Dan Moynihan, Warm Memorial: The Dan Moynihan Experience (2011), Synthetic polymer paint on plasterboard on pine, sand, concrete, steel, polystyrene, resin, aluminium, paper, ceramic tiles on MDF on pine, enamel paint, electrical parts, cleaning implements and products, sound, dimensions variable
Sony’s cassette Walkman went out of production in late 2010 after being manufactured for just over 30 years. In that time the Walkman forever changed the way that people consumed recorded music. The fate of the Walkman came to mind while looking at Dan Moynihan’s work Warm Memorial: The Dan Moynihan Experience (2011) in NEW11, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s annual commissions exhibition. The work presented a fairly realistically rendered human skeleton propped up against a palm tree on a bed of white sand, which, with the walls surrounding it painted in various tropical hues, suggested a desert island. The skeleton rested there as if that’s where its owner expired, yet improbably, his CD Discman was still playing.1 Bob Seger fills the air: ‘Look at the stars so far away / We’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow? / We’ve got tonight babe / Why don’t you stay?’2 From nostalgia to bleached-boned irony, stopping all stations, it’s nicely done.
The truth is I was confused – I thought I had read about the Discman being discontinued.3 It seemed reasonable to think so: when was the last time you saw someone on public transport carrying a CD Discman? In her catalogue essay What is this ‘New’? curator Hannah Matthews makes the distinction between two kinds of newness. On one hand is the newness of ‘technology, sneakers, pencils, gum’4, the kind of new a Walkman, or Discman, or all-in-one portable device such as your iPhone aspires to. Matthews argues that the other kind of new – ‘creating something that has not been before’,5 which she seems to reserve for more abstract philosophical, historical and political paradigmatic conceptualisations (as if these float free from technological innovation) – is rare in the present era, when ‘history is no longer linear, knowledge is accumulative and we live in an age of context’.6 She goes on to say that the artists in NEW11 ‘respond to existing bodies of knowledge, historical narratives, artistic movements, political discourses and popular culture. They consider these worlds with a critical eye, drawing out specific languages, content and frameworks, which they renew and recontextualise through their own means.’7
Annie Wu’s New Australia (2011), positioned alongside three pieces by Mark Hilton in a dark grey antechamber to ACCA’s main gallery, offered the most obvious illustration of Matthews’ thesis. On a pallet stacked high with newspapers, which visitors were encouraged to take, Wu presented a facsimile of the eponymous newspaper of the 19th-century New Australia movement, a group dedicated to forming a utopian colony in Paraguay. It was to be ‘a [paradoxically] classless society under autocratic leadership, a ‘brave new world’ founded as a colony and with the racist policy that the ‘colour line’ within the community be preserved’.8 The colony failed after only a few years.
Wu’s installation cleverly presented the problem of the new in a work that highlighted troubling resonances with the ‘new’ Australia we live in today, the one where Julia Gillard is currently reinventing John Howard’s Pacific Solution. However, it was a pity that New Australia was positioned in such proximity to Hilton’s work that a look at the wall text was required to make sure they were indeed by different artists. Wu’s work, as a mechanism (the please-take-one newspapers) for the circulation of, albeit discredited, ideas might even have fared better if placed in the context of the marketplace—near the magazine shop in the foyer —rather than in that lugubrious spot that seemed better suited to Hilton’s requirements. What was in the foyer was Melbourne-based New Zealander Tim Coster’s sound work Umbrella (2011), which subtly articulated the spatial dynamics there, with small loudspeakers playing heavily processed audio recordings of rain hitting a roof.
Where Wu re-presented historical specificities as a cautionary tale, Hilton preferred to deal in open-ended parable. Painted in sump oil on paper a triptych presented a giant sow being gorged upon by her ravenous and multitudinous offspring, a sallow faced man and 1950s style highway signage encouraging us to ‘Be nasty to outsiders. Be nice to insiders. Cheat whenever possible.’ The words turn out to be borrowed from naturalist Lyall Watson’s fundamental principles of genetic survival.9 As well as the painting, Hilton proffered a bone carved as a withered tree trunk and a faux-Byzantine relief in the shape of a tree or rune (it is part of a projected textual work). Depicting a DNA double-helix and a grim parade of human archetypes being hanged from the neck, it exemplified Hilton’s pessimistic view of both social and biological Darwinism.
