Monday, September 25, 2006

Spitting on the Sublime


Andre Breton’s second manifesto described surrealism as “Grabbing a gun, rushing outside and shooting into the crowd”.

This idea of art, and the activity of the artist as ultimate transgressive hero has become a little thin now that random shooting sprees (by socially isolated armed men) have become part of the mass media spectacle of criminal violence. It still persists in the heroic image of ‘bad-boy’ artists – again usually male, and wheeling a phallic substitute (brush, camera, chainsaw) but, it’s a bit tired. We’re all a bit tired probably, of watching more global and local misery on TV, of hating John Howard, of not being able to change anything, and feeling that not being able to change anything, is the same as not being able to do anything.

So, I’d like to write a third surrealist manifesto, and define art as “Someone grabbing a gun, rushing inside and shooting inside your house”. I’m not trying to equate artists with heroic martyrdom – but to try to indicate the space of culture, alongside life in chaos, flux and destruction.

What happens to art when shit happens? Mass media images of the victims of violence, wars, catastrophes or random shooting sprees always show people frozen, and reduced to the stock still religious images of mortified martyr. There’s the abject images of starving Africans –dinner plate eyes staring off a page or screen, and then there are the images where faces are disfigured by tears, so we look away, gooseflesh crawling up our arms.

Ever since going to ARS06 at Kiasma in Finland, I’ve been fascinated by types of art that responds to, or functions alongside terror or tragedy. There’s a song that I haven’t been able to get out of my head, and it’s coupled with a BIG projection of a man’s face, singing the following words in Spanish:

‘oh dios, escucha me
cuando yo canto
he mirada las cosas
que tu no puedos imaginar
tu no puedes creer,
pero creer me, por favor’.

Addressing God in the familiar, the lyrics say “god, hear me when I sing, I have seen things that you couldn’t believe, but believe me please” and it’s a beautiful acapella tune. Then he stops and the camera stays on his face, staring into the camera, and as tears well in his eyes, gooseflesh crawls up viewers arms, like it does now, remembering the video.

Bocas de Ceniza (mouths of ash): jurado don’t make me suffer because I’m dying of pain was a video work by Juan Manuel Echavarria involving the survivors of a massacre in a church in Colombia. It may seem hideously flippant to compare it to the Birmingham Complaints Choir by Tellerevo and Oscar Kalleinen, (getting whingeing poms to sing about their petty misery! Genius!) but Kiasma had both works on show during ARS06 – and both works were made using the same media (getting communities to sing their stories, and making a video) and the same art theories (relational aesthetics). And it makes sense that in another room, not far away was the Chapman Bros detournement of goya’s the disasters of war mixing parody, stupidity, horror and humour with lashings of kitsch plastic maggots.

Thing is, I (perhaps perversely) really like this mixture of the profound and the banal. I like the mixture of awkward clumsy and inappropriate stupidity, flippancy with intense gravitas, unspeakable pain, unbelievable horror.

The State Of The Real, was the theme of the Finnish biennale style exhibition and the two day seminar afterwards, where I was struck by one of the speakers, Lolita Jablonskiene. A curator from Lithuania, she was describing Lithuanian art during the massive upheavals since the 1980’s, and exploring art as a space of hope and anxiety. She underlined this with the main anxiety of ‘what if nothing happens?’. There’s always the sense of risk, of the fragility and likely futility of any action towards social engagement, and far more so with art making.

Art as action seems even more pointless than just art as play, as rehearsal, as self discipline, as hagiography, as necrophilia. So much activist art, executed on the hoof and badly bunched together because the ends justifies the means, and if they mean well, then they deserve to be included, right? But if art confines itself to reciting tradition, or to abstract games in neat framed squares or neat white boxes, if art buries its secrets in formalist mastery of posturing citations, we can all breathe the calm sighs of suffocating numbness and stifled affect. It won’t touch us. We won’t be moved, won’t be changed, won’t be challenged, just wryly smiling the defeating smirk of neo-liberalism. Yeah we know things are crap, we don’t want to know any more, OK?

