By Peter Johnson
Process Emergent 2 is a group show that I recently curated at At the Vanishing Point (ATVP), an artist-run initiative in Newtown. The works were selected from the end of year shows held by the major tertiary institutions in Sydney: the College of Fine Arts (University of New South Wales), Sydney College of the Arts (University of Sydney), and the National Art School. Each of the six selected artists completed their degree with Honours in 2011 and, in my view, represent the best of their cohort – those artists who dedicated a year to producing not only a body of work, but to intense academic engagement with their practice.
The works were selected purely on their individual merit; on the subjective responses of the Director of ATVP, Brendan Penzer and myself. However, in considering the works in relation to one another, my attention was drawn to the striking similarities between them: a repeated representation of things fading out, being drawn away.
Critics, art historians and curators have often sought to draw out the common threads that bind together a group of contemporary artists and their works. At times it can almost seem like a competition to correctly identify the creative antecedents to particular practices in order to anticipate and enunciate the coming zeitgeist. Theorists rushed to claim the Grunge movement of the early 1990s as the cultural by-product of Reaganomics or the embodiment of Julia Kristeva’s ‘abjection’; to identify its precursors in the work of Paul McCarthy or even Marcel Duchamp.
However, the idea of rolling avant-garde movements, of identifiable schools of thought or visual analysis seems increasingly antiquated. Artists (no doubt encouraged by arts institutions) pursue individual aesthetic and conceptual strategies and it seems decreasingly possible to identify any sort of collectively pursued concerns or aspirations.
This is nothing new. This is Post-Modernism where nothing is new.
As such, it is not my intention to make a claim over the artists in Process Emergent 2 or their peers, to insist that they belong to a new and easily identifiable movement. However, if it is possible to identify a theme running through the selected works, to perhaps lift the lid on our cultural milieu just a fraction, it seems to be one of loss. Each work, in its own particular way, speaks to what has been lost and, if not mourning its passing, acknowledges the emptiness left in its absence.
The aesthetic strategies employed by the six works differ considerably, from delicate porcelain sculpture to an eight-hour performance piece, from DIY photocopying to environmental installation. Despite this seeming heterogeneity, each work confronts and explores an experience of loss from the personal to the metaphysical.
Mee-Sun Kim Park’s ceramic sculptures deal directly with the loss experienced in moving to a new country, culture and language. Towering plumes of smoke stretch above the small house-like structures. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realises that the plumes are constructed from a jumble of Roman alphabet letters (interlacing T’s and R’s and Q’s) on which Korean script has been subtly stamped – an indecipherable hybrid language going up in smoke. The sculptures are so light and delicate that it seems even the slightest breeze might cause them to crack, that the idea of home is just as fragile.
George Shaw’s Why do you always act like it will be this way? also deals with the domestic, with the sense of loss that accompanies watching children grow into adults. The video component of the work tracks an eight-hour performance in which his adolescent son draws messages onto his father’s body that he could not have otherwise expressed. The four life-size prints show these messages slowly fading away after showering each day. Shaw creates a new space for intimacy through his work, an attempt to reconnect and open lost lines of communication with his adolescent son, while demonstrating the impermanence and mutability of that same effort.
How to Make a Photocopy Transfer challenges our loss of knowledge about the processes behind so much of the technology that we use every day. By driving the process back into the analogue, Luke Turner is seeking to re-establish a personal, hands-on relationship with technology. However, the work is underscored by the irony that paper and photocopying are already heading to the dustbin of obsolescence. As we see the copies degrade, their clear lines fade away, and the work becomes less a how-to guide than a demonstration of the way in which knowledge is corrupted through endless reproduction.
Visual loss is repeated in Laura Ellenberger’s suspended portraits, which seem almost like faded film negatives. The multiple layers build up an image to create a sense of the sitter that is at once unrecognisable and somehow much more intimate. Her process – working from ‘death masks’ taken of the subject in plaster – abandons fidelity in an attempt to get at some much more personal truth. The individual features have been washed away and in the end the viewer is only able to garner the faintest glimpse of the original face.
Diffuse (which Jesse Horner reconfigured and reduced in scale for the purposes of this exhibition) provides an immersive meditative environment, shutting the viewer off from the rest of the gallery space. The work creates a contemplative space that invites the participant to quite literally lose their mind – to abandon the razor edge of rational thought and instead drop down into inarticulate, universal consciousness.
Of all the works selected, Alvarez-Sharkey’s video installation perhaps speaks most directly to loss. The work renders a heavily distorted image of the artist dancing to rock’n’roll in full Rebel Without a Cause get-up. He invokes the cultural forms of the 50s and 60s, transposing them onto strange angles and distorted lenses, found objects scattered in their wake, weathered and worn from the passing of time – acting as a slanted peephole view on the past.
