indeed to the work. In fact you can clearly hear these supplicating squeaky voices over much of the floor where they lend a humanizing element of bathos to Susan Norrie's multi-projection installation 'Undertow', a work so full of the 'Unheimlich' and so loaded with portent and meaning - mysterious monochromatic images of heaving volcanic pools, steaming J.G Ballardian swamps, and people in scarves pulling trunks across desolate wastelands in front of towerblocks - that a dense Mittel-European fog settles all over it, making it tricky to find your way through.

The little shouters nearly make it into Robert MacPherson's room only to be silenced by a barrage of written words. The work uses bold white text painted on black hardboard in a marvelous incantation of absent, vast, demotic landscape: terse exhortation that conjures the fleeting presences of language and ghosts of experience. "Waterscapes." …."Timber fences". That these concepts are carried by brushstrokes that are as full of their own nature as they are components of carriers of meaning leads the viewer deep into the mysteries of representation. If we are to allow ourselves the game of the identification of qualities peculiar to a country or nation, it was here in this dense laconicism that we may find something particular to Australia.

There is something a touch Edwardian in Daniel von Sturmer's video installation 'The Truth effect'. These are a number of small screens where everyday objects are used and moved to present us with perceptual conundra. Objects - a styrene cup, a roll of masking tape, a sanding block- are shifted around a white space as if by poltergeist, presenting us with puzzles where we must induce the cause. Coloured circles are thrown onto a rotating white surface to generate shifting vortexes of motion. The screens recall those experiments in perception that had an almost occult intensity as well as memories of a structural video from the sixties and seventies.

In the context of the show Mikala Dwyer's work 'I may be you' takes on a rather unexpected Victorian edge as well, where the scattered modernist elements, rolls tubes, plaster bandagings, transposed furnitures and transparent plastic clouds seem to suggest themselves as the ghost of an abandoned séance complete with coalescing protoplasm. Its an moment of possession that is mysteriously satisfying.

David Rosetsky's stage set/video installation is a four screen homage to new realismus/experimental theater performance works of the sixties and seventies, where couples would have a gnomic but probably loaded exchange, and then freeze into a moody pose so that another couple can launch… into.... a ......Pintersque... ... .everyday... ...then... ... ...

(slowly)... ... Go... ... ... (meaningfully)... ... ... ... ....quiet.

In the end, Face Up this exhibition seems lumpier, more engaging and more substantially strange than I had anticipated: its not only the title that is peculiar. And this is a relief. It make the show specific, real, less assailable by the problems and shortfalls of its abstract forms and functions. Does this Uncanny edge indicate however anything peculiar to Australian practice and Australian cultures? Of course there are events, readings and expressions in Australian History - loss, removal, erasure, murder, the dreamtime, Picnic from Hanging Rock, just as possible starters for one of any number of massive lists- that would support such a thesis. But in any culture and history there are different events readings that have similar cthonic effects and outcomes. After all here in Berlin and Germany we are in the home of the Un-Heimlich, the Grimm and the Gothic. Probably it says more about the curator and her vision. One can hope as you potter back to the railway station that maybe it's symptomatic of ways that artists everywhere are seeking ways to rearticulate their practices to express ideas of (awkward) substance outside the increasingly slight self-determining and self-referencing dialogues of many current practices and their contexts. But on the flip side this may encourage (has?) a return of a 'wooeoooeooo' surrealism and regurgitated Bataille. Heads you win, tails you lose. It's a bit of a facer.

© Richard Grayson 2003