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love might not come easily to art, but…

ella mudie: we used to talk about love


Polly Borland, Untitled IV from the series Smudge 2010;  We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW Polly Borland, Untitled IV from the series Smudge 2010; We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW
courtesy the artist and Murray White Room, Melbourne
A LONG WEEKEND CAN BRING A DIVERSE CROWD INTO A GALLERY AND SO ON A BUSTLING EASTER SATURDAY I FOUND MYSELF OBSERVING WITH SOME FASCINATION THE REACTIONS OF AUDIENCES TO THE LATEST BALNAVES FOUNDATION EXHIBITION, WE USED TO TALK ABOUT LOVE, AT THE ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES.

The combination of a re-engineered viewing space (a collaboration between curator Natasha Bullock and architect Jan van Schaik), which adapted the galleries into an intimate labyrinthine configuration, and the lyrical quietness emanating from the vernacular subject matter resulted in a focused viewing experience with a stilling effect, yielding some surprising results.

Most striking was the communion taking place in the darkened, altar-like space housing Grant Stevens’ minimalist video installation, Crushing (2009), where audiences appeared mesmerised by the drift of white text messages floating across the black screen. Set to a wistful piano soundtrack, the texts sharpened into focus and then faded out, coalescing into a loose narrative that poignantly conveyed the anguish of a break-up. Families leaned in closer to one another as they watched, mothers stretched their arms around their kids to offer comfort and one man gently rested his hand on his wife’s shoulder. Despite the banality of the phrases, this intuition of the universal experience of rejection aroused an atmosphere of shared vulnerability in the space.

Not all works in this exhibition of photomedia by 11 contemporary artists exploring the theme of love were intended to provoke such strong affects. Still, emotional responses were encouraged by Bullock’s thoughtful curating which sought to chart the more treacherous, taboo or melancholic, rather than sentimental, territories of love. There were allusions to the complexities and contradictions of young love, for example, in such works as Angelica Mesiti’s video Rapture (silent anthem) (2009). Capturing the spiritual quality of the idolatrous fervour of a crowd of sweaty teenagers in a mosh pit, Mesiti also tapped into the powerful role that projection and transferred affection play in sublimating overwhelming feelings like love in the transition into adulthood.

Far from the collective euphoria of this scene, there was much solitude and yearning in the slickly aestheticised photographs of David Sylvester. Redolent of advertising images in their strategic placement of consumer items, Sylvester’s photographs suggest stories around isolated figures. In one image, a forlorn high school student clutches a break-up letter while in another a teenage couple in a library appear trapped in the gaze of their peers. These emotionally stranded protagonists disarm the viewer in their incongruence with the breezy confidence and self-assurance we have come to expect of the subjects of aspirational mass-media culture.

Paul Knight, Untitled (2012), We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW Paul Knight, Untitled (2012), We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW
image courtesy the artist
A show about love would be incomplete without reference to the body and while sex was not a strong feature of this exhibition, it did take an expansive approach in this area. In a section themed To Begin with the Flesh, the very different works of Polly Borland and Paul Knight, for example, were connected by their impulse to push beyond idealised representations of the body that curtail our appreciation of the complexities of sexual language.

Standing before Borland’s Smudge (2010) photographs, I overhead one viewer describe the work as “nightmarish.” But what, exactly, is the nature of Borland’s nightmare? In this uncompromising and oddly humorous suite of portraiture, sitters dressed in stockings, lycra, prosthetics, wigs and other accoutrements, are transformed into uncanny, post-human creations. Here it is arguably the repression or shame caused by fear of the body that is depicted as more ugly than whatever one feels compelled to hide. Also concerned with the limits of photographic representation were Knight’s candid photographs of couples in bed. Literally folded to partially conceal the nudity of their subjects, this cleave in the images alluded to the doubleness of physical intimacy as a tightrope dance between togetherness and separation.

David Roseztky, How to feel (still) (2011), We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW David Roseztky, How to feel (still) (2011), We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photo media; AGNSW
image courtesy the artists and Sutton Gallery Melbourne, © the artist
More pervasive than the body, though, was the question of whether living in an age of rampantly proliferating ‘connecting’ technologies is actually making it any easier to express profound emotions like love. The resounding response offered here, implicitly rather than explicitly, was no. Painting a particularly alienating picture was David Rosetzky’s feature length video, How To Feel (2011), in which the artist collaborated with a choreographer and dramaturg in bringing together a group of actors in a warehouse setting where they explored, verbally and non-verbally, the challenges of authentic communication and social interaction. The dance sequences were perhaps more effective than the dialogue, which at times felt a bit contrived, in conveying the psychological barriers and defences that the individual pushes against in the daily performance of the self.

Contemporary art and love haven’t always shared an easy relationship. During the 20th century, in particular, its feminised associations positioned love as an unmodern theme. In her introductory essay, however, Bullock notes a recent paradigm shift as emotion, intimacy and affect become of increasing relevance to artists. This exhibition offered strong supporting evidence for such a shift. It might not come easily but love, it seems, is certainly something we will be talking more about.


Art Gallery of New South Wales: We used to talk about love, Balnaves contemporary: photomedia. Artists Polly Borland, Eliza Hutchison, Paul Knight, Angelica Mesiti, David Noonan, David Rosetzky, Tim Silver, Glenn Sloggett, Grant Stevens, Darren Sylvester, Justene Williams; AGNSW, Jan 31-April 21

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg.

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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