Time to Get Trans-humanist: Robotic Art and Automatons
From robot pole dancers to mechanical dead rabbits, Jasmin Dessmann takes a look at Robotic Art.
When greeted by a dress-wearing robot who chats in a stilted man’s voice about the weather, dancing and other robots, there are many feelings of social absurdity which start to come to mind. This is Wade Marynowsky’s Bourgeoisie Robot (2008) and according to the theories of Japanese Roboticist Masahiro Mori, in situations like these I could feel intrigued and friendly towards this automaton impersonating a polite and pleasant, if not charming, bourgeoisie with the best of conversational decorum and exquisite Victorian flair, or I could run screaming (Mori, 1970). This is one example of the complicated and elusive balance in the imaginary relationship between humans and robots, a subject which inevitably has become inherent in the practice of Robotic Art and in its parallel to robotic technologies. It is here at these blurred intersections of science and art, where the obscure place of Robotic Art is alive.
Advancements in robotic technology mostly began in the fifties and its potential to revolutionize all areas of our lives was quickly identified (Hunt, 1990). For the military, robotic warfare is the ideal martial resource. For industry, it is the unyielding labour for factory production. For domestic life, it provides technological convenience in the home and future carers for our aging populations. In all, robotics signifies a new era of civil service covering multitudes of fields and industries to which many, such as Robot Scientist Rodney Brooks, are predicting as an imminent and essential change.
The first of many questions surrounding this relatively new technology is how to define a robot. From early Greek Mythology constructed figures in the human image, such as Pygmalion’s Galatea, have spawned varying ideologies of what constitutes an artificial being. With the surge of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, concepts of the future expanded to include artificial entities including automata, cyborgs, androids, and replicants. In literary history, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein generated a tenacious image of horror and intrigue forming the pervasive foundation for other such classic examples as E.T.A. Hoffman’s Olympia – inspiring the 1870 ballet of Coppelia – Gustav Meyrink’s version of the Golem, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the imagined clockwork housekeepers of G. K. Chesterton in his Father Brown series of the 1920s, as well as Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. – which in 1922 first coined the Czech word ‘robot’ – and many of the iconic robot series by Isaac Asimov who also defined the three laws of Robots, and whose novels have recently come to be thought of as an inspiration to Islamic militant group al-Qaida The robot was also given visual verity by the introduction of robots in film such as Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Star Wars and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to name only a few.
Yet in Robotic Art, artists may ignore all of these definitions and historical references whilst also not adhering to any single medium exclusively defined as robotic. Eduardo Kac evaluated developments in Robotic Art and identified three main aspects of its use in contemporary art : remote control robotics, robotics as cybernetic entities, and robotics which are autonomous in behaviour. Aside from these genesis areas which define key beginnings, the medium is dynamic by its very design and constantly manoeuvres between kinetic art, light art, machine art, cybernetic art, performance, installation, theatre and inter-communication technologies. Simon Penny, a robotic artist and art theorist, suggests that “…artists do basic research into the cultural implications of emerging technologies”. So it is becoming something of a cliché to say that art and science exist on far opposing sides of a chasm. With this in mind, the human-robot relationship has undergone many explorations with different artists within the last few decades.
Inherent in the original concept of the robot was first the practical notion of servitude. The idea that robots exist merely as tools has been explored by many, most notably Stelarc who experimented with extending the human body with a robotic third arm. More recently, this subject was drawn upon by artist Ken Rinaldo in his experimental use of robotics to extend the capabilities of fish using rolling, mechanical fish-bowls that could be manoeuvred by the control of the fish. Here the robot is subservient in making attainable what is otherwise impossible. Norman White looked at the reverse of this idea with Helpless Robot (1987-96)which asks repeatedly for its audience to spin it around and so highlights the contradiction of the creation designed to assist which relies wholly on being assisted.
