Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Palace of Tears

We enter Hermione Merry and Henriette Kassay-Schuster’s Palace of Tears through a dark confined corridor that feels like a secret doorway. We see two projections on a double sided screen, back to back, that make like a wall that we walk around. The two images refract through the screen and appear on the opposite walls. The two sides of the screen have similar images. The image on each side is a different woman in a blue dress in the internal doorway of a brick building. The doorway dramatically frames them like a proscenium arch. Everything seems the same in both images except for the different blue dressed women. They are waving, sometimes with eyes opened and sometimes closed. They seem to rotate around and around so when one is facing you the other has their back to you. Above the screen wall are jugs of leaking water, below a tilted mirror and under that, on the floor, is dry concrete mix. The water in the buckets leaks down through the screens, onto the mirror and then drips onto the dry concrete mix below. Melancholy music seems to drip down over the artwork at the pace of the tears that the water seems to represent. 

This artwork is highly contextual. The images were filmed in Berlin. The building represents the “Palace of Tears”, which was a customs house on the Berlin Wall. The people of East and West Berlin were divided from 1961 to 1989 by a wall given names like “Wall of Shame”. The work evokes the sadness of the city divided. The dripping water gives a sense of the individual tears shed in a customs house where people were turned back around and waved muted goodbyes.  Now that the wall has been pulled down, ghosts inhabit this architecture of division. The artwork seems to question how we capture moments in time and how they are passed on. Is there a notion of history where events, like the demolition of the Berlin Wall, close chapters in time? Or are there, rather, multiple projections that constantly permeate and change within the present? This is suggested by the contrast between the translucent paper screen and the tears which damage it as they fall to solidify into concrete.   

The two women seem to mirror one another much like the two-heads of the Roman god Janus—the god of beginnings, transitions, gates and doorways. As the god of these passages he is simultaneously looking at the future and the past while stepping through the present. The circular movement of the women around the doorway is not unlike a clock that measures the present, on an eternal threshold to the next minute. When the projection stops and turns to black it is more than a blink, it is like sleep or pause before we are conscious again of time circling. So we are presented with both an objective and subjective understanding of the passage of time as something that we continually objectively move through and yet are always subjectively in the one threshold of every moment.

In Palace of Tears the tears shed in suffering drip down but are not dissolved, absorbed and wiped away. The notion of a palace evokes a sense of excess. These tears are beading, brimming, dripping down to wet the concrete mix. The work itself seems to represent a solidification of suffering, suggesting other walls being built. Tears come at an emotional threshold; they tell us something about an internal spilling over that cannot be contained. The blue dressed women tell us how tears flow and repeat. They tell us that past pains and future fears are ultimately always in the passage way of the present—looking forward or back. 

Anna Newbold and Tim Alves 
at Seventh Gallery

Monday, November 14, 2011

Souvenir/Memory : Strange Pillows by Wolfie Mayr

Strange Pillows by Wolfie Mayr exhibits an archive of old slides of travel photos which have been stored for up to half a lifetime. These images can only but evoke the theme of memory. What is distinctive about these artworks is that often the actual slides onto which these moments were frozen are as much the subject of these images as the conventional views, landscapes or people shown. In this sense, this adds an interesting and self reflexive twist to travel photography. While travelling we are more inclined to notice details; to expose our film to banal moments as if they are somehow transcendental. Indeed, in our travels, away from home, they are. Exotic subjects always seem more worthy. 

There is a well known theory of the event of watching a film that suggests that we go to the cinema to input virtual memories into our experiences. Often these virtual memories are beyond everyday experiences—among these are the experiences of the exotic and travel. The cinematic theatre’s darkened space, the larger than life image and the spectators’ comfortable passive state all contribute to focus sensory perception on fantastic but realistic virtual memories. The slide (or 35mm transparency) was the most cinematic of all still photography in that its conventional mode of viewing is the slide show in the darkened room. The slide presentation, commonly associated with travel snaps, was accompanied by a story of the trip as the slides clunk into a projector. This medium is also a reminder of actual travel—it is a souvenir. 

In the past before the slide, however, the same darkened room was used to capture a memory or a souvenir of travelling to a destination. The 18th century Venetian painter Giovanni Canaletto made artworks for British travellers on the grand tour to take home. He used a camera obscura to produce his work. In other words, he worked inside a darkened room with a lens on one wall and painted his paintings from the likeness projected upside-down on the opposite wall. Visitor, Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA 1998 is taken in the dark museum without a flash. A bald head obscures the sky of the painting View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana by Bernardo Bellotto—Canaletto’s nephew. Bellotto was himself a traveller. He was invited around various courts of central Europe and painted views of the cities. In fact, his detailed views of Warsaw were used to assist the rebuilding of the city after World War II. The space in the Getty, vignetted in darkness, seems not only reminiscent of the conventional presentation of the slide photograph but the optics used by Canaletto and Bellotto, the cinema and also a conceptual visualisation of memory. 

