vol 29 no 4 Dec/Jan/Feb 2000/1
MCA - Sydney - 2000
The current Primavera at the MCA, featuring Beata Batorowicz, Lisa Roet, David Jolly, Natsuho Takita, David Sequeira, Michael Zavros, Hanh Ngo and Megan Walch and curated this year by Melissa Chui has had a pretty good response from the media. The Sydney Morning Herald seemed to like it, giving it a full page spread and Bruce James saying "It's a museum spectacle that I enjoyed substantially" and signing off with 'Primavera 2000 is the ninth in the series... its one of the best.". Extraordinarily, and possibly uniquely for a show of art that uses contemporary modes of expression, it now appears that Giles Auty of the first person singular liked it. This is a man who I remember reading a valedictory article by in the looney right wing UK magazine 'The Spectator', which said that it all started going wrong with the Impressionists. This is a man with no understanding of contemporary art. So what is it with this show?
When you get out of the lift on the fourth floor of the museum and walk into the cool galleries you can see why people like it. The exhibition has been intelligently installed, paced nicely along the walls (for the majority of the work is wall based: only two of the artists moving in a big way into the third dimension, and none into the fourth - that time-based stuff like video or computer or sound), and given space to breath, the work itself is finished, and professional. There's a lot of pleasure to be had - about a third of the artists seem, to me, to have a real something - but each time I've been through, the show as a whole has ended up making me feel disoriented, disengaged. Its a show that feels as if it primarily wanted to be a 'Proper' Show' of 'Art', before it wants to be anything else, and so the art has been chosen as much to represent 'Proper Art' rather than getting particularly characterful or messy: a bit like flicking through Art Forum and saying,' ok we'll get a work that looks a bit like that...and one like that'. Ultimately you get to feel as if you've walked into one of those towns found in science fiction movies, where the inhabitants don't recognise the boy come back.. 'Mr Richter. Speak to me! It's Ricky! Don't you remember?...gee darn it, what is it about the folks round here?.."...as they all turn out to been taken over by advanced mimetic life forms.
This spooky feeling does a disservice to (some of) the artists. Beata Batorowicz for instance certainly references Beuys in her work, but this reference is an engine for some decidedly charged and lumpy meaning. She presents herself as the -unacknowledged?- daughter of the German artist who is locked in a struggle with this father figure wanting both love and independence. One work is called 'Daddy, you can't muzzle my thoughts': a photograph of the artist wearing animal extensions (referencing the coyote and dead hare of Beuys' shamanistic approaches); another demands respect - 'Daddy take off your felt hat, your daughter is here'. We are in the land of Electra, of the eternal struggles of Oedipus: of the struggle between the female and the male and the structures of patriarchy, and a whole load of other weird rich resonant loadings as well as being a work that engages with art narrative and history. Were it in a less mimetic context it would probably seem even darker and zappier.
Michael Zavros has made small canvases of details of male tailoring, beautifully rendered and intimate in scale. They are I suppose made to make one think of dressing, style, power aesthetics, poise, fashion vis a vis art, painting and masculinity. They made me think of early Robert, which was not something that I wanted to do.
There's a bit of the USA too in Charles Robb's 'Support', which looks like the American artist Charles Ray on Acid. Ray once made a piece called 'Charley Charley Charley' where casts of the artist show the artist having sex with other casts of the artist connected in a gigantic narcissistic circle. Robb's 'Support' has casts of the artists body differently joined to other (decapitated and floating) casts by bendy metal tubes in tribute to the naff film 'Coma'. I think we can say that in this case Charles Ray definitely has the better drugs and is having more fun. There is a mini-fashion at the moment for photo- realistic fibre glass polychromed sculptures of the human figure. Such are always impressive and register high on the golly-gosh factor of 'doesn't that look real'. Unfortunately, unless you have the conceptual nous of a Ray (scrambled or otherwise), the work remains for ever stranded in Salvador Dali Land.. .. 'oooh, A crucifixion floating in space...coooowulll!'
Real weird rather than the theatrical version is to be found in Lisa Roet's photographs of apes being 'interacted with' by people dressed up in rabbit suits. The photographs are restaged experiments, as, strangely the copyright of actual documentation seems to be owned by Warner Brothers, obviously concerned to keep secret the dark side of Bugs Bunny (and we always thought that was Daffy Duck). The photos are powerful, poignant, funny and more than a little scary as apes are overshadowed, mimicked, and haunted by somebody in a canvas bunny suit with a carrot and jaunty ears, at one point regarded by a row of orthodox Rabbis -is this a near pun? I hope not . It occurred to me that these images might be photoshopped (the rabbits not the Rabbis) as surely the risks in staging this with a costumed human would be pretty damn great and difficult really, but then, it doesn't seem to matter, the photos summon up hierarchies of control and exchange and surreal nightmare generated in the name of rationalism however they were done. The expressionistic drawings of ape digits appeared redundant in this company, although the waxy death masks of apes didn't.
Both David Jolly and Natsuho Takita engage with approaches to painting suggested by the diverse practices of Gerard Richter, Takita with the production of foggy out of focus paintings of 'something' which are rather seductive and photographic, and Jolly, more successfully, with tough, blank representations of snapshots of the everyday - office blocks, night roads graffiti, a still life with headphones - painted on glass so there is an intriguing sealed hermeticised feel to the finish of the works, as well as a formidable technical challenge in their making. These paintings really grow on you with repeated visits, perhaps because they resolve into 'what they are' rather than 'what they half remind you of' to their benefit and your relief.
The works by David Sequira and Hang Ngo however remain unchanged through repetition. Sequira'a work is engaging and intellectually fleet of foot but I had to keep on shaking my head to dislodge kaleidoscope fragments of works by Francisco Clemente and Eugene Carchesio obscuring the view. Hanh Ngo's piece is beautifully made, sensually pleasing and, for me, resolutely unengaging.
Megan Walch, incomprehensibly, has decided to respond to the challenge presented by the work of Australian surrealist James Gleason. Which is not a good idea.
This Primavera certainly it did its job in bringing to view some interesting work by artists under thirty five. But as an exhibition rather than as component individual works it felt suspiciously well behaved, suspiciously clean, conservative and proper, a white picket fence town in a story by Stephen King......" Mr Richter! What are you doing? It's me! Don't look at me like that.....no I won't join: even if it does mean the end of suffering, individuality and war..........................Aaaaargh..!" Mind you, they obviously got Giles, which can't entirely be a bad thing.