Opposite the perspective that robots are our slaves, is the alternate aspiration that robots may soon become our friends. Edward Ihnatowicz had first focused on the subject of creation of life through robotics with his autonomous piece Senster(1970) and expressed interest in the audience’s tendency to anthropomorphise inert objects in which certain inherently human characteristics are perceived. Senster, a computer-programmed robot, which via sensors moved away from louder audience members appeared to display ‘shy’ behaviour like that of an animal.
In 2002 at Converge, Adelaide Art Festival, Patricia Piccinini presented her animatronic sculptures titled SO2 – Synthetic Organism 2. Based on the appearance of a long extinct species, the wriggling robot creates the illusion of life, inspiring its audience to further ponder extinction. Like much of Piccinini’s sculptural anamorphic creatures, hyper-realism evokes innate feelings, but with skin so real it looks clammy, like a ghoulish parody of life, feelings are not always of affiliation.
Masahiro Mori – and also Sigmund Freud in 1919 – investigated this sensitive balance of what we feel attracted to or repulsed by in the theory of the Uncanny Valley (1970)and Isaac Asimov described this as the Frankenstein complex.
This theory is also seen in the Canadian partnership Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s interactive robotic piece The Killing Machine’,(2007) presented at the 2008 Edinburgh Art Festival. This work, despite having little appearance of the human form, could be seen as being heavily imbued with animalistic and human qualities. As the audience watch, needle-tipped, robotic appendages stab a writhing sheepskin covered dentist chair. Similar to the work of Piccinini, this robotic construction ignites our deepest empathies counting on the inevitable human ability to humanise.
Consistent with Philip K. Dick’s question “Do androids dream of electric sheep”, is the temptation to speculate on which human behaviours could extend to robots in a robot-human future. Like the delicate automatons of Vichy, a surreal allure pervades in seeing ourselves imitated. In 1964, Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe introduced their remote-control robot K-456 to the streets of New York. He mingled with pedestrians, spouted John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech and excreted beans.
The Hosts, Wade Marynowski. Image courtesy of the artist.
In a creepy mimicry of a masquerade ball Wade Marynowsky’s The Hosts(2009) also presents this aesthetic dimension of modelling behaviour in a hypnotic dance impersonating social play of the Victorian ballroom, with his corseted automatons. Elements of this are also active in the work of Giles Walker who presented his installation of pole dancing robots titled Peepshow in 2009 at the inaugural London Kinetica Art Fair. This piece utilized robotism as social commentary on what robots should really do if they are to accurately imitate life. With hypnotic gyration, the pole dancing robots become a science fiction caricature of impotence and lust, showing things that are commonly perceived as ordinary human behaviour as bizarre when translated through robotic mimicry. Devoid of emotion or sexual organs, the female robot is emblematic of a science fiction future where the robot-human relationship is very blurred, and very complicated.
Peepshow, Giles Walker. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ultimately, the Frankenstein myth dies hard and the human-robot interaction comes full circle to mirror the entropic predictions of Hollywood and a Matrix-esque Robotic Armageddon. Mark Pauline is one of the most notorious to actively explore these issues in his vivid and destructive installations, created with artist collaborative SLR – Survival Research Laboratories -, often involving explosions, music, fire, and a degenerative display of robotic anarchy. Pauline also went as far as to mechanically animate dead animals such as Rabot(1981), a rabbit grafted to a mechanical exoskeleton, echoing Mary Shelley’s suggestions of the larger-than-human powers of technology. More recently American artist Bill Vorn also has made robotic installations which display similar characteristics of technological chaos emphasizing the possible bitter after-taste of a robotic revolution.
On the model of artist and engineer interactions in Art, Billy Kluver, a research engineer from the prestigious Bell Labs who collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg, remarked that: “All the art projects I have worked on have at least one thing in common… From an engineer’s point of view, they are ridiculous.” A point enthusiastically exaggerated and gleefully examined as more artists dabble with robotic technologies and ponder the implications of the medium; the social scientists of the post-industrial pre-futuristic age.
