QCP: Departure Lounge
I love the departure lounge of airports. You’ve schlepped your luggage to the terminal, stood in line for god-knows how long to check in, dismantled the laptop and removed half your clothing to clear security and now you wander the concourse of the hopeful traveller. You begin to switch off the areas of your brain associated with self-determinate action and wait to be institutionalised by the cabin crew as they seek to maintain the illusion to which you cling: that it is the plane that stays still and merely the globe which turns below you to align you with another point on its surface.
Fellow travelers teem around you heading off to … who knows where: Paris, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Coolangatta … A day from here they will be scattered across the surface of the earth like cottonseed. But for now they share with you this hopeful concourse.
Back in the real world of Bulimba and the departure lounge of Queensland Centre for Photography, the paths of five artists momentarily coincide before they head off on their own particular journey through life. There is little that binds these artists together save their current location and their recent sojourn in Queensland’s Gold Coast resort. That and the fact they all speak the same language. The language of photography.
We do not see like a photograph – the whole scene mapped in detail from one moment to the next. Neurophysiological research suggests that visual perception is a mix of knowledge, memory and limited real-time detail. We track only those things that are changing, we remember from one moment to the next the location of static objects and we use our knowledge of the world to arrange a limited stream of visual information according to the expected laws of nature. In framing and flattening the visual, a photograph brings to our attention aspects of the world that are not apparent in the flow of perception we construe as sight.
Brett Adlington draws on a long tradition of photographic practice that exploits this difference to create a heighten awareness of the colour and form of the world and the juxtaposition of its objects. He takes the topographics of Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, the sardonic observational style of Martin Parr and the formalist aesthetics of the contemporary ‘art’ postcard – with its intensified colours, simplified forms and crafted harmonies – and applies them to the very specific context of the Gold Coast.
The beachside dream of the Gold Coast – freedom, leisure, relaxation – is deconstructed here as a series of blank, hastily erected walls and crude motivational signage set against the clutter of electricity pylons and the uniform sward of industrial estate verges. A featureless concrete edifice declares itself to be “home”; a bushland slope, littered with signage and high-tension power lines, sports a billboard posing the rhetorical question: “Why Compromise?” By excluding from frame any hint of tourist-class picturesque, Adlington reminds us of the real cost of maintaining the illusions of commoditized leisure. His images frame the vistas that, in the process of continuous perception shaped by wishful thinking, we choose not to download to memory. In the theatre of commercialised beach culture, Adlington takes us behind the scenes and shows us the flatness and futility just beyond the frame of the picture postcard.
Despite the current hard-line government attitude to immigration, Australia is, thanks to more welcoming policies of previous decades, a highly multicultural country. Not only is the antecedence of its population highly diverse but more than a fifth of the population were born overseas. The immediacy of an ongoing synthesis of origin and newfound home is therefore an important aspect of Australia’s cultural hybridity.
Born in Tehran in 1978 and immigrating to Australia, following a spell in New Zealand, in 1993, Mandana Mapar has grown up in the flux of native and adoptive cultures. In the works showing here she explores the gestural forms of writing as a device linking her Persian heritage with her current life on the Gold Coast. Using a small electric torch she writes in the air during long camera exposures made in darkness. In I am not you (a revolutionary) she spells out in her mother tongue of Farsi the words of the title. We see the artist herself illuminated by the soft glow of torchlight. She wears a traditional Muslim veil.
The idea for the work arose after seeing the face of a young Iranian man repeatedly reproduced in the Iranian and international press. He had been jailed for his part in the protest marches of 1998 and has since come to occupy the minds of thousands of young Iranian women as a both a spunky pin-up and a personification of a struggle for freedom. But, as the text spelt out in this work suggests, the artist does not wish to be collapsed into the generalised stereotype of disaffected emigrant. And the veil she wears is not the traditional Persian article but an Arab niqab, further suggesting the amalgams of identity that overtake the émigré in a distant land.
The navigation of individual identity through contemporary urban life, cultural heritage and ethnic stereotype is a complex undertaking and one which is at the heart of Australia’s negotiation of a society which is as rich as it is fair.
The tension between individual identity and collective cohesion also underlies the work of Mari Hirata. Her work developed as a response to the phenomenon of Japanese couples coming the Australian Gold Coast to be married and, perhaps more importantly, to perform a series of neo-rituals before the solicitous eye of the nuptial camera. Airline baggage limits ensure that such couples must hire the elaborate white dresses, formal suits and accessories necessary to stage such an event. The packaging of wedding theatrics is big business.
Hirata had worked for some time as a translator for a Gold Coast wedding company. When the company retired its collection of bridal footwear to replace it with newer models, the artist acquired the complete set. These white shoes became the actors in a series of large-scale still-life photographs that had them variously queue outside the make-shift cubicles of a toilet block, bathe in the detergent-induced foam of a kitchen sink, or line up in tight formation on the beach like swimmers at the Cole Classic. In Loopholes she takes the ideas of her earlier work to a new level.