This preachy rant sounds like nice sermonising stuff to be writing on a Sunday, but I’m trying to articulate my own feelings of reticence and foot dragging awkwardness around art deemed ‘political’. There’s a big gap between my promotional platitudes ‘yes, you MUST see this!’ and how I can describe what happens when you (or I) DO see it, or why so many people don’t see it. I’m interested in why I don’t go to rallies anymore, why I don’t do ‘political’ art, why I can’t call myself an activist. After all, I hate John Howard too, my pollable political opinions definitely fall on the left side of the divide, and I even sign GetUp! Internet petitions. Like many listeners, art audiences, and probably readers of this blog I fall smugly and squarely into that nasty little category of ‘the chattering classes’, concerned progressive latte swallowing articulate middle class aspiring professionals. Trying to move upwards within a society we say we despise, and feeling desperately incapable of changing it.

So what would happen if the shit really hit the fan and my house got blown up, or shot down, or that of my mum’s, or yours? If we lost our families? What would we do? Whinge some more, no doubt. Feel useless, feel confused. Sad, lost, forlorn, odd mixtures of love and hate. Moved by compassion and crushed by cruelty.

At ARS Jabloskiinane described how Lithuanian art was in ‘post-modern’ time – and involved a strange juxtaposition of simultaneous and apparently contradictory elements: gay porn, with orthodox religious ceremonies, folk dances and punks. Dragged from a pre-industrial peasant society through the fug of Stalinist totalitarianism into the screaming haze of hypermodern consumer culture of the European Union, art changed dramatically, but not in any nice modernist linearity of progression but a whirling soup of transformation. Contrary to the marxist dictum of society changing form below or above, society just seemed to change, relentlessly of its own accord. Society was characterised by an excess of change. By excess full stop.

I’m hesitant to characterise this flux as post-modern, because it seems so akin to the social upheavals of interwar Europe, and even industrial England in the 99th century. Modernism has always been violence, chaotic, crazy. The idea of ‘sur-realism- or Baudrillard’s ‘hyper realism’, doesn’t seem particularly new, just more intense. Maybe Augé’s term of ‘hyper-modernity’ is more apt. It’s the same thing, still the same thing, just more intense, rerunning running eternal return. Giddying whirl over a base line of nauseating ennui.

This is an extremely long segue to Beirut on Day Street, which is such an odd juxtaposition that I had to take it via Helsinki, Colombia and Lithuania. So much of the dreaming space in Australia is about other lands, other spaces, and anywhere but here that it seems unremarkable. But what is it to stand here, now, imagining somewhere else? When ‘there’ is being destroyed, what happens to the ‘here’. Does here become an exile rather than a non-space of hyper-modernity’

On the day that Israeli army started dropping bombs on civilian homes in Beirut, I caught a train into the CBD to check out Khaled Sabsabi’s installation at Mori Gallery. The copy of Mx that I glimpsed over from within the confines of shittyrail had no mention of the bombing – but I think I glimpsed the headlines while striding past a newsagents. I’ve written elsewhere about how moved I was by the massive video triptych, feeling my body enter the space of gaping raw cedar, sub audible thrums, stirring up my flesh, white bleached flashes of destroyed buidlings, flickering, fading. Sabsabi is an accomplished artist, this was a polished professional piece. Considered, crafted, consolidated, it was stunning.

T’fouh promotes itself as ‘raw responses’, flashing rapid fire cries by Arab artists residing in Australia to the news of their homeland, homes, memories, families being blasted apart. It’s a group show, with about 40 artists listed on the floor sheet, and an enormous variety of works, and really long descriptions of media. While the latter really helped while writing up the review – because I could connect the names to the works more easily, it was excessive, like the long titles, and the cluster of works, so many, sprinkled on walls, on the floors, suspended from the ceilings of the larger gallery, strewn like rubble throughout the space. It’s a community show, right? The artists aren’t all professionals, right? It’s not a show that’s going to happen at the Ox or at S.H.Erman, (thought some of the more crafted pieces could easily slide over there). It’s meant to be disruptive, rushed, crowded, overwhelming, distrcting, confusing. I’ts meant to be democratic. It’s allowing Arab artists to have a voice, a place, a space, it’s not about exclusion or refinement or finesse. So why do I want to write about it as if it is? Why do I want to select certain pieces, to draw your eyes into the text, into the feelings, and into this space?

