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History's great escape

Daniel Edwards

An eternal present, an absence of memory and a dissociation of words, symbols and images from meaning: these are the symptoms of the ‘schizophrenic’ social condition diagnosed by Frederic Jameson in his 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (Hal Foster ed, The Anti-Aesthetic, Bay Press, Seattle, 1983). Twenty years on Jameson’s diagnosis has even more credence, so it is no surprise to find 2 recent installations at the Art Gallery of New South Wales responding to this aspect of contemporary experience, albeit in very different ways.

Sound artist, filmmaker and writer Philip Brophy pays homage to the androgynous theatricality of early 70s glam rock with Fluorescent, comprising a circle of 5 speakers in front of 3 simultaneous video projections. Ever-changing lines of colour play across the screens, bringing to mind the video clip for Plastic Bertrand’s 1978 pop classic Ca plane pour moi. Brophy periodically appears out of this swirling matrix sporting spiked hair, thigh-high shiny vinyl boots and a ball-hugging leotard. He mouths a few risque lines before disappearing, until the backing band kicks in on his fourth appearance and he performs a specially-penned glam rock anthem.

The various tracks that comprise the song are separated across the ring of 5 highly directional speakers, which means the song sounds quite different depending on where you stand in the circle. The extreme separation between the sonic components of the soundtrack highlights the self-consciously manufactured nature of Brophy’s “Fluorescent” persona. The overall effect is of loud, vulgar, theatrical fun, and many viewers burst into spontaneous laughter at the sight of Brophy’s gyrating, larger than life form.

Glam was always about celebrating the brash disposability of pop culture and the performative aspects of identity. In this sense, Brophy’s work doesn’t do anything that glam itself didn’t do in the early 70s. But he takes familiar iconography and places it in a gallery setting, creating resonances beyond the world of popular music. Glam here is no longer a knowing reconfiguration of existing images from the realm of popular culture, but rather a trope unto itself that has entered the infinite matrix of images comprising contemporary experience. Brophy’s joyful performance celebrates the arbitrary recycling of the past and the freedom of employing symbols and icons divorced from their original context and meaning.

Across the gallery, an installation by Mike Parr and Adam Geczy takes a darker look at this culture of free-floating signifiers. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay comprises 2 screens at right angles to each other. Loud guitar chords pound out of one speaker, a cacophony of incomprehensible voices from the other. Against the opposite wall is an immense pile of newspapers. On one screen we see Parr projected upside down, sitting limply holding an Australian flag, his face criss-crossed with thread sewn into his flesh. On the other screen we see footage of the sewing itself in lurid red close up. Fear passes over Parr’s features as the needle approaches and blood splatters onto his shirt as it punctures his flesh. The footage is from Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi (Democratic Torture), a performance from May 2003 at Sydney’s Performance Space.

Like Brophy’s piece, the work references popular music, this time through the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah sub-title taken from Walt Disney’s Song of the South: “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay / My, oh my, what a wonderful day/ Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way...

The inane sentiments of the 1940s pop song provide a stark contrast with the installation’s graphic imagery. The dissonance reflects the nature of a country that likes to think of itself as happy-go-lucky while coolly perpetrating state-sanctioned violence on some of the planet’s most vulnerable people. The Mass Psychology of Fascism is a confronting intervention in the deadening profusion of mediated images and obfuscating political discourse that has helped create an Australian electorate who not only willingly accept the subjugation of others, but willingly embrace their own subjugation before the Howard government’s constant re-writing of the recent and distant past.

Fluorescent and The Mass Psychology of Fascism are 2 sides of the postmodern coin. Brophy’s work celebrates the notion of self as nothing but the endless recycling of symbols and styles already in circulation. In contrast, Geczy and Parr’s visceral installation highlights the fact that in such a media-saturated environment it has never been easier for ideologically-driven politicians to dictate the words, images and symbols through which the contemporary subject makes meaning.

Fluorescent, Philip Brophy, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Feb 15-April 18, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay, Mike Parr and Adam Geczy, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Feb 8-March 7

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 36

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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