Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rob Miller's Odysseus and the Sirens

The foyer of 101 Collins Street has ionic columns for their beauty rather than their engineering. It has marble spirals on the floor, sculpture alcoves, phases of the moon above the reception desk and 23 caret gold leaf walls. It has a temple like grandeur and stature. Rob Miller’s sculptures currently on display in the water features in front of these golden walls are interpretations of classical Greek myth. One is Odysseus. The shimmering backdrop and the enclosed space of the water feature gives the sculptures and the space an aedicula like quality. With this association in mind, there is sense of the work relaying a parable that through narrative can circle around abstract desires. 

In Miller's Odysseus and the Sirens there is a man with a round head wearing long robe leaning starboard on a boat. In the myth, the sirens sing such a seductive song that it lures sailors to their death. Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship to avoid crashing to his death. Miller's sculpture incorporates the mast and the man in one vertical line. The sculpture embodies the nature of the tragic hero; the solid and strong carved figure leans precariously towards temptation. This Odysseus, in this gilded foyer, seems a reminder of the perils of hubris. 

There is a focus on the breasts and buttock of the sirens in these sculptures. This creates an ogling element to Odysseus lean that also makes him a little less noble in his clever self-will and restraint. The form of the sirens evokes the little Venus of Hohle Fels, a sculpture from the Stone Age carved from a wooly mammoth's tusk. This reference to Venus and ancient fertility goddesses denote a simultaneous admiration, fear and objectification of female sexuality. Fertility has also been customarily synonymous with wealth and prosperity. In the opulence of this space these exaggerated body parts can be read as embodying a certian bountiful plenty.   We can again suggest that the desire and temptation Odysseus leans towards may have many faces and it’s left to the individual viewer to imagine what song would drive them off course.

The perils of hearing the song of the sirens has been retold in many ways. We know from Hollywood alone the monstrous destruction that the seduction of the femme fatale can bring. Think of Glen Close or Sharon Stone in those thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. The female gaze has been mythologised as frightening, aggressive and a threat to society. Homer writes: 'Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens' voices in the air—no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father's face'. Though Miller’s siren sculptures have no heads or arms they seem to still be able to frighten by their gaze. However their missing limbs (wings) and heads also imply a breaking or restraint of any real power a siren may represent. These sculptures become a pure fantasy. 

The fetishised focus on the sirens’ bodies suggests Odysseus’ is both a victim and a voyeur. He lives to tell the tale of the women who could have devoured him. The siren’s song is a death song. It brings momentary bliss and unknowable pain and death. That Odysseus hears this song without being dragged in gives him a knowledge that he can cannot express in language. He never recounts the actual song. It is like the unquantifiable object that attracts us to one another. The focus on the torso in these sculptures suggests a mysterious disembodiment is at play in attraction and desire. These sirens have no mouths. There is no music in the air. The only way that the song is rendered by Miller is in Odysseus' posture. His desire is captured in his totally physical response, his slant and motion. Miller captures that the nature of the sirens' voice is Odysseus's own desire that leads him to potential destruction. However, since he momentarily cheats this fate, he is destined to enjoy this satisfaction by unspeakable proxy.   

In Franz Kafka’s essay The Silence of the Sirens he reinterprets the story to say that Odysseus blocked his ears as well as tied himself to the mast. However, the sirens admire his "innocent elation" , that they spare him. Whatever Odysseus heard was internal. Kafka writes: 'now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.' The song has become a way of projecting  his own self congratulatory and self destructive desires onto the sirens. The headless sirens of Miller’s work correlates well with Kafka's approach to the myth. There is a sense that this Odysseus will create the heads of his own nightmares and fantasies and that they may be far more frightening and exciting than any external metaphysical beast.

These dark and elegant silhouettes compliment the opulence of the space. Yet these headless and armless sirens are not without melancholy undertones. In this space where giant phallic columns just decorate and the luna cycles are safely under the control of the reception staff, these fierce creatures of the sea have become quite tame. They are beautiful and elegant but are without their song or their gaze to decide who to seduce next. As though this myth can be enjoyed in this space but the scary bits cannot be eluded to too specifically.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tom Polo Gestures and Mistakes (Trust Me)

Acrylic on canvas, wood.

Tom Polo's work at Gertrude Contemporary alludes to the way the self-help industry now mitigates the language we use to try and express our deepest and most complex emotions. This industry tries to make our internal chaos more logical and controllable. It offers feel good maxims to feed aspirations and "twelve-step-solutions" to complex problems. It also offers easy catch phrase diagnostics. Polo’s work is a funny and cynical play on our obsession with ourselves, our need to "talk about it" and the self-conscious element of all self expression. 