The SMH article foucssed on the sensationalism – posing the exhibition as provocative: and mainly spoke about Habib Zeitouneh’s paintings of Ehud Olmert Kebab – a small acrylic on canvas painting that’s easily missed – but which stirred up some fiercely nationalistic Israeli Aussies and got some nice fodder for the non art loving Fairfax press. The SMH also had a nice picture of sad kneeling Rana Bazzi, looking not unlike the virgin mary beside her sculpture, ‘Dear God’. This type of coverage – like the storm in a teacup over the Martin Place body bags – play into the stereotype of Arabs as a hysterical angry menace – doing seditious art, shouting loudly in an untranslated language other than English when their homes are bombed and families are killed – it’s really really odd – how such representations somehow alienate us as viewers/readers from feeling ‘with’ the vicitms of war, and instead fearing for their reaction. Our sympathy gets overladen with apprehension and guilt instead of moving into compassion and action.

So I’m interested in how I as a guilt-laden but inneffectual honky can bear witness to a type of pain I hope I never have to feel, and an injustice that makes me sick to even think about. At what space does this art as a’exppresion of disgust’ invite and involve the viewer? And what if nothing changes?

The main gallery was presented as a n accumulation of rubble like floor, wall, ceiling and wall pieces – that created an overall impression of chaos – but I still managed to go up and have a bespectacled peer at some of the gems. Omeima Sukkarieh’s Bleeding Stones was one of my favourites – just because it was a temporary, simple and poignant – and quite intimate piece – that worked nicely with the effect of going up to something and finding a fragment of something impossible and frightening. Bleeding Stones consisted of a series of tearsoacked tissues – clustered beneath some red text written into tissue paper. Simple, moving, nice. Probably not archivally sound – so it won’t end up in Paddington.

Martha Jabour’s elegant sculptures of objects placed on plates were also able to mobilise that funny reification of objects as fragments and as artworks, and worked nicely against some of the more blatant sculptures, like Mouna’ Zaylah’s Once Apon A Time In Qana, and the Dear God piece. By ‘working nicely’ – I mean that the tension – between an established artist like Jabour – working in a well crafted and slow medium – actually sat well near the rapid response, emotional assemblage cum installations of the other artists. The justaposition of works crated a sense of different regiters of pain – the sudden searing shock of grief as well as slower insinuations of mourning and exile into a daily practice. This show isn’t a scream, it’s an orchestra, of different voices, different registerss of pain, different intensities.

Omeima Sukkarieh is probably the star of the show though – Her 'Once Living: About Humanity Not National Identity' body bags forming an impressive installation outside the gallery on opening night – and piling up well agains the back wall at the moment. Postcard photographs of the body bags are on sale at the gallery and two TV’s have video works based on the piece. Fadle El Harris's – editing footageof the installation with that of local anti bombing protests with some moving Leb-Pop and text – to create a rock clip effect; celebrating the cultural resistance of the local Lebaese communities to the undeclared war on their homeland. Anna Belhalfaoui’s video at the other end of the room – is more straighforward documentary style; including interviews with passerbys gaining their response to the installation of the body bags in Martin Place.

For some perverse reason – I liked the quieter pieces; Alissar Gazal’s 'Spring: Too Many Martyrs in Paradise' – involving pretty fake flowers placed over maps, and Maro F Alwan’s 'Frontera'. Mayhem reckons that ‘mapping’ is a bit of an overused term – in the case of massive horrible conflicts over land – then it’s probably a nice synechdote for all the scary limits imposed, trasgressed, evoked and torn up by fraught neotiations of identity and space.

There’s massive screen in the big room – with a 26 second flash by Khaled Sabsabi, and a more enigmatic video by Marian and Carol Abboud, 'Slap Me/On My Way To Beirut'. The latter directly engages with the unbearable lightness of honkiness; of guilt, grief and uselessness. But I was particularly moved by Fatima Mawas, 'What Could Have Been', a video made by an 18 year old soccer fan, devasted that the war prevented the Lebanese team from participating in the Asian Football finals, because half the players couldn’t be located in the rubble. The interviews with the hijab and footie scarf wearing woman splice nicely with stock footage of the Lebanese team scoring goals in Sydney, between shots of text, but it is this sense of the orindariness of tragedy that I found really hit me the most.

I like the audio piece in the corridor on the way to the toilets – but loved Mirieille and Fabian Astore’s video installation in the tiny room out the back. Called "3494 houses + 1 Fence", it shows flashing images of exactly that. The number of houses bombed in Lebanon are translated into flashing images of aussie suburban homes. This is a nice deployment of good old fluxus numerical games with that Aussie suburban camp that so much photographic art does in such an increasingly tiresome way. It’s detourned yet again, and begs the question where are we? Who lives in the houses? What if they were refugees with their former houses bombed? What could these houses mean?