Largely, from Asimov’s fiction to Hollywood horror, the fascination robots instil in us is a powerful frontier which has been ripe for imaginary debauchery both for artists and scientists alike. Each prone to disappear down the rabbit-hole in their investigations of this complex relationship we are building with trans-humanist technologies. In everyday reality, however, we have yet to see the full social, political, and emotional implications these technologies may include. Robotic Art exists as a dynamic practice between these fields and with shades of a Coppelian curiosity we can prompt and poke at the enticing idea of the human-robot connection. Robots are not yet our homeboys, but with Robotic Art it won’t be long.
Brooks, Dr Rodney. Rodney’s Robot Revolution, ABC. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/documentaries/interactive/robotrevolution/
Freud, Sigmund. The uncanny [das unheimliche] (D. McLintock, Trans.). New York: Penguin. (1919/2003).
Hunt, Daniel. Understanding Robotics, San Diego: Academic Press, 1990.
Kac, Eduardo. Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, Special issue on Electronic Art, Art Journal, Vol. 56, N. 3, NY, 1997, pp. 60-67.
Kluver, Billy. Quoted by Calvin Tomkins, Pavilion, p.127.
Marynowsky, Wade. Available at: http://www.marynowsky.net/bourgeoisie4.html#
Mori, Masahiro. Bukimi No Tani [English title: The Uncanny Valley]. (K. F. MacDorman & T. Minato, Trans.). Energy, 7(4), 33–35. (Originally in Japanese), 1970.
Penny, Simon. Modern Machine Art, Artlink, Twentieth Anniversary Reflection, vol. 20 #3, pp. 44-49.
Walker, Giles. Available at: http://www.gileswalker.org/gileswalker.org/home.html
The Melbourne Stencil Festival sprays itself onto the city’s cultural agenda
The city of Melbourne’s allure lurks underground, created by its subcultures
Melbourne is the “stencil capital of the world,” according to Jake Smallman and Carl Nyman, authors of the book Stencil Graffiti Capital: Melbourne. Such a declaration hardly comes as a surprise, as Melbourne has an extensive history of street art with an array of established stencil artists and a vibrant community that supports the artform. Tucked away in remote laneways are enigmatic stencils made with spray paint, attracting film, advertising and fashion shoots. A stroll down Hosier Lane at the Southern end of the city illustrates how intrinsic this artform is to Melbourne’s street culture. Hundreds of wild creations swirl in myriad sizes and forms, overlapping and jostling for the attention of passersby. Tread into the heart of the CBD and walls adorned with spray paintings depicting politicians, animals, sexy ladies, robots, pop culture icons, cartoons, skulls, and symbols reveal themselves one after another. Hosier Lane, Carlton’s Canada Lane and Centre Place have transformed into public galleries and form a unique tourist attraction.
Paste-up Graffiti on Hosier Lane, Melbourne
The popularity of the medium is attributed to its quick reproducibility, needing only to be sprayed onto walls through cutouts, or sprayed onto poster paper and then pasted on walls. Stencil art created by respected graffiti writers have achieved a heritage status, preventing other graffiti writers from working over them. This ephemeral artform is becoming preserved by street artists and the public, who are beginning to value particular pieces and places as significant cultural sites. In 2005, Melbourne’s street art drifted off the street and into the galleries, many of which now have special exhibitions on street art, such as Until Never, Per Square, Artholes and 696. Moreover, Melbourne’s dynamic street art scene has attracted travelogues including the Lonely Planet Six Degrees television series, and has prompted the publication of an increasing number of books dedicated to Melbourne’s street art.
For a city that has a zero tolerance policy and strained relationships with its street artists, this growing appreciation and diverse display of spraying comes as a surprise. Now known as the Mecca of street art, Melbourne has moved beyond its primal beginnings in the ‘80s when its underground scene was termed as ‘unwanted graffiti’ and vandalism. During this time, Australia revolted against Melbourne’s hip-hop subculture and aerosol graffiti, which had its roots in the American subway-style graffiti. So what occurred to transform Melbourne into a stenciled graffiti capital, not only of the nation but of the world? Is it true to say that our perception of this marginalised art form has wholly changed?
