Every Day: 11th Biennale of Sydney (Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 1998).
Gavin Hipkins is on a grail quest, hankering after a lost or tainted sublime suggested in various strands of art photography, flirting with fascist aesthetics en route. Presently, he is working in two contrary modes: monumental abstract photo-installations and his archival Romance project.
The installations recall a brand of utopian modernist abstraction from the first half of this century, when an efficient aesthetic was linked with progressive social movements (the Russian avantgarde and the Bauhaus) and with fascism (Leni Riefenstahl, Albert Speer, and those mass gymnastic displays). Abstracted photographs and photograms are repeated and regimented en masse, but the installations are too knowing to simply sway us with their good looks. Hipkins plays up political, cultural, and even psychosexual implications that once went unsaid. For instance, in his eye-popping The Tunnel (1995-7), snaps of balls run in meandering lines at eye and crotch height, creating a groove, an erotic pipe to funnel vision. Meanwhile, The Track (1995–7)—ten horizontal strips of a repeated image of brown plasticine—recalls an athletics cinder track, Edward Muybridge’s chronophotography, and Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1937).
In his Romance project, Hipkins has been documenting trinkets and knick-knacks found in friends’ homes, mimicking the deadpan snapshot style of the 1970s, whose artiness lay precisely in its contrived refusal of pictorialist effects. In 1939, Clement Greenberg declared the tastes of popular/kitsch and avantgarde/advanced to be utterly polarised, and ticked off the Nazis for using kitsch to galvanise the masses. (He conveniently neglected Riefenstahl’s co-option of avantgarde aesthetics.) Similarly, Romance might seem the antithesis of Hipkins’s installations, although a parallel kind of longing is implied.
Zerfall (1997–8), Hipkins’s work in the Biennale, weaves together these contrary strands. It consists of hanging ‘falls’ of machine prints lined up edge to edge like lengths of film footage waiting to be edited, each strip presenting studies of circular objects on coloured backgrounds. These prosaic objects hail from the kitchen and the bathroom, sites of eating and excreting, the ends of another tunnel. The effect is once static and dynamic, banal and hallucinatory, morbid and erotic. A commodity fetishist, Hipkins brings the inanimate to life, giving it an artificial pulse, a sterile jiggle.
Meaning cultural decay, expenditure, and dissipation, ‘Zerfall’ is a German term used by Theodor Adorno, the man who said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. It is a fitting title for Hipkins as a belated Monk by the Sea—a would-be poet after Auschwitz.
It is customary to introduce Ani O’Neill’s work by noting that it reflects her dual Rarotongan and New Zealand cultural heritage. She grew up in Auckland, the city with the biggest Polynesian population, which nevertheless remains culturally distant from the Pacific Islands. In her work, Island values communicated through family life mix with new influences: the culture of the street, nightclubs, op shops, and art school.
O’Neill learnt Pacific Island women’s arts including tivaevae, lei-making, mat-making, and crochet by participating in her grandmother’s sewing circle. These crafts provide the basis of her art practice. The well-endowed fertility figure Tangaroa—usually carved in wood—is reprised as a cuddly soft toy. Leis are strung with lolly papers and McDonald’s burger wrappers. A huge curtain of stars is woven from the strap plastic used to bundle newspapers. Eye-popping crocheted discs recall rasta tam hats (a staple of Auckland’s Polynesian street culture), Jasper Johns’s target paintings, and, closer to home, Julian Dashper’s paintings on drum heads.
Routinely drafted to illustrate post-colonial arguments, O’Neill’s hybrid work is cast as critiquing or destabilising assumed oppositions between the West and the rest, high and low, art and craft, male and female arts. However, O’Neill is no critic. She does not interrogate oppositions, but yields to them, ignores them, or works her way through them. Equally at home running a stall at the markets, modelling her fashions on the Pasifika catwalk, helping out on a collective tivaevae, or presenting her work in galleries—it is her acceptance of her circumstances, her blindness to boundaries and hierarchies, that gives the work its peculiar charm and strength. Ironically, her permissive work is oddly transgressive, even inexplicable, in an art context that demands criticality, that likes its art issue-based—a context that would prefer to have a problem.
