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Homesteads, 2009, Chris Howlett Homesteads, 2009, Chris Howlett
courtesy the artist
THIS INSIGHTFULLY CURATED AND COMPELLING EXHIBITION BRINGS TOGETHER SEVERAL ARTISTS WHOSE WORK EXPLORES OUR SOMETIMES DESPERATE NEED TO EXPRESS UNHAPPY THOUGHTS AND TALK TO SOMEONE. TAKEN TOGETHER, THE WORKS EXAMINE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES IN MENTAL HEALTH AND PERSONAL RELATIONS IN A COMPLEX, ELECTRONICALLY MEDIATED WORLD. VOCAL THOUGHTS IS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS, ACTING LIKE A CUBIST’S ANALYSIS OF AN OBJECT, IN THIS CASE HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY, IN WHICH WE SEE MANY FACETS SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Firstly, Daniel Johnston’s drawings of a fantasy world of comic book heroes such as Captain America and his enemies depict life as a contest between good and evil. These cartoons question the heroes we turn to for aid—Captain America might represent a USA unable to deliver promised assistance. Johnston is best known as a musician and his art is an alternative voice. In the context of this exhibition, the story of his apparent mental health issues prompts us to address the nature of society’s response to those calling for help.

In Anna Davis and Jason Gee’s video Biohead Actualised (2008), a ventriloquist’s dummy lectures us on the power of positive thought, for example, “think wealth,” “poverty is a mental disease” and “never discuss your problems with anyone except a financial counsellor.” The dummy implies control by unseen forces, and the work parodies self-help books and critiques the materialist values that conflate health with wealth. The video screen can also be seen as a mirror, where the viewer becomes the dummy, helplessly parroting empty liturgies that become increasingly negative and disturbed, like our own inner dialogues. Adjacent is Kate Murphy’s video The Appointment (2009), showing a consultation with a psychologist from the client’s perspective. The therapist asks typical questions and pauses while we privately answer, perhaps revealing more to ourselves than we would to a real psychologist. But, juxtaposed with Davis and Gee’s creation, we wonder if counsellors are just Bioheads preaching nonsense. Both works invite us to consider the possibilities and likely effectiveness of pre-programmed online therapy.

These themes develop in different ways in the remaining works. Chris Howlett’s three animations, Homesteads, Homesteads I and Homesteads II (2009), resemble The Sims VR games, but here the characters play out predetermined routines and we can’t interact with them. Homesteads shows a dysfunctional family accompanied by dialogue sampled from talk shows in which members of the public tell tales of loneliness, vulnerability, bullying and abuse of all kinds, including online predation. In Homesteads II, the Grim Reaper stalks a Kevin Rudd lookalike, the vision accompanied by the soundtrack of an ALP political advertisement, a discussion of the controversy surrounding Bill Henson’s photography, referencing Rudd’s much publicised comments on the matter, and a US soldier’s account of his role in a fatal military blunder in Iraq. Howlett’s work critiques our dystopian world and especially our selfish disregard for the welfare of others. But it also speaks of the essential human need for communication and self-disclosure.

Time is the fire in which we burn, 2009, Dani Marti Time is the fire in which we burn, 2009, Dani Marti
courtesy the artist and BREENSPACE
Dani Marti’s two videos provide contrasting perspectives on the individual seeking intimacy and personal connection. Time is the fire in which we burn (2009) is an emotionally charged interview conducted by the artist with a lover in bed, evidently one of series in which the artist encourages his subject to speak openly about his life and feelings in such a setting. This absorbing documentary presents the tragic personal account of the subject but also renders us as voyeurs intruding into an intimate moment. Projecting the video at an enlarged scale and showing it in a curtained space (to meet censorship requirements) amplifies the intimacy and makes our voyeurism seem uncomfortably acute. But, unlike Murphy’s psychologist, Marti is actively intervening in his subject’s life by establishing an intimate relationship with him. Whether Marti is catalysing his partner’s self-awareness or his partner is self-consciously acting a role, we see how, in any relationship, we might recreate our persona for our partner.

Marti’s second video, Andrea greeted with a pubescent smile (2008), is a soliloquy in which a young woman speaks of her social encounters through the internet, another example of self-disclosure that reveals how we have come to rely on the superficial companionship of chat rooms while guarding ourselves against predators with fake identities. Marti’s video is a profound commentary on the impact of the internet on social interaction, and both his works are extraordinarily candid and deeply affecting personal accounts that ache with loneliness. When seeking friendship, information or advice through the internet, we open ourselves to abuse and colonisation by quacks, lovers, voyeurs and fakes—gamers of all kinds.

As if to reassure us, the final works in this exhibition offer the semblance of real life. Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta–Kalleinen organised a series of amateur choral performances in St Petersburg, Tokyo, Chicago, Helsinki, Hamburg and Birmingham, and recorded them on video as the Complaints Choir (2006). We see ordinary citizens of all ages happily singing their complaints about their lives—unsatisfactory relationships, workplace difficulties, incompetent and uncaring governments, incomprehensible technological gadgetry and so on. In this exhibition, the Complaints Choir seems more like group therapy than activism and we readily identify with these people and their wish to be heard. Their camaraderie is both palpable and uplifting.

Vocal Thoughts is an essay in human communication, intimacy and relationships. The themes of vulnerability, emotional and psychological disturbance, confession and the nature of self-awareness run throughout, making the exhibition richly illuminating. If technological development has brought us to the verge of a radical form of post-humanism, Vocal Thoughts reminds us of the privacy and humanity we risk losing, and urges that we understand our own psychology better before proceeding. As well as revealing the potential for communications technologies to mediate self-awareness, Vocal Thoughts demonstrates the level of sophistication artists have attained in using video and animation. The art lies in positioning the work in the interstices between cinema, documentary, web page, game and cartoon so as to capitalise on the power of those media and synthesise new forms and effects. The inclusion of Johnston’s drawings in the show locates each medium in a broader perspective, revealing its relative authority and reach.


Vocal Thoughts, curator Peter McKay, artists Anna Davis and Jason Gee, Chris Howlett, Daniel Johnston, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, Dani Marti, Kate Murphy; Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, Sept 10-Oct 10

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 46

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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