Much of the growing legitimacy and positive public reception of the art form is attributed to the Melbourne Stencil Festival, an annual ten-day program celebrating Melbourne’s street art as a vital component of the city’s urban fabric and a legitimate contemporary art practice. Whilst many considered graffiti to be a perverse art form which has taken off since the 1990s (and many considered it not to be art at all), others, such as festival co-organizers, Satta and Jan-Dirk Mittmann, found inspiration. “Graffiti is a very important subculture here,” Satta stated in an interview with The Age in 2006. “Melbourne is known worldwide for its street art, especially stencil art,” Satta enthuses. As the popularity of stencil art incremented in 2003, with artists such as Civil, Ghostpatrol and HaHa who consciously imbued their art with political messages, the festival organizers perceived Melbourne as a graffiti haven whose vitality proved too arresting and formed the impetus for the Melbourne Stencil Festival, which now sets the city aglow in an idiosyncratic manner.
Spray Paint on Degraves Street, Melbourne
Launched in the height of the street art boom in 2004, the festival has sprayed itself onto Melbourne’s cultural agenda, transforming the way Melbourne has treated the art form, giving it prominence. According to the festival’s 2008 Annual Report, last year’s event featured over 300 works by 75 emerging and established stencil artists from across 12 countries, including Iran, France, Germany, Portugal and America, and attracted over 5000 visitors. What began as a low budget affair involving a 3-day exhibition in a North Melbourne sewing factory, has blossomed into a sponsored non-profit major event that has gained support from Arts Victoria, the City of Melbourne, and now from the City of Yarra and ArtTruck. The festival encourages community participation through exhibitions, live painting demonstrations, t-shirt printing workshops, kids workshops, street art documentary film screenings, panel discussions, artist talks, walking tours led by stencil artists, and a charity auction of works created during the festival. The accessibility of the artists provides audiences with a distinctive insight into their personalities and motivations, tactfully educating the public on stencil art, whilst contributing to public debate. Moreover, the festival amalgamates different cultures and classes, not only reinforcing Melbourne as a global center of stencil art, but one that tolerates and encourages difference, expressly reinforcing Melbourne as a center for artistic and intellectual production.
Undoubtedly, those who benefit most from the festival are the street art community and practicing artists. Initiatives such as the Pinxit Young Artist Award, that saw thousands of entries, has lent an increasing diversity to the street art scene and fosters young talent by enabling practicing artists to exhibit their work to the wider community. It also offers opportunities for artists to tour regional Victoria, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, increasing the festival’s public presence, reputation, and its supporters. Moreover, it has enabled young people to form social and artistic networks through workshops, competitions, mentoring and legal painting opportunities. Being the first Stencil Festival in the world, it is unsurprising that the event has received extensive media coverage in daily newspapers, community radio and street press, which not only publicizes the artists but also reinforces stencilling’s stature as a legitimate art form.
Such legitimacy is furthered by the festival channeling artists into the commercial arena. Larger numbers of street artists are exhibiting their work in galleries, making it is safe to claim that the festival is becoming an institution that generates industry and that contributes to graffiti’s commodity status. An increasing number of shops sell graffiti products such as glossy magazines, fashion labels devoted to graffiti design, and high-quality spray paints that provide artists with a broader selection of colours. Likewise, advertisers are appropriating the artform to sell goods to the youth market whilst businesses are commissioning the painting of murals on their walls, particularly in locations where young people spend their money. Consequentially, graffiti communities are becoming hierarchical and competitive in their desire to achieve recognition for stylistic and technical distinction.
Stencil Graffiti on Degraves Street, Melbourne
On the surface, it may seem that the city is supportive of the arts and that Melbourne’s historical reputation as a center for political activism results in a higher tolerance of graffiti. By nurturing the creative environment, graffiti is becoming viewed as a symptom of democracy as opposed to a sign of urban decay. However, stencil artists and street artists still assume names that the law does not recognise in fear of arrest from government authorities. This is due to the illegal nature of the artform and their desire to use public art as a form of social and political commentary or for ‘beautifying’ harsh urban landscapes.