Exactly what has been lost varies from one piece to another – personal, cultural, and even formal – but the longer I considered the works in conversation with each other, the more I was filled with a sense of yearning for that which has gone before and which, by its very nature, can never be returned.
I found myself comparing these works to those of the Modernists, perhaps by mere association of dates (the early decades of a new century). In particular, to the urban paintings of the Impressionists, whose vibrant images abandoned accurate representation of line and form in favour of light; and to the Cubists, who represented a splintered vision of time and space. Those early decades of the twentieth century marked a time of vast social upheaval and technological innovation across the globe, and in particular for the West. Europe saw the rise of industrialisation and the discovery of previously inconceivable scientific advancements; massive migration to cities and the ensuing psychological dissonance of living in close quarters with complete strangers; and two world wars which introduced the idea of shellshock, not to mention mechanised cruelty and carnage on a scale never before seen.
It was this era that gave rise to a multiplicity of vanguards and competing modes of thought – to the Futurists and Dadaists, the Existentialists and Surrealists, to Fascists, Communists and Anarchists. At a macro level it seems almost as though the human organism, faced with radical changes to its environment, was evolving novel and fanciful forms in response to, and in anticipation of entirely new ways of seeing and living in the world. A Cambrian Explosion in human society and thought. At a personal level, the widespread discussion of ‘nervous exhaustion’ and atomisation of the self reflects how the increased pace of life, enabled through new technologies and economies of scale, was a cause of real anxiety and concern for the individual. The veteran returns from war uninjured yet broken inside; the flaneur stalks the streets as an observer at once part of, and irrevocably dislocated from, his own society; and, T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock must ‘prepare a face to meet the faces the faces that you meet’.
The cultural products of early Modernism present an apprehension of, or lust for, the technologically fuelled changes occurring at the time. The sensation of speed provided by the motorcar; the wonder and thrill of reproducible moving images on cinema screens; the tensions between the consciousness of a global citizenry and the subconscious repressions of the individual.
Clearly, the works of Process Emergent 2 do not reflect the same anxieties or concerns as those produced a century earlier. However, I believe that there are certain sympathies and similarities between our two times that might illuminate the sense of loss present across the works. The wonder and fear of rapid technological development has been assuaged, replaced with a fear of not moving fast enough. (What if we can’t double the number of transistors on a microchip by next year?) The atomised individual reigns supreme and what causes concern now is the idea that we might one day have to deal with that threat to our identity as discrete social agents – our neighbours.
And yet our age is undergoing a rapid technological change unthinkable even fifty years prior. Information travels around the globe at the speed of light; our social spaces have been replicated and increased on the world wide web; mobile devices mean that we are always connected, only a few finger movements away from numerous forms of communication and the repository of all human knowledge. A central part of this development has been the proliferation of self. Where Prufrock prepared a face to meet the faces, our faces exist again and again in social networks and across online fora. Even when our physical bodies are asleep, half a dozen versions of ourselves continue to exist in the information ether, beaming out half a dozen different ways in which we want to be perceived.
In every way that the Modernist sense of loss of selfhood was acute, our own is inevitably dispersed. In every way that new technologies were a source of excitement or apprehension, our own response is filtered through an understanding of technology as inherently unstable and disposable. For every new grand narrative seeking to explain the world, we are struck with a sense of having heard it all before.
This is the context in which the works in Process Emergent 2 have been produced. These concerns, I strongly believe, are part of the larger social forces that have shaped the creation of these works. When we accept as normal the increased diffusion of self and the impossibility of any one universalising theory, is it any surprise that our generation experiences a pervading sense of loss? When the rate of change has become so fast and so normalised that it is impossible to predict the future, is it any surprise that artists turn their attention to the failure of personal communication (such as Kim Park and Shaw), re-enact modes from the past (such as Alvarez-Sharkey), or find beauty in obsolescence (such as Turner).
There are obvious dangers in drawing neat lines between larger social changes and specific instances of cultural production. For that reason, I am not seeking to articulate a particular vision of what these artists are, or are not, attempting to express through their works. However, the sense of loss, degradation and fading away that is present across all six works, which was also indicative of many of their peers, colours each and every one of these works and speaks to the underlying anxieties of our time.
Process Emergent 2 was open from Thursday 22 March until Sunday April 15, 2012. Visit At the Vanishing Point – Contemporary Art Inc. for more information.
Images reproduced with the permission of the artists. All copyright remains with the original author. No part of this article, including the images, may be reproduced without written permission of the author.