Strange looking patterns of mould damage on the emulsion of the film form abstract references to time and memory. The nature of photograph image, which freezes the world’s visual likeness, is undermined by the slides material deterioration. The image continues to change in time.  However, the freezing of time is re-enacted with the transfer of the image, damage and all, onto the pristine reproduction colour print. Time’s index, material deterioration, is aestheticised. The colours of slides enlarged in this way also seem less naturalistic, more saturated, chromatically distorted or stained by an unnatural colour. Framed two-dimensional artworks are displayed against windows. This creates an unexpected effect like an inversion of the conventional slide projection; the image is darker than the background of daylight filled glass. This inversion poetically renders the absence of the old slides. This all can be likened to Sigmund Freud’s analysis of his analysand’s memories where distorted colours in remembered situations give clues to an intrusion of the present into past events which have been subjectivity coloured. 

A sense of the artist’s motivations, which differ at various times in his life, come to the fore. Although abstract, different times and stages of creating images with different moods render shifting interests and an ever emerging personality. The viewer is made aware that these images were always intended as art yet this outcome had been disavowed till only now. The artist who emerges within the traveller continues work on this personal art project. The strangely photogenic material deterioration is compulsive. Time is the traveller-artist’s invisible hand. It could be said that material degradation of the film causes aberration in a similar way to how forgetting stains memory. However, in Mayr’s work the beauty of aberration evokes a clear present time. The present seems to wash over these images, and overwhelm their resemblance to the past. 
Tim Alves

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Natasha Johns-Messenger’s installation Yellow in Power to the People at ACCA makes the audience integral to a work. It addresses how the emotional reactions that the public brings to any work of art reveal something of themselves. When Ron Robertson-Swann’s minimalist public sculpture came into the world it was name-less and hated. The public and the press gave it a name of their own that reflected both their fear and loathing “Yellow Peril”. The people felt it had cost too much and said too little. Why can’t we have just a nice fountain some asked? It’s like "an old blonde girlfriend pouting at you" said others. Even the Queen was said to ask if it couldn’t be painted “a more agreeable colour”. Towards the end of its one year in the city square, before it was moved to an obscure public pastures it was officially titled Vault.

In light of Johns-Messenger’s work Yellow, we start to understand how on many layers the title Vault was an apt description of a work that the people of Melbourne locked out. As we enter the first corridor of John-Messenger’s work, there is a little peep-hole to our right and a large round window to our left. Through the peep hole we see Vault which has now found a respectful home at the ACCA site. The peep-hole in Yellow emulates how Vault must have been viewed in the seventies and eighties. Peeping from behind the closed door, a fish eye distortion makes it at once bigger and smaller. Vault was a big foreign otherness that was tapping at the parochial door of a blue singlet wearing xanthophobic. Melbourne felt a little bit safer that they shut it out.

In the Yellow installation we see ourselves again and again. Through a big round window in the wall we see a reflection of ourselves looking at ourselves from a side view. Johns-Messenger leads us down corridors that have mirrors on 45° angles that reflect light around 90° corners. You see other people or yourself in unexpected places. With its sharp angles and geometric complexity people can imagine getting inside that feared Vault sculpture. However, Yellow’s big round window in the entrance invites us in to this angular world. One initially feels like there could be many routes or paths to take around this actually quite simple hairpin shaped corridor. Shades of yellow light descend into darkness just as they do in the inner chambers of Vault—suggesting something deeper or more internal. There is an element of Alice’s experience through the looking glass as we start to question what is reflection space and what is real space. Similar to the way any sort of self-examination enables you to be aware of yourself. You think god that woman’s vain look at her pouting at herself in the mirror, oh now she thinks someone’s watching her so she’s trying to act all casual, now she’s looking around to see if anyone saw...oh yeah it’s me..I saw...me. There is a performative element of at once being and becoming. 

Yellow is a playful work that invites us to play a narcissistic hide and seek game with ourselves. The audience is central to the work. Vault was something that seemed to come from an impression of an elitist art world—people felt excluded. Its closed sloping forms, as well as its name, announced something locked or insular. In Yellow we are allowed entry into the secret tunnels of this world and discover in its interior, not a dreaded Yellow Peril Minotaur waiting to devour us; but rather, infinite views of ourselves—which maybe even more frightening. A warning at the entrance asks you enter this space with caution. You never see your double front on in this work but are aware of it like a shadow catching up with you. It is like the sort of claustrophobic madness we might imagine happens in rockets or on submarines, where the one thing you want to escape most is yourself. 

Yellow shows us that sometimes the most unnerving experience can be watching ourselves watching ourselves. It is much easier to stand outside a work and criticise its aesthetic merits (as Melbournians did with Vault) rather then ask ourselves to critique our own values and attitudes. Ironically, the controversy sparked by Vault inspired discussions about identity, art, cultural significance and aesthetics. Johns-Messenger shows us that however we enter into an artwork, with hate, love, fear or indifference; we do so to look at ourselves. Works that inspire the most hate because of their intangibility can become icons of public debate and reveal collective fears. The adventurous maze like quality of Johns-Messenger Yellow also reveals how simultaneously exciting and unsettling this can be.