Despite the festival’s celebratory nature, the art form continues to attract controversy. Whilst the City of Yarra in Victoria spends $125,000 annually on finding solutions to the ‘graffiti problem,’ such as surveillance systems, graffiti-cleaning companies, research and development of chemicals for stripping paint from building materials, – it simultaneously sponsors the Stencil Festival. Whilst they promote the development of graffiti skills through ‘diversionary’ programs on legal graffiti walls, municipally funded youth programs, community education, the commissioning of graffiti murals in high traffic areas, they claim to be against graffiti in their municipality. One may question how the festival established such admiration.
Part of the public’s acceptance is attributed to the attitude among city officials and the festival organizers who draw a line between stencils and graffiti – the line that separates graffiti from ‘art,’ from stencil art, advertising and signage – the line of the law. With the overriding perception of graffiti as ‘messy’ and chaotic, the festival markets stencil art as requiring high levels of technical and artistic skill, where artists are valued for their design, flair and execution. Paradoxically, graffiti requires equal amount of skill and adheres to a strict aesthetic criterion – evenness of paint coverage, the steadiness of line, harmonious choices of colour, the ‘flow’ of letterforms. Both stencil and graffiti artists are concerned with style and spend time perfecting their designs and technique. Whilst both use the medium of an aerosol can, graffiti is more suggestive of territorial conquest, risk-taking and dominance – as a destructive rather than a creative activity. However, Christine Dew, author of Uncommissioned Art: An A-Z of Australian Graffiti, highlights that behind the motive of graffiti and stencil art lies a universal human desire to leave one’s mark, presence, ownership, or voice in public. Counteracting such similarities between the two technical disparities, was JD Mittman’s statement made in an interview with The Age in 2006, whereby he stated that “stenciling is not graffiti, it just happens to be with a spray can…stencillists don’t spray every wall – they’re very aware of their environment.” Thus, rather than being termed as ‘vandals,’ the festival promotes stencil art as improving the public’s perception of local space and that imbues the city with an enlivening cultural legacy.
At present, Tourism authorities and government bureaucrats are lifting Melbourne’s profile and marketability by making the Stencil Festival sit firmly on the tourist calendar. Judy Morton, former Mayor of the City of Yarra even proposed publishing a street art guide for tourists to navigate the city’s ‘hot spots. Despite anti-graffiti laws, Melbourne’s street art continues to pulsate. Even the world’s most influential website on stencil graffiti, Stencil Revolution, was prompted by the recognition of the festival. Yet the irony remains – whilst Melbourne supports young people, the culture and the arts, it forcefully prohibits one of the prized artforms for which it is internationally celebrated.
Rising Tide: Film & Video works from the MCA Collection
26 June – 23 August
Alison van der Linden
Ali van der Linden recently visited the MCAs video collection and was swept away by the calibre of contemporary film art in Australia………
Video and film art could be said to be a rising tide in the contemporary art scene, internationally and at home, steadily gaining momentum in Australian art. The MCA’s Rising Tides: Film and Video works from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Collection which recently concluded, was an exhibition devoted entirely to the medium of film and video (Young, Sydney alive 2009). All works, by contemporary Australian artists, have been acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection in the last six years and all have been previously displayed in a similar format at the MCA in San Diego. This was an impressive selection of contemporary video art from Australia.
In Rising Tides, moving images has been used as a means to explore traditional themes such as self-portraiture (Kate Murphy), landscape (Todd McMillan) and social commentary (the Kingpins). Many of the artists have also worked previously in more traditional medium’s of painting and sculpture before venturing into digital art. As raised by J Matthews in the Artkritique blog (27 July 2009) “The works by women were definitely the most engaging and thought provoking”, an idea which I concur, with the ladies varying subject matter still all indicating clever narrative. These diverse narratives challenged the audience with stories of family, inferred the existence of under-water people, apocalyptic viruses and questioned the validation of masculinity in popular culture.
