Sydney Morning Herald Column

Doubletake: The Anne Landa Award

Published July 4, 2009
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia?, 2006, Video installation, 20 minutes

It may enjoy a ‘cutting edge’ reputation, but too much new media art translates into an aimless, shapeless sequence of images grouped around one or two central ideas. These works are not valued for what they are, but for what they represent. Australia’s official contribution to the Venice Biennale provides an excellent example. To read the official propaganda concerning Shaun Gladwell’s MADDESTMAXIMUS one might imagine it as a profound exploration of the Human Condition in the Antipodes. The actual experience was rather different.
Scanning some of the responses to the Biennale last week I came across Jerry Saltz from New York Magazine, who gave Australia his Worst in Show award, in a three-way tie with Japan and France. This was blunt to the point of crassness, but Saltz’s point about the Australian pavilion could not have been more basic: he was not fascinated by “a video of motorcycle rider stopping to contemplate a dead kangaroo in the middle of a desert.”
Standing in front of a work it should become clear, pretty quickly, whether it captures one’s attention or not. If we are not amused or entertained, we may rightfully pronounce the piece a failure. This idea will horrify art snobs, who see boredom and obfuscation as the hallmarks of high seriousness, but I take T.S.Eliot on Dryden as my authority: “the purpose of poetry and drama was to amuse, but it was to amuse properly; and the larger forms of poetry should have a moral significance.”

Eliot is apparently still cool, because he is quoted in the MADDESTMAXIMUS catalogue, as one of dozens of names enlisted in praise of Shaun Gladwell’s videos. I doubt that he would have approved because there is very little in these works that might be called amusing, witty or entertaining. The intellect is not engaged, merely lulled into a stupor in which one begins to imagine there is more to each piece than meets the eye.
The same sense of intellectual chill-out may be found in Doubletake, the third installment of the Anne Landa Award for video and new media arts at the Art Gallery of NSW. This year’s exhibition has been put together by guest curator, Victoria Lynn and features artists from China, (Cao Fei), England (Phil Collins) and New Zealand (Lisa Reihana) alongside three Australians: TV Moore, Mari Velonaki and the Mangano twins, Gabriella and Silvana. Only the Australians were eligible for the $20,000 acquisitive award, which went to TV Moore.
This arrangement sends out mixed messages. Should we be pleased to see the international artists, or wonder if there were not enough local artists of quality to fill the show? Of the six exhibits, Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia? (2006) is so far ahead of the rest that direct comparisons would be embarrassing. This film, shot in the OSRAM light bulb factory in Foshan, Guangdong Province, combines the feeling of a fairytale with a quasi-documentary on the life of a busy factory. Cao Fei has coaxed the employees of the factory to act out their fantasies, as dancers or musicians. These vignettes are inserted into the film like daydreams. The result is a delightful glimpse into the inner life of the factory hand – an assertion of personal identity in the most impersonal of settings.
Cao Fei sidesteps the inviting cliché about the soul-destroying nature of factory work. Instead, one sees the factory as an imaginary theatre bubbling with ephemeral, individual masquerades. In the process she has deftly satisfied the expectations of the workers who took part in the film, and Siemens, the company that commissioned the piece.
In a catalogue essay, Hou Hanru discusses Cao Fei’s involvement with the guest workers – the mingong – who have travelled from all over China to the special economic areas to seek a better life. This often means working in a factory and sending money home to one’s family. In everyone’s mind there is a wish for happiness and material comfort that was unthinkable in the Maoist era. Cao Fei teases out these intangible desires, giving a human face to the spectacle of China’s new industrial revolution.
One of the most impressive aspects of Whose Utopia? is the way it finds a formal beauty in the rhythms of the factory. Music plays a key role, from the ambient tinkling that underscores the fairytale sequence to a low-keyed pop song called My future is not a dream that drifts across the shots of the workplace in the third and final segment of the piece. This is entertaining in the best sense, because one’s habitual expectations are constantly being overturned. Instead of being dull and soulless, the factory is revealed as a magical place. The ‘faceless’ workers are invested with aspirations and personalities.
Nothing else in Doubletake is remotely so engaging. The Manganos’ work is a tight, formal sequence of eight minutes, in which we see the sisters sitting on either side of a partition. A large sheet of crumpled paper is pushed from one side to the other, while the two figures remain in their separate worlds. We are invited to reflect on the special relationship between twins – the way things may be shared, even at a distance.
Lisa Reihana uses digital photographs and extravagant costumes to pay homage to her Maori ancestors, their stories and heroes. She creates imaginary relationships across time and space in this gallery of imaginary portraits.  Mari Velonaki has created an interactive piece in which two cubes hold a dialogue with each other when gently manipulated by the viewer.
Each of these works has its qualities, but their attractions are soon exhausted. Once we get the idea behind the work, it can be mentally filed and forgotten.

TV Moore’s contribution is of a different nature, consisting of a shambolic installation of drum cymbals dangling from the ceiling, a spinning mirror ball set in the corner of the room, a wall unit filled with diverse objects and small videos, and a couple of static projections of faces. At first glance it looks a complete mess. After five or ten minutes it still looks a complete mess. We see the artist singing a song while apparently stoned. Another little picture is called Self portrait on acid. One learns from the catalogue that this is all to do with Moore’s interest in “altered states” – getting away without leaving home.
I was reminded of something De Quincey said in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, that if a man who works all day with oxen takes opium, he will only dream of oxen. What we see in this strange ensemble of objects and images is the garbled contents of TV Moore’s mind, which is more interesting and relevant to its possessor than to an audience. There is also a self-consciously ‘Gothic’ dimension to Moore’s work, hinting at dark recesses of the unconscious wherein the monsters lurk. It is, however, all smoke and mirrors. The un-stoned mind cries out for some coherence amid this intellectual miasma.
It is appropriate that the final artist, Phil Collins, shares his name with a pop singer, because his video sequence, dunia tak akan mendengar (from the series the world won’t listen), is no more than an extended karaoke session by Indonesian fans of the band, The Smiths. There is a certain voyeuristic interest in watching these amateurs sing along to Smiths’ tunes in front of backdrops painted with kitsch landscapes. One is made to think of the way pop music works as an international language, with so many people learning English from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. In my high school days everyone had a few sentences of German cribbed from Kraftwerk.

The Smiths are peculiarly well suited to karaoke treatment because their lead singer, Morrisey, has such clear diction. His Indonesian emulators make a good fist of capturing his words and intonations, but the work remains an idea piece, in which everything proceeds predictably from a fixed structure. The cross-cultural nature of the sequence is a gift for curators and critics, allowing them to luxuriate in that ‘Great Family of Man’ feeling. It crosses boundaries, dissolves the differences between east and west, and so on.
A skeptic would reply that the film is ultimately an entertainment of a very small order, which gets much of its appeal from the Smiths’ songs and their odd, edgy lyrics. Collins invites viewers to sit like dummies and enjoy the spectacle of fandom – at once touching and cringe-making. It is hardly different from sitting mindlessly in front of the television watching a music video program. We are not required to think, or engage with anything more than a few simple ideas. We are expected, instead, to recognise the all-encompassing humanism of the project and respond accordingly. It’s all so horribly nice that one suddenly understands why TV Moore prefers to do his karaoke in an altered state.
Anne Landa Award, Art Gallery of NSW, May 7-July 19, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 4, 2009