Self Sabbotage (as you leave)
Acrylic on linen.

Self-help allows people to identify, for themselves and the rest of the world, a reason behind the inexplicable emotions they have been feeling. Maybe they have low self-esteem, midlife crisis, self sabotage, dysfunctional family or anger management issues or all of the above. These are terms that everyone now understands and nobody needs any more details about when they are dropped into a conversation. "He quit his job and left his wife." "Why?" "Midlife crises." "Oh ok." Self-help language has also become a useful way to discuss our emotions without actually getting emotional.  Tom Polo has identified the way we are talking loudly about our personal feelings everywhere from Oprah's couch to the back of the tram. He conjures the idea of us somehow becoming these emotional activists who march around  protesting our feelings for the world to see. He does this by combining the language of self- help on hand written signs together with expressive portraits on placards. The slogans of self-help enable the activists to protest their messy emotions while still keeping it together and tidy for the cafe. 

Gestures and Mistakes
Time based wall drawing.

In the front space at Gertrude Contemporary the walls of have been painted a vivid blue. Even the front window has been covered over with a light blue wall. It is enclosed and dramatic. These internal colours evoke the intensity and saturation of emotions that colour our perception of the external world. The placards leaning up against the walls have definite shapes like squares or circles. The portraits on the placards have been painted in similar bright primary colours as the walls. The simple shapes of the placards suggests a desire to control and organise the colours of the walls.

The portraits are painted in a naive style that is comic and playful. It suggests painting sessions at school or in art therapy where we are asked to paint how we feel. There is a pink fleshy face with an unhappy blue smile, a cloudy grey melancholy one, one with orange hair and a squiggly orange nose, and another way up high on the wall with triangle nose that starts in his eye. One of them has a man with a brown gravy tray nose. We can imagine these placards at a personal crises rally where people go to demand that someone stop this internal chaos. Polo has created placards that express the squelching nausea of anxiety and uncertainty. At the same time, their simplicity makes them unheroic. A placard usually presents a catch phrase that sums up the activist's position and demands in a few words. But these placards are far more ambiguous and communicate abstract feelings that are difficult to express in language. 

Paintings/Props/Personas (Balls)
Acrylic on canvas board, wood.

 We are reminded of the idea of art as being able to communicate something pure and honest. It has been thought that painting, in particular, can show emotions that cannot be expressed in any other way. However, Polo's emotional and expressive paintings on placards suggests that any form of self expression will always have an element of presenting oneself to the world in a way that can never be free of self-consciousness. Their messiness seems like a joyful and colourful romp in artistic frustration. 

Paintings/Props (Flag)
Acrylic on canvas, wood.

The self-help slogans in the space are painted in a thick home-made, garage-sale- today sign style. They are not written out in their conventional form. The spaceless Try Harder to Try Less could allude to the sort of cryptic advice often offered to people who should 'focus on the now' while trying to 'set goals'. This work gives us a sense of how self-help language is used as a sign to explain and clarify this internal world. However, within this intense and emotional world their meaning appears as confused, disordered and as inarticulate as the emotions it tries to organise. It is the sort of catch phrase shared in both the language of the rally, shouted through the megaphone, and the language of self-help, posted on the wall of the gym.

Placards are commonly used in big rallies where like-minded people meet in the streets to bring about change and express discontent. Perhaps the language of self-help, like the political rally, enables people to come together and feels connected to a wider community that share the same problems. This installation seems to grapple with the actual difficulty of trying to incorporate the public ideas of self-help into the turbulent internal world of the individual. The language of self-help can be experienced as our own imaginary angry activist. They scream out their slogans and demand change of ourselves. 

Wall drawing.

Self-help has made an industry that profits from people's insecurities  and encourages them to repress negative emotions and focus on self-improvement. The use of terms like “heal” or “move forward” to turn sadness or anger into some form of illness that can be treated by following these clear procedures. By turning it into an illness, self-help seems to alleviate the guilt and sense of personal responsibility associated with feeling emotionally terrible. However, by providing easy solutions it also puts the onus back on the individual to change the way they feel. They are obviously not trying hard enough or following the steps properly because if they were they would be successful and have everything they ever wanted and feel great about themselves. So while there is much more public discussion about our feelings and “where we are at” emotionally; there is an implicit pressure to be progressing up some sort of happiness ladder. This is what is so clever and funny about Tom Polo’s work. His placards show an awareness of the absurdity of demanding more happiness of ourselves and the world.