The sole focus on moving images in Rising Tides is a deliberate acknowledgement of the increasing popularity of film art by artists as technology becomes cheaper, easier and more accessible. “Over recent years- even the last six years since these films were acquired- the exhibition of digital art in galleries has become increasingly sophisticated and prominent” states D Angeloro, MCA educational co-ordinator (resource 2009). The recent awarding of the national Blake Prize (for spiritual and religious art) for the first time to a video artist, Angelica Mesiti, further indicates how much moving images has infiltrated popular visual culture and awards. The Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship was won in August by a video/sound experimentalist, and selected finalists were predominantly video or digital installations, a further indication of growing dominance of this discipline in Australia.
Video is also a far more affordable art form for institutions to acquire, with compact storage and cheap transport/courier costs to other countries. Investment in top quality projection technology enhances works, and can be used repeatedly to display a multitude of films in the MCA collection.
Overall Rising Tides was well executed; the exhibition and layout was well considered in relation to moving images and the requirements of lighting, projection and sound to exhibit such works. As each artist’s work had a designated room or specific space at a distance from other works, films varying in content and intention didn’t have to compete for attention of the viewer, and could be enjoyed singularly in the moment. However, the lack of signage and directions to the exhibition on the fourth level is a continuing problem that the MCA needs to address if it hopes to attract crowds off the street and into its shows.
Patricia Piccininis’ Sandman (2002) film was originally part of another exhibition incorporating installation, film and sculpture. Her narrative film begins with a girl swimming in choppy seas with some difficulty; it becomes clear she is more at ease under the water’s surface than above it. Whilst she is floating tranquilly beneath the sea we notice gills on the side of her neck; could she be a mer-person or hybrid water creature? Our imagination is stirred and we want to discover more about this elusive creature. The water scenes are beautiful, however, at times it did seem contrived; I felt as if I was watching an episode of Chanel 10’s tween series “H2O; just add water” (in which three attractive beach babes develop a strange genetic mutation which enables them to transform into mermaids and invariably save their ocean habitat on a regular basis).
Equally tranquil were the four floating boats in Jess MacNeils’ The shape of between, gently gliding over the river Ganges in the misty grey of early morning simultaneously away and towards each other. A sense of calm prevails, and as the boats never intersect each other, you could easily watch this perpetual state of floating for hours. The grey early morning sun gives the river scene a spiritual and soft glow. The installation of this film in the naturally semi-lit room, alongside the horizontal shadows working their way up the Opera House steps, worked beautifully to enhance the serenity of both works. The horizontal slithers of shadow on the Opera House (but strangely no figures creating them) are entrancing and elevate the mundane to the fascinating.
Passenger by Susan Norrie is a series of stunning black and white footage. The hollow, eerie sounds compliment the floating, delayed quality of the films (projected onto all four walls of the large room). The isolated, darkened room for the work created a sound vacuum around the series of vintage holiday reels and scenes of scientists clad in bio-hazard suits collecting specimens, as though a scientific catastrophe had befallen the holiday destination.
The film noir quality of suspense is easily evident in reels depicting the floating ferris-wheel, and combined with the haunting images of the scientist’s, a sense of narrative develops. Has civilisation been eradicated by a virus? Are the clad men immune, and surveying the carnage from the safety of their suits? Did they create this situation in their labs; or have we simply jumped to this conclusion because of the sensational coverage of SARS and Swine Flu virus in recent years by the media? The whole work was like a spine-tingling, suspenseful Patricia Cornwall novel, clinical yet quietly threatening and intimidating.
Similarly David Noonans’ Owl (2004) also took elements from film noir. Shadowy and grainy with the owl half concealed by night-fall, it was reminiscent of the “blow up” of those alleged crime scene photographs from Michelangelo Antonioni’s (1966) masterpiece with its raw, smudged edges and the haunting gaze of the owl.