A loophole is a small aperture in a wall that lets in light and air and through which one may look or discharge a weapon. It is a breach in an otherwise impenetrable barrier that may function in two quite different ways. In this work a single panoramic image presents lush parkland with evenly spaced trees and equally regularly placed pairs of white shoes. One quickly comes to recognise that this is not a wholly realistic environment – the symmetry of the scene belies nature. Before the panorama stands a series of boxes – the containers in which the white shoes originally came. But now the boxes contain black effigies of feet; each imprinted with a barcode. Foot to shoe, black to white, inside to outside, object to image, real to artificial: Loopholes arcs back and forth between complementary opposites through which the artist seeks to comment upon the division and unity of society. We are at various times understood to be autonomous, individual, free and yet we also function within the collective acts and conventions of community: cogs in a living social machine.
Hysteria, as the word suggests, was originally thought to emanate from the uterus and so was considered a specifically female malady. It is a condition that can, of course, overtake both genders, but tends to be associated with less sophisticated subjects and highly constrained, authoritarian contexts. In medieval times certain symptoms of hysteria (such as the loss of bodily sensation) were seen as direct proof of a witch. 19th century medicine constructed a complex hegemonic pathology around hysteria. In the 20th Century it was a phenomenon associated with Hitlerian oratory and Beatlemania.
Madness in general and hysteria in particular are the subjects of Sarah-Mace Dennis’ works in this exhibition. While the artist draws on many of the theoretical ideas that arose from the deconstruction of the power plays of illness by postmodernism, she does not present a conventional feminist analysis. Her images evoke the frustration and anxiety which one can imagine triggering an hysterical episode – as the individual’s subconscious secretes a shell of symptoms in abrogation of personal responsibility – but this vulnerability is set in a soft nostalgic light, warm and diffuse. The expressive poses and haunted eyes suggest the romantic abjection of a Pre-Raphaelite heroine. A moral object lesson wrapped in an erotic cipher. The paradoxical sensibilities at play in the work are heightened by the use of photomedia, which carries the tenacious aftertaste of veracity long after it has been digested as visual fiction. I am reminded of the immersive tragedy of high opera. But then, the best operas, though themselves fictions, reach through the imaginary to touch on the truths of the human condition. Here it is best not to analyse the facts of the image so much as sense the affect.
A rather more contemporary notion of the ‘mad’ takes hold of the senses in the work of Christopher Bennie. In Mothership we find Bennie dancing to a techno loop in his mother’s suburban sitting room. The jerky, frenetic dancing contrasts sharply with the fastidiously choreographed space – the acme of controlled order. Every porcelain figurine occupies its precise place in the utopian order of the display cabinet. Plain and patterned easy chairs sit primly to attention, the complementary patterns of their cushions making polite conversation. Compared to this obsessive order, Bennie’s ‘dance’ seems lunatic, deranged. What, in the dark excesses of an industrial club, would seem uninhibited, liberating, primordial here seems … well, a little embarrassing. Absurd even.
Bennie’s approach to the medium of video is lo-tech. The camera is placed in position and turned on – recording whatever occurs before its uncritical lens. The handy-cam equivalent of the point-and-shoot snapshot, its power flows directly from the knowledge that what you see is what you get. And while one’s first reaction might be to see this as a comedy of manners (I found myself imagining a neatly coiffured mother perched on a bar stool amid the Bacchic excesses of a techno rave) the through-the-looking-glass inversion begins to take on it’s own curious appeal. Even a kind if liberating sense of no longer giving a fuck. Bennie continues his jerky gyrations. Sun streams in through the window. Sweat sheens his face. His expression remains intense, focused. The dancing, ludicrous as the setting makes it appear, takes on a certain fey beauty. It’s so not what you do in your mum’s lounge (or at least not what you admit to doing) it’s almost overwhelming. Almost, in a daggy sorta way, sublime.
Ingenuous as Bennie’s videos (and dancing) may appear, the artist’s process builds a much deeper and more complex set of concerns. It is these concerns which lend the finished work the curiously transcendent quality that eventually overtakes the banality and mild embarrassment one feels on initial viewing. Bennie’s practice, which spans a range of media including painting, installation and video, is part of an ongoing philosophical inquiry in which existentialist notions of the absurd meet Kantian readings of the sublime. For the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant the intensity of the sublime generated both an uncomfortable overwhelming of the senses and a concomitant, pleasing awareness that one’s powers of reason could transcend those senses. Meanwhile, the existential manifesto of philosophy’s post-war bad boys, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, declared that liberty could only be achieved through action freed from all convention. With the disarmingly post-cynical realism of Generation Y, Bennie brings transcendentalism and existentialism face to face in Gold Coast sitting room. And never misses a beat… Not much wonder it’s a little unnerving to watch.
This essay was first published in 2004 by Queensland Centre for Photography
Images (from the top):
© Mandana Mapar I am not you (a revolutionary) 2003
© Mari Hirata Bluecliff 2003
© Sarah-Mace Dennis Asylum Cell 2004 from the series Tracing the Trail of the Dead
© Christopher Bennie Mothership 2005