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Tim Burns, Exploding  TVs for the Sake of Art, digital prints on canvas Tim Burns, Exploding TVs for the Sake of Art, digital prints on canvas
A RECENT RETROSPECTIVE AT URBAN DINGO GALLERY IN FREMANTLE DOCUMENTS THIRTY YEARS OF THE WORK OF AUSTRALIAN ARTIST TIM BURNS. SUCH A MOVE SIGNALS A DESIRE FOR A DEMARCATED BODY OF WORK, FOR THE UNITY OF WHAT WE MIGHT CALL AN OEUVRE. BUT HOW TO DOCUMENT WORK THAT HAS BEEN LARGELY CONCEPTUAL AND OFTEN PERFORMATIVE?

There is the authored body of work, and then there is the person. No ‘Tim Burns’ without Tim Burns, and both Burns are elusive and novelistic. I am reminded of the Maltese Falcon, and then of DeLillo’s 1978 novel Running Dog, in which a female journalist pursues rumours of a missing reel of film purporting to show Eva Braun engaged in unspeakable acts with Hitler in the bunker. In DeLillo’s 1997 opus Underworld, seemingly unrelated orders of being are meaningfully connected in a grand paranoiac arc of megalomaniacal intentionality, which begins with a 1951 baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Giants. The American critic James Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” to capture this literary trend which, he argues, is characterised by a fear of silence, and creates instead “a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.”

Tim Burns might or might not be a hysterical realist, but there is little doubt that Don DeLillo would know what to do with both of the Burns, and how to situate their codependent artistry. He would begin in 1981, with a single canister (or two? three?) of 16mm film, on which is written Against the Grain. He would use a formal prose, as if assembling a catalogue, and take 500 pages or more to cleverly link every one of the artist’s subsequent concerns back to this 78-minute independent film. He would flesh out the artist’s refusal to respect the hierarchies of place. He would recreate a scene in the film which is set in Burns’ mother’s kitchen and then skip a decade or so to an apartment on the Lower East Side to hint at the everyday hustle of life in New York (the struggle to keep the kitty litter clean etc) before returning to Perth, to the slaughter of sheep on a wheat belt farm. Gunpowder, bombs, and bicycles would proliferate. There would be the odd disaster, large and small.

DeLillo would abut terror and humour to demonstrate the way that hierarchies of things are flattened and disrespected, in good and bad ways. He would talk about women, about men, about karaoke clips, about a kind of manic investment and rifle-quick abandonment. He might even mention Buckminster Fuller, but only because he had just read an article about him in a magazine, but he would connect it in some way. He would draw upon the files that I took away with me from the exhibition, extracting a list of names, part of the history of art and film and theatre and friendship and infamy: Bette Gordon, Lindzee Smith, Robert Cooney, Jim Jarmusch, Ian de Gruchy, Sandy Edwards, the Cantrills, Daniel Keene, Heather Woodbury, and Charlotte Rampling in Alice Springs...The names would go on and on, both familiar and unknown, but all meaning something to someone somewhere.

But I am barking up the wrong tree. This exhibition stands as a reminder that when writing of the work of artists—and the lives of mortals—the metaphor of the book is to be mobilised cautiously. Do we search for connection, or do we not? Should we look for our ends in our beginnings? Indeed, should we even have beginnings, middles, and ends? How the hell does an artist develop, anyway?

Linearity did not seem to be an issue with the Urban Dingo exhibition. The show was bound by the space of the small gallery and by the kind of energetic improvisational logic familiar to those who have known or worked with Tim Burns. The exhibition seemed to operate by a strategy of quotation and accumulation: ‘Let’s not forget that I also did this, and this. And this.’ And Tim Burns has done so many things over the last 35 years. Like many artists who have stepped out from under (or in) what the arts bureaucrats call ‘silos’ (note the conjuncture of Cold War militarism and art) his work is impossible to characterise: relentlessly time-based, contextual, collaborative, ephemeral, driven.

In the documentation I saw disjunctions and adjacencies rather than connections. No interest in the flowering or fruiting of a career here; nothing autumnal. Such organic metaphors (other than those associated with the worthy realms of trash, rubbish and refuse) are outside the purview of Tim Burns. Instead we are well across whole planets of colliding practices. Histories of technologies compact and implode; super 8, video, 16 mm, projections. We glimpse theatrical performance, should-have-happened-but-didn’t-quite happenings. We are with installation, broadcast media, painting; we are collecting things from the street. We are in Melbourne, in New York, in Alice Springs, in Hamilton Hill.
Collaborating, or working alone.

Many of the images on the walls seemed to be stills from film, theatre and installations, digitally rendered onto canvas and sold as multiples. Like yesterday’s loose buttons, the images had worked their way toward an unhinging. I struggled to stitch them back into place. It is so like Tim Burns, I thought, to surrender the integrity of the past (can we still use that word?) to the work at hand, which is, for all of us, going on and getting by.

Tim Burns’ work has always been shaped by tight or invisible budgets, and by the unsentimental technologies of paranoia (be it terrorism, the CIA, broadcast media or arts funding bodies). A stubborn avant-gardism, take it or leave it, underlies his work. It has a guerrilla quality, which marks him as of the street, and at the crest of the historical moment. The moment does not pass. It just becomes another moment. And another, until all the moments run out. And that is a moment I cannot imagine.


Fotofreo 2008, On Record, Tim (3rd degree) Burns Retrospective, Urban Dingo Gallery, Fremantle, April 10-May 5

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 46

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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