Social commentary is the order of The Kingpins collaborative work Welcome to the jingle. Obviously subverting Starbucks, and its world wide franchise of stores that look and smell the same any where in the world from the US to Egypt; the universal model of consumerism and globalisation. The choreographed routine by the drag-kings (women dressed as men) and original music was absolutely hilarious, compounded by the fact the customers in Starbucks don’t even look up from their coffees when the Kingpins’ routine was unfolding beside them.
They satirise the consumerism and global bland (brand) of the Starbucks franchise, by capturing the publics indifference to their routine. Even the sores on the artists faces (actually intended to be teenage acne) appeal as a sort of symbolic festering lesions- a poignant symbol of excess and degeneration in society. I have to wonder why the Kingpins dress in drag; is it to “validate” their art, or is it a simple case of tongue-in-cheek? As men, is their choreographed routine a substantial method to critique consumerism, whereas by women the same method is deemed merely entertainment – a song and dance? With the two screens set up opposite each other, at each end of a long room, a “Tennis match” effect occurred when watching- flicking your attention from one screen to the other. Perhaps it would have been more effective if set up on adjacent walls in a corner, having the moving images on both screens work in tandem.
The Neddy Project by TV Moore (Timothy Vernon Moore) was another effective display of works by a sole artist separately. A series of films about two mythologised outlaws named “Neddy” – Ned Kelly and the underworld figure Neddy Smith- who morph as mirror images and extensions of each other (R Kent, MCA education resource 2009) from the centre of each screen. With the success of Underbelly and underworld television shows in recent years, characters of crime and violence have become celebrity figures, revered by men as idols or anti-establishment rebels. In one sense the artist has captured this sense of awe in the two figures, but ultimately the constant comparison, repetition and intersection of the two personalities rendered the two very different characters as one and the same, bleaching them of uniqueness.
The most enjoyable work by a male artist was Shaun Gladwells’ Tangara - a cleverly deceptive piece which at first appears to be filmed in a space shuttle as the artist clutches to a steel handle to avoid floating off in zero-gravity. In fact, the artist is hanging upside down from a hand railing in a Sydney train, the Tangara, the film flipped the wrong-side up and slowed down to enhance a sense of gravity loss in space. In San Diego, RL Pincus (San Diego Union-Tribune 25.06.09) thought the work was a “A thoroughly childish, yet clever, distortion of being ‘down under’ “ a comment which suggests Americas pre-occupation with that notion (That, and we all ride kangaroos to work) than our own consciousness to being wrong way up, or “other”. I simply found Gladwells’ work intriguing and quirky, as it took several moments to comprehend the scene he had constructed.
In contrast, Daniel von Sturmers’ work was rather dull. His investigation of the aesthetic, physical and conceptual properties of materials read more like a static film of a pile of plasticine and rubbish sitting on a desk. Whilst Todd McMillans’ time lapse film of himself in the landscape By the Sea was, in his own words, a failure. By standing on the headlands “from dusk until dawn—facing towards the bleak ocean in search of enlightenment… in the end nothing was achieved; ultimately introspection and self reflection did not bring any answers or renewed wisdom, and a longing for more remained” (R Kent MCA educational resource 2009) as well as feeling thoroughly frozen I’m sure! None of these works really challenged the audience nor induced a sense of narrative beyond what is placed in front of you.
There was no direct theme which connected the works in Rising Tide, but that wasn’t necessary, due to the layout of works in separate confined spaces, making each individual experience one to be enjoyed and savoured. The “link” between MCA San Diego and Sydney was rather a weak, mute point as the exhibition was self-contained on its own. Perhaps there could have been more of a dialogue between the two institutions, a mix of Australian and contemporary American video works on display in a reciprocal exhibition. The need to justify the exhibition with the relationship to MCA San Diego was unnecessary, as contemporary Australian film art, particularly the narratives developed by female artists, is clearly well developed of its own accord.
Rising Tide: Film & Video works from the Museum of Contemporary Art collection will be showing at the MCA from 26 June – 23 August 2009