Contemporary art relies on art schools to recreate its contemporaneity. Enrolled in courses saturated with art history and theory, artists are trained to be self-conscious about their practice and its place in the artworld. Well-studied graduates play games with the history and theory of art so as to exhibit the place of their practice in the present historical moment. Thus the genre of contemporary art comes to have recognisable features, as it exhibits the regress of the artworld into the educational conditions that brought it into being.
Hatched, judged by artworld professionals to be the best art from art schools around the country, annually enacts the regression of art into informatics, the self-consciousness of artists as they exhibit a relationship to their own education. Belle Brooks’s Typing ‘Giraffe Sex’ into Google Yields Ungodly Results literalises the actualisation of such information, rendering a pair of mating giraffes in three dimensions and a kaleidoscope of colours. Laura Hindmarsh’s Screen Projection projects a line drawing on paper on string, confusing the dimensions with a regression of media. Contemporary art relies on these kinds of tricks, the explication of which places the work into the greater work of history and theory.
Out of this folding of information into art and art into information—in a repetition of the conceptualism of the art school—one of the more successful strategies of contemporary artists continues to be installation. This is because installation simulates an environment for the production of ideas rather than standing in for the idea itself. The installation displaces the gallery with a simulation of the art school, a context for art rather than the art object itself. Lachlan Conn and Michael Prior’s Chronox is a series of small geometric sculptures placed on the simple floor of the gallery, each pulsating with its own purple light projected from above. A triangle of alternating sound loops play on toy record players, and viewers are invited to shift the 45s from locked groove to locked groove. The combination of light and sound creates a psychedelic atmosphere, but one that is also neatly minimal, as shapes and sounds remain constant, meditative.
It is worth pausing on Chronox, for its achievement is to simply capture the attention, to keep its visitor as spellbound as a child before the television screen. The artists confess that they are trying to build a time machine, a means of traveling into and beyond the contemporary moment. Points of light flash, shimmer and rotate over a beaker, a contour map, pyramids, a petri dish, atomic models and other reflective shapes. Their rhythms resonate with each other and with the undulating loops, cadences of light and sound tumbling over each other. Here the differential synchronicities of looped sounds, flashing and cycling shapes, effects an eerie resonance that turn the room into more than a room, in which these strange devices add up to a larger, esoteric machine.
There are precedents for this kind of technological operation, in which flashings and repetitions add up to a sensation of transport. Recall Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine (1961), in which flashing lights appear from atop a spinning record player. There are also stories of places haunted by technological fallout, neglected factories and restaurants the architectures of which have been awkwardly displaced, lan at an oblong angle to the rest of the cosmos. Yet Chronox is humbler than these, as it plays with simple geometries and familiar objects. It has an eccentric rather than grandiose sensibility, the product of tinkering more than an architectonic vision.
It is through Chronox that we are able to envisage the self-conscious contemporaneity of contemporary art as symptomatic of something else. Conn and Prior are simply attempting to keep their visitor interested, to keep them in the moment of the piece. The form of the loop catches the desire for the contemporary, its aural and visual multiplicities creating resonances with the informatics that inform contemporary art. Artists struggling for presence in an information-saturated artworld would do well to regard the present as itself a contemporary subject. Chronox suggests that duration is itself the subject of the contemporary, as artists simulate the place of their own actual place in historical time. By making the time of art itself the subject of an installation, Conn and Prior appear to double the contemporaneity of contemporary art with the contemporary itself. Ironically, Chronox thus appears to have arrived from outside the artworld that sanctions its very logic. The regress here appears as progress, as we are caught in an endless combination of moments, of cycles and flashes, sounds and lights, that creates the illusion of the uniquely recurring moment.
Yet Chronox also stands as a kind of warning beacon, as its seductions that double the seductions of the contemporary, replicating the geometries of the art school factory and fantasy. For these pulsating and cycling shapes are nothing less than the materials of a laboratory: an atomic model here, a topographical model there. Rather than trying to teach us something, it reproduces the tools of learning. Rather than being information, it simulates the principles of information diffusion itself. Thus Chronox reproduces the modality of a certain version of the contemporary, its trap of light and sound wanting to monopolise not only the pleasures of the look, but to mobilise our desire to know. Its abstract spectacle of geometries alludes to the presence that is the illusion of the contemporary, and implicitly, to the illusion of contemporary art. In artworld terms, however, this contemporaneity should be self-conscious of this present, rather than the present itself, leaving Chronox in a paradoxical relationship with the show that surrounds it.
Hatched 09: National Graduate Show was held at PICA from 17 April to 7 June. The exhibition featured a selection of graduate work from art schools across Australia.
Originally published in Runway, Issue 14, Futures, Winter 2009, pp 71 – 73.
Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history at the University of Western Australia. He has published on Australian art in Artlink, The Blackwell Companion Guide to...