info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
 Alex Kershaw, One of Several Centres Alex Kershaw, One of Several Centres
VIDEO ART WAS ORIGINALLY CHAMPIONED FOR ITS DEMOCRATIC IMMEDIACY, WHICH ARTISTS JUXTAPOSED AGAINST THE COLD FORMALISM OF HIGH MODERNISM. EVEN TODAY, DIGITAL VIDEO TENDS TO BE MORE ABOUT CONTENT THAN FORM. LIKE AMATEUR NEWS FOOTAGE, THE IMPUTED REALISM AND BANAL YET OFTEN FORCEFUL MATERIALITY OF VIDEO CONTINUES TO UNDERPIN MUCH OF ITS POWER, EVEN AS DIGITALISATION ENABLES EVER GREATER DEGREES OF MEDIATION. THIS PLAYING OFF OF ‘REAL LIFE’ VERSUS ‘MEDIATED ARTIFICE’ ANIMATES ALEX KERSHAW’S INSTALLATION, ONE OF SEVERAL CENTRES, RECENTLY EXHIBITED AT THE FREMANTLE ARTS CENTRE, WHILE NOTEBOOK AT PICA BY THE UK’S JOHN WOOD AND PAUL HARRISON LIES FIRMLY IN THE REALM OF FABRICATED FORM.

Kershaw’s work, underpinned by vacant tones and marginally noisy field recordings mixed by Gail Priest, is a response to Australia’s mythic red centre. Filmed in and around Alice Springs, Kershaw presents a surprisingly urban vision. Indeed, as the title implies, there is a strange sense of decentredness to the installation. Kershaw’s sites seem eternally at the periphery, forgotten spaces nestled about a pleasingly rusted, semi-industrial circuit. We see, from inside, a local and her dog repeatedly circumnavigating an empty water tank; an all but deserted street roundabout being laid with rolls of grass; a Maori busker singled out against a concrete wall; an empty carpark behind a yellow warehouse (shades of Melbourne’s once neglected ‘Yellow Peril’ sculpture, Vault) wherein a young man, recalling Buster Keaton, noisily stacks cheap plastic chairs to a dangerous height; and even a darkened playground, illuminated by torchlight, as one man moves about its geodesic climbing frames. Like the field of yellow backing the carpark, the playground carries suggestions of Modernist failure, given that geodesic domes were proposed as utopian architectural forms.

At times, Kershaw’s vision recalls for me Agnès Varda’s Mur/Murs (Walls/Murmurs; 1980), notably where we see a figure carefully measuring a public mural. Both Varda and Kershaw worked with photography before shifting to moving images, and they share a liking for the locked-off, wide-frame shot, replayed with minimal sound, to effect both a re-enchantment of urban space as well as a wistful melancholy. These are fragile relationships between figure and surroundings, which might not survive beyond filming. The ordinary urbanity of these Alice Springs locals in their own environment gives the work the feeling of a poetic documentary, with extended viewing revealing a gentle artifice of framing, rhythm and space. Projection on two screens enhances this, giving a languid, minimalist flow to the work.

For all the subtle, slow moving delights of One Of Several Centres, Kershaw is not Varda, and his scenarios do not all match. The self-conscious, actorly performance of the chair-stacker and the rare use of a cut to an upper body close-up make this sequence jar with the others, which (as with the wanderer in the graffitied water tank) otherwise coil and stream more easily in their relaxed minimalism of editing, framing and performance. This is nevertheless a highly affective work for those with the patience to await its charms.

More striking is the installation by Wood and Harrison. The old joke about contemporary art—and in particular early video art documenting artists performing mundane tasks—was that it could be made by anyone. This is manifestly not the case with Notebook, whose visual precision (ironically) allies it with Modernism, Malevich, de Stijl, Bauhaus artists and their peers. Notebook consists of 101 shorts, each filmed in the artists’ crisp, white studio with featureless grey walls and evenly distributed light (largely from above). Most involve a perfectly rectangular, gleamingly blank table, and each starts with an initial pause or lull in which one has just enough time to evaluate the set-up. Then an event is triggered, in most cases with the artists (and even their hands) out of shot. Actions happen sometimes with a snap, but more frequently via a temporal arc in which the occurrence eases into realisation before a sharp conclusion. The camera then allows one to reflect on the consequences, before fading to black, and the next one-to-two minute event is played.

Humour—of the austerely blank type—hovers over these performances, spoofing in part the ideals of Modernist aesthetics. Painters such as Kandinsky and the French Cubist Gleizes often described their work as formalist experiments, as parascientific tests of what would happen if one related colour to shape according to a particular rule, or if one altered perceptual frames following precise principles. Wood and Harrison likewise relate a series of aesthetic and physical propositions. What happens if one drops a grid of uniform green apples, hung by fishing line, suddenly over the space defined by the tabletop? One is offered a rubber band affixed to the diagonal points edging the table and length of the band constrained about its rectangular margins, before it is released to define a dark line across the surface. This experiment becomes an aesthetic gesture akin to Mondrian’s lines and brushstrokes.

Drawing on both the history of performance art, and criticism about Pollock and Field Painting (their vast canvases as standing in for the artist’s body), the oeuvre of Wood and Harrison is animated by tensions around bodily absence and presence. This is highlighted by those rare pieces in which the artists themselves appear. I particularly enjoyed the sight of one, dressed in anonymous black, lying unemotional under the tabletop, before a shower of plaster from above scattered across its surface and onto the floor about him. Where the artists do not appear, objects and spaces are redolent of their displaced physicality.

John Wood & Paul Harrison, Notebook John Wood & Paul Harrison, Notebook
Notebook succeeds by its varied appeal. One can think deeply about its formalism, and its clear austerity gives it a look little video art attains. Or one can laugh at its comic physics lessons. Perhaps most importantly, this is not—to quote Adrian Martin—another “little black box [TV] inside the big white box” of the gallery, which insists one view it in the same way as one watches cinema or television. The visitor can enjoy the full duration of the 101 variations, or dip in and out, watch five minutes, leave, and return for another 30 seconds, and still appreciate this artwork—a welcome relief from the bloated durations artists such as Matthew Barney arrogantly demand. If only all video art was so crafted, yet unassuming.


For excerpts from Notebook and an interview with Harrison & Wood, see www.tate.org.uk/go/tateshots_issue12_harrisonwood.mp4 (This link will download the file, rather than taking you to a website.)

Alex Kershaw, One of Several Centres, 2-screen HD digital video & surround sound, concept, camera operation, editing Kershaw, sound designer Gail Priest; Fremantle Arts Centre, Nov 29, 2008–Jan 25, 2009; John Wood & Paul Harrison, Notebook, digital video; Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), Dec 3, 2008 –Feb 1, 2009

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 46

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top