The more polished pieces are locatd to the smaller rooms – and Nicole Barakat’s stripped seams entitled 'Flayed (again)' work nicely against Vivienne Dadours really lovely dyptich, 'Citizens'.

Barakat and Dadour are both establsihed slow, intensely medium based artists – so the time investment, of practcing, pushing, exploring art practice in the condition of exile carries a different flavour entirely. Viewers don’t register such a wrenching shock, but are invited to sense our own sadness and vulnerability in that of the work. This creates a deeply affective affinity that I find more interesting and moving, but harder to describe.

I hope this review conveys some thing of the type of relational aesthetics experiencem that I thik this show encompasses. It’s in a similar manner ot the Squatspace tour of Beauty protest/documentary/derives of Redfern waterloo. What underpins both is the notion of art as a field of relations, and an explicit commitment to building or defending or reinforcing certain relations – not in aesthetics –but in real worlds.

Readers of this blog may be familiar with my disdain for the S word. Sublime has been so overused in art reviews that it has become seared into mayhems brain as a synechodote of bland foggy paintings. ( a bloody shame really), but I want to propose something further. The notion of ‘the sublime’ comes from immanual Kant – and in Kantian aesthetics – ART™ is meant t evoke the same extraordinary experience that extreme sports nature does – you know that vertiginous exstacy involving sense of your own minuteness in comparison to the immensity of the universe around you of which you are deeply and intrinsically connected? No? sucking a couple of nitrous bulbs on the edge of a bondi cliff at sunset could well give you a taste of what its like. According to Kant, and Greenberg, nd many other worthy male types, ART™ should do the same thing. While I hate to deny the exstatic union of mind body and spirit often sensed in front of infinite oozes of the drippy stuff (an di’m not just talking about getting lucky at the slyfox) I want to posit ART™ as something that doesn’t aim to reach outside or beyond or above the experience eof the everyday or what mere mortals can communicate and achieve and access.

I’d like to think of ART™ as something as prosaic as speech – something that everyone does. Some do it well, and other’s do it badly. Some speech is awkward, some divine, some polished, some rough as guts. But as problematic as the word ‘democratic’ is, there is a culture where we all assume the right to speak to some people at some stage about some things. Mayhem believes ART™ is like speech – or any form of culture – a collective activity that everyone should access. Relational Aesthetics happens when art facilitates or communicates connections between people, when it provides a space where the unspeakable can be said, or explored, or shared somehow. Sometimes it’s striking, evocative, beautiful –other times it provides a nice Levinasian imperative (we see the face of the other and we feel compelled to respond) It is out of this space of sharing – or exchange that I think that solidarity and life can continue.

Don't miss your last chance to see the T'FOUH exhibition at Mori Gallery, 168 Day Street, Sydney.

The gallery is open wed - sat 11am - 6pm. The exhibition will close this Saturday, 30th of September.

There will also be an open dialogue with the artists on this day from 3-5pm, so come along and join us in a discussion about the exhibition and the artwork. For reviews, images and general info about T'FOUH and recent events in Sydney, visit


Ian Milliss said...

You really are a very good writer margaret. The work I liked was the 3494 houses, it was a great intrusion of one world into another, the jumpiness gave a real sense of instant disaster.

And I really agree with your conclusion that art is as prosaic as speech but, and don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising you, this stuff has been around for at least thirty years. The amusing thing is that now, after all that time, Bourriaud and relational aesthetics has made it respectable in the conventional art world. In other words, it needs to be sanctioned by some authority from nearer the centre of empire before it can be seen and taken seriously. And by "this stuff" I mean exhibitions where a group of people, "artists" and "non-artists", are encouraged to create imagery around an issue fundamental to their community. The first one that I was involved was the Hunter Valley Project in 1978(?). It was the brainchild of Frank Watters, a series of exhibitions in Hunter Valley townships documenting the destructive effect of open coal mining on the communities in the Hunter Valley.

Then, all through the eighties, the Australia Council funded the Art & Working Life Program which was a trade union based arts program which included numerous projects by small groups of ethnic workers, often around shared experience of diaspora due to political repression in their homelands.

The reason I'm bringing this up is to point out, yet again again again, the sheer dishonesty of the conventional Australian art history that barely mentions most of this, despite the fact there has been an enormous amount of it. In fact the little art history that most art students learn is still a colonialist version in which the real culture all happens somewhere else, an ideology very convenient for those in power here.

Gricegrocers said...

I really like this, but it's off-topic.