Art museums have gone multicultural and politically correct, taking pride in endorsing a diversity of perspectives. Maori artist Peter Robinson’s noxious work points to a population excluded by this multiplicity—one which contributes to cultural diversity but is not recognised for its art or its language. I am speaking of course of bogans, bigots, and hoons, those unwashed fringe dwellers with their rusty Holdens—crate in the back and the boot tied down with a wire coat-hanger. Must these disenfranchised exceptions to the rule be denied representation within the new cultural utopia? Peter Robinson RSVPs on their behalf, even though they never got an invitation.
Robinson’s last Australian outing set the tone. He polluted Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art with One Love (1997), an installation of brutal, shoddy signs offering a confusion of racist sentiments—something to offend everyone. On a backdrop, Australia was cast as ‘BIG BROTHER’ complete with swastika, while further panels instructed ‘DIE ABORIGINE’, ‘DIE MAORI’, ‘DIE PAKEHA’, ‘WHITES HAVE RIGHTS TOO’, and ‘FISH + CHIPS’ (a nod to Australia’s controversial MP Pauline Hanson). There were sculptures of an ill-conceived Maori spiral, a swastika, a dollar sign, an exclamation mark, and a fist. A spray of cheap shots, One Love offered an alternative, inclusive portrait of our culturally diverse society: we all hate each other.
With white words on black, One Love recalled Colin McCahon (whose text paintings drew on the humble, straight-up vernacular of street evangelists and grocer’s signs) and Joseph Beuys (who also favoured blackboards and placards). Both volunteered themselves as spiritual teachers with burning messages. Contemporary Maori art is similarly worthy, developing out of experiments in education in the 1960s. Robinson apes the teacherly register, re-routing it to convey bad messages. A piece in One Love summed this up—a giant cardboard hand with extended middle finger and ‘LOVE’ written across the knuckles. The image referred to Robert Mitchum’s conflicted evangelist in The Night of the Hunter. Tattooed with the words ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’, Mitchum’s hands were teaching aids as he played the good shepherd to his flock by day—but by night he led his sheep to slaughter. Similarly, Robinson’s conflicted hand could indicate ‘One Way Jesus’ or, more likely, ‘Fuck You’.
But, as Mitchum aped good, perhaps Robinson is just feigning evil—too overtly playing the Bad Preacher.
When I asked Jim Speers about his work, he recalled a clip from a movie. In an up-town gallery, an art dealer delivers a spiel to a group of buyers gazing in awe. They are supposed to be sizing up a painting, a brilliant white monochrome, but actually—as Speers observes—it’s not a painting at all, it’s a blank light box. Their glowing image of transcendence turns out to be a commercial fitting stripped of its content; something that, outside the gallery, they would walk past without a second thought. But, while the filmmaker’s smug intention was to point out the emperor’s new clothes, that light box really was strangely compelling.
Jim Speers makes light boxes. A mainstay of advertising’s persuasive arsenal, light-box technology has engendered a plague of bus-stop backlits, cigarette-vending machines, and corporate signage: form follows function without friction or fuss. By contrast, Speers’s pretty/vacant light boxes just sit there, beaming their colours and patterns as though still waiting for their lettering, their corporate assignments. They hold the space, lost in some no-man’s-land between that anonymous modern vernacular and an equally hygienic but pedigreed abstract-art language.
Speers chooses to describe these works by saying what they aren’t: they are ‘neither ordinary objects passing themselves off as art, nor works of art passing themselves off as everyday things’. His project rests on an ambivalence to both abstract art and corporate fixtures. His installations leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere, like tourists not quite speaking the language, needing direction on how to read the directions.
This is ironic, given that the codes Speers is plundering were devised for everyone and no one, offering guidance and instruction in thoroughfares like motels, fast-food franchises, departure lounges, and, of course, art galleries. Speers’s installations are arbitrary and promiscuous: minimal, gridded, graphic, and calligraphic designs coexist. Here, art is tainted by not-art, and vice versa: Dan Flavin eats at Burger King, Donald Judd makes airport art, and a Kasimir Malevich doubles as a warning beacon. In his bewilderment, Jim Speers lets visual affinities get the better of him, his overdetermined, dysfunctional products hinting at a secret history, some morphic resonance, linking remote points in the culturescape.
[IMAGE: Jim Speers Honeywell 1998]