Fiona Abicare, Act None (2011), steel, acrylic tiles on cement sheeting, nylon and stainless steel castors, 2 type-c photographs, acrylic, wool crepe, wool, silk guaze, cotton hand-knit/embroidery. 12 parts: 272 x 639 x 40cm; display unit: 272 x 639 x 30cm; photographs: 29.3 x 44cm each; 9 articles of clothing: various dimensions
From there it was possible to either walk past an oddly positioned plain white door or through it into a grimy janitor’s closet, complete with dripping tap and filthy tiles. Like a petrol-huffing version of the wardrobe that leads to Narnia this led to the grim paradise of Moynihan’s desert island.10 Stumbling out an exit on the other side of the island I found Fiona Abicare’s meticulously rendered acrylic-tiled construction (made with the collaboration of a registered architect). Another similar yet smaller construction was to be found in the following gallery, nestled into Justene Williams’ installation. Abicare’s complementary installations deliberately annexed a territory between artist’s installation and museum and fashion display (in fact, her two installations incorporated several articles of clothing presented as if on display in a retail outlet).
Abicare’s work also contained a performance element – she presented photographs of performers modelling the garments in the neighbouring installations by Moynihan and Williams. Although undertaken with the full cooperation of these artists, Abicare’s interventions were problematic. It is no coincidence that Abicare selected nearby works that embodied self-contained narrative worlds. In doing so she ignored physically proximate works by Rebecca Baumann and the collective Greatest Hits (Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer and Simon McGlinn) even though the former, presenting a brightly coloured wall of abstracted split-panel clocks, would have worked in a way entirely sympathetic to an example cited in the supporting essay, of Cecil Beaton conducting a 1951 photographic shoot with models posed in front of drip paintings by Jackson Pollock. Instead, Abicare blundered into her neighbours’ cine-visual worlds to repurpose them as glorified catwalks, and in my opinion the effect was nothing short of damaging, Abicare’s well-intentioned ‘relationist’ agenda notwithstanding.
Shane Haseman’s installation Lanterne Rouge (2011) presented a found object, an expensive-looking single-speed bicycl – a ‘fixie’ –sans wheels. Positioned where the wheels should have been were two triangular shapes of MDF board painted in primary colours. These triangular shapes and bright shades were also painted on the surrounding walls of the gallery. Haseman, Matthews informed us, is interested in ‘how the visual language of the [early 20th century] Russian avant-garde has been appropriated, and in many ways politically negated, by art and design movements of the late 20th century.’11 Yet Haseman, to my eyes, failed to live up to or credit the intensity or seductive pull of either actual Constructivism or its nth-generation reappropriation as interior design, commercial display or, indeed, latter day abstract painting. Instead, his calling card here was a jokey one-liner inverting Duchamp’s readymade bicycle wheel, albeit updated with a nod to contemporary bike culture, while again somehow missing the genuine and undeniable appeal of that cultural and aesthetic territory.
The historical avant-garde, and Duchamp in particular, are of interest to Justene Williams, too. With her work She Came Over Singing Like a Drainpipe Shaking Spoon Infused Mixers (2011) she created and performed, with and against, wildly vibrant, cluttered environments of found and bricolaged props and objects assembled from paper, cardboard, paint, photographs, exercise machines and concrete mixers. The results were presented in the gallery across multiple video screens. Williams has described her aesthetic as influenced by Arte Povera and grunge; Allan Kaprow and Happenings would be other obvious reference points. According to the catalogue essay (you’d be unlikely to realise it yourself otherwise, but in no way does this detract from the work) Williams’ performances invoke (meant with its connotations of sorcery) Dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, as well as restaging Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915-23) from the side of womankind with real concrete mixers standing in for the chocolate grinders. The Baroness, as she was known, was a woman almost entirely erased from the pages of art history: she quite likely gifted to her lover Duchamp the urinal that became Fountain (1917); she also created the artwork God (1917), a readymade of cast-iron plumbing pipes, which was attributed for the better part of a century to a male artist.
Williams uses photographs of the Baroness to channel this marginalised lineage, while performing trance-like dance movements that, for writer Pamela Hansford, recall voodoo.12 To me they also recalled Guy Benfield’s work exhibited in NEW04 in almost the same physical space; however, Williams’ work is even more robust and its necromancy is less narrowly concerned with the dark arts of painting, as Benfield’s was in that earlier incarnation.
Perth-based artist Brendan Van Hek’s installation The Person Who Cried a Million Tears was similarly ‘art historical’, if far more reserved in its comportment. The work addressed the oft-denied formal element of conceptualism – though arguably the work has far more in common with post-minimalism – in order to reclaim it for romanticism, mysticism and a focus on affect rather than representation. Coolly ambivalent, Van Hek’s work featured several disco balls of various sizes scattered across the floor, painted white they no longer glittered, denying them their raison d’être; panels of glass, with excised circles, leant against the wall and three elliptical mirrors were positioned high on the wall. A white neon square-in-outline framed the walls’ corner. The whole thing made me imagine critic Michael Fried as a wallflower during the last days of disco, complaining bitterly about the theatricality of it all. I liked it a lot.
The intersection of secret histories, conspiracy theories and popular culture formed the basis for Melbourne collective Greatest Hits’ sculptural work aquae profundo. In a glass-walled display freezer stood an alien moulded in ice. It was the alien familiar to everyone, the ovoid eyes and moon-shaped head recognisable from those grainy black-and-white photographs purporting to be from the US military laboratories at Roswell, New Mexico, and just as familiar from t-shirts depicting an extra terrestrial taking a bong hit then asking: ‘take me to your dealer’. Most recently the subject finally escaped from Roswell and turned up in the film Paul (2011). In his enjoyably playful essay Raimundas Malasauskas describes the frozen alien as an iconic cliché of the known (the humanoid alien) that is also an emblem of the way ‘the new’ functions in art – the new needs to be ‘predictable enough and codified so that it can be consumed in one way or another. Yet the artwork faces a demand for newness, unscripted and unknown.’13 In the case of Greatest Hits, the collective – possibly ironically – responded to the demands of a proper kunsthalle (make it new but make it familiar) by literally putting on ice the anarchic spirit seen in their earlier exhibitions. By chance, Malasauskas, who claims to have met aliens in the contemporary art world, grew up in the Soviet Union; in a postscript to the already de-installed ACCA show a newly published book claims that the Roswell aliens were in fact deformed children engineered by Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele and sent to the United States in a spy plane conceived of by Joseph Stalin to foment HG Wells-Orson Welles-style mass panic.
How about that for the reconstitution of known historical narratives in order to make it new?
NEW11, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 12 March – 15 May 2011
1. Maybe it’s the tattered Freddie Kruger t-shirt or the placement of the skeleton as a proxy for the artist, a reading supported by the title, but it never occurs that this could be a female skeleton.
2. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, We’ve Got Tonight, (Capitol, 1978).
3. It turns out that Discmans are still being manufactured, albeit often as combined CD-MP3 players with built-in FM tuners.
4 Hannah Matthews, ‘What is this ‘New’? in NEW11 exhibition catalogue (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2011).
8. Florian Cramer, ‘My Camp’ in NEW11 exhibition catalogue, Op Cit. 62.
9. Maria Tumarkin, ‘That’s Us Too’ in NEW11 exhibition catalogue, Op Cit. 36.
10. As Matthews notes in her catalogue essay, elaborately devised entrances that denote entrance into parallel realities, have become a Moynihan trademark. As an aside, the rainbow hued walls containing Moynihan’s installation offer a, perhaps unintended, comment on ‘the new’ and the various shades reflect the monochromatic catalogue covers ACCA has consistently favoured for its annual NEW exhibitions.
11. Hannah Matthews, ‘What is this ‘New’?’ in NEW11 exhibition catalogue, Op Cit. 5.
12. Pamela Hansford, ‘Voodoo Child’ in NEW11 exhibition catalogue Op Cit. 56–58.
13 Raimundas Malasauskas, ‘aquae profundo’ in NEW11 exhibition catalogue